Should Ben Stokes receive further punishment from the ECB?

Ben Stokes is an innocent man.

He was found not guilty of affray. Fair enough. The law is the law. Had he been charged with another crime, maybe it’d have been a different story. He is surely guilty of giving two people an absolute leathering in the street, in the middle of the night. And on top of that, there was much alleged boorish behaviour. It wasn’t affray, according to the court, but it was most certainly a wild outburst of violence. Witnesses have described him as behaving like a spoilt child. It is all very unsavoury and it is understandable that, as Joe Root, said, he just wants to “move on” and concentrate on cricket, because despite the verdict, he doesn’t emerge from any of this smelling of roses. Quite the opposite.

The question is, do we want people of such character in our national sporting sides? And the question for the cricket authorities is now whether Stokes should be allowed to resume his career, untarnished by all this?

The all-rounder is still to face the England and Wales Cricket Board’s disciplinary commission, but they may decide that missing an Ashes tour is a sufficient punishment already. It’s also true that we can’t pick people to play for our national sides based wholly on what type of chap they are. That way lies madness, as more than a fair few slightly disreputable characters have pulled on the blue cap of England.

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It’s a tricky question, really. I’m not one for advocating sports people be role models for children, favouring the view that the job of parenting is to supercede such influences and provide a framework for judging them. But even so, right now, it does look like knocking seven bells out of someone is an acceptable thing to do for an England cricketer, if there is no censure for his behaviour. Should we be bothered? Does it matter? He is innocent of breaking the law he was charged with, after all.

Sport is played by people, people are flawed. Maybe we should just accept that and not get on a moral high horse about it. We all end up doing things we wish we hadn’t. Admittedly, for most of us this does not mean acts of extreme violence outside of nightclubs, but even so, the principle is there. It’s a difficult one to call and the mixture of polite applause and boos as he came on to bowl in the first day of the Third Test rather reflected that.

Cricket has for a long, long time liked to think of itself as a game for gentlemen and whatever that might mean, it looks like Stokes ain’t one of them. Then again, for years England have been accused of lacking the spirit and bottle for a fight. Stokes self-evidently doesn’t lack that. It’d be nice if everyone could just be decent towards everyone else all of the time, but history tells us the human male cannot be relied upon in this respect.

If the authorities do impose any further punishment upon him, what will it achieve? Will it make another player think twice about battering a couple of fellas outside a club? No, it wouldn’t because these are not acts of a man in control of himself. In a similar situation, most people wouldn’t set about breaking heads and it wouldn’t be the threat of punishment from the ECB that stopped them.

Trevor Bayliss has called for Stokes to make a public apology, as though prostrating yourself in public is somehow enough to absolve yourself of your sins. However, in Australia, the spectacle of those involved in the ball tampering incident blubbing on TV, wringing their hands and profusely apologizing was cringeworthy. Demanding such a thing of Stokes risks garnering him more support for being forced into some public mea culpa.

But right now, he is diminished by this in the court of public opinion, that is without doubt. The only way he can make amends and begin to suggest this was all just a terrible aberration of judgement is to be absolutely sure not give anyone else an absolute caning in the future, and to play some very good cricket. A few Man-of-the-Match performances should wipe away most memories of this whole awful incident, whereas any further punishment will only drag it out.

By John Nicholson, @JohnnyTheNic