The announcement that Ben Stokes would now be available for the New Zealand leg of this winter’s tours caught most people on the hop, and it’s not too surprising as to why. The ECB have tied themselves in knots consistently on this subject, and perhaps it was always going to be inevitable that they would do so. As an employer of a high profile public figure, they could not afford to appear prejudicial to any trial, a problem that simply doesn’t apply to most employers in the same position, or people who never appear in the media.
Yet having followed a line of selecting him for tours at the same time as stating he was suspended for them, to then announce his return once the CPS has laid charges inevitably looks messy, and a contradiction of the previous line taken. The ECB board was clearly split on what to do, and if nothing else that probably reflects public opinion rather neatly. There are few easy answers here.
It’s most likely that one way or the other, they had hoped this would have been resolved by now and they could deal with that, but instead it remains a live issue, and one where everyone with the remotest degree of sense is tip-toeing around the subject. The legal process can take a long time – though it tends to be quicker in the UK than many comparable countries – and perhaps that in itself was a factor, given nearly half a year has gone by since the story first broke. Even so, two Tests and five ODIs is hardly a major forthcoming series (whether it should have been is a different question) and to take the decision now rather than at the start of the English domestic season could be seen to have made a rod for their own backs. Would it have made a material difference to have delayed it? There’s an argument that by doing so might be perceived as a judgement on guilt or innocence, which rather neatly makes the point about the difficulty of handling a situation where even the smallest indication may have significant ramifications.
That England are a stronger side with him than they are without is beyond question. Missing the Ashes certainly unbalanced the side, and if it can’t be said that it was the reason for the thrashing England received, it can be said that his absence unquestionably weakened them, as it would any side. To that extent, his presence in New Zealand will increase England’s prospects of salvaging something from a shambles of a winter, if he is able to focus properly on his game. The more low key nature of the tour may too have been a factor compared to the cauldron of the Ashes.
The wider issues have yet to play out. The ECB and its predecessor have never been particularly good at maintaining a consistent line on players around whom there is controversy, though they’ve never had a situation quite like this one to deal with. Yet the criticism of expediency is one that regularly is thrown at them, and especially so when a player is considered vitally important. Previous instances of rapid forgiveness for those who went to apartheid South Africa on rebel tours seemed far more forthcoming when they happened to be particularly good players for example, something that rankles still when compared to the treatment of players who did nothing so contentious. Over the years, individual decisions and instances tend to be compared to others, highlighting inconsistency and flat out hypocrisy. But in this one, it’s a little hard to be certain that any different actionsor decisions would have been clearly and inarguably better. The ECB were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t, which might not excuse previous treatment meted out, but does in isolation illustrate the genuine dilemma they will have faced.
Perhaps above all else, the most delicious irony of the situation is that finally, at long last, circumstances have arisen that raise so many different and difficult ethical questions that it’s possible to have some sympathy for the ECB. It’s a new and unusual feeling for many, and probably not one to be repeated too often. But as an illustration of the complexity of the issues at hand, perhaps it can’t be bettered – Being Outside Cricket feeling a degree of empathy for the England and Wales Cricket Board is a first.
As ever, please be circumspect with comments on this matter, and don’t post anything that could be viewed as in any way prejudicial, or we’ll have to remove it.