Chris Waters: ECB inconsistency over Stokes delivers mixed message

BAFFLING, bewildering, bemusing, breathtaking, bungled, befuddled, bizarre '“ and that's just without leaving the letter 'B'.

England's Ben Stokes
England's Ben Stokes

The England and Wales Cricket Board’s decision to suspend Ben Stokes from England duty when he had not then been charged after the Bristol brawl in September to now clearing him to play after he has been charged with affray and is awaiting trial is curious to say the least.

“Given the CPS decision to charge him and two others with affray, confirmation of his intention to contest the charge and the potential length of time to trial, the Board agreed that it would not be fair, reasonable or proportionate for Ben Stokes to remain unavailable for a further indeterminate period,” read an ECB statement.

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As such, Stokes – ruled out of the Ashes series and the current one-day games in Australia pending the outcome of the police investigation – is expected to join the squad in New Zealand for the T20 games next month, where the media circus is sure to outdo anything conceived by Fred Karno.

The ECB, it should be noted, were in a challenging position – not least amid suggestions that the court process could take up to 18 months and that the board feared possible legal action for restraint of trade.

When your best player gets arrested following an altercation outside a nightclub in the early hours of the morning, it is the sort of headache that you could do without.

As such, the board adopted an entirely fair-minded stance at the outset by omitting Stokes while the matter was investigated, with charges finally laid earlier this week.

But notwithstanding the legalities at work, surely the ECB should either have selected Stokes from the get-go or else maintained their policy of the past four months, suspending him from international duty and standing their ground against any restraint of trade action.

England's Joe Root and Ben Stokes, right. Picture: PA.

Instead, they have sent out not so much a mixed message as one that could only be deciphered by the codebreakers of Bletchley Park, a U-turn so inconsistent that it invites accusations of self-interest at a time when English cricket needs all the star turns it can get.

Of course, the ECB are trying to do the right thing by Stokes, particularly given the length of time that it could take for the matter to reach Crown Court after he indicated his intention to clear his name.

It is clearly undesirable that he sits on the sidelines while the legal process takes it course, with no date set for court proceedings.

But to say that it wouldn’t be “fair, reasonable or proportionate for Ben Stokes to remain unavailable for a further indeterminate period” is open to question.

England's Joe Root and Ben Stokes, right. Picture: PA.

After all, this is not a piffling matter – affray can carry a significant custodial sentence – and there are wider issues at stake: not least in terms of setting the right standards expected of players and the game’s image, which has been dragged through the mud lately.

This column has nothing against Stokes and celebrates his talent at every opportunity.

Nor does it have any desire to see him go down the route of other great sportsmen by wasting that talent, with Stokes no stranger to off-field difficulties but, aged 26, still with plenty of time to put this sad episode behind him.

This is not just about Stokes, however, but about the game itself and the game’s integrity.

Having planted their flag understandably in the first place, the ECB should really have had the guts to stand beside it.