Much as bloggers like the sound of their own voice – and I definitely fall into this category myself – I don’t like making too many moral judgements. I wasn’t at that Bristol nightclub when Ben Stokes went a little crazy (I was safely tucked up in bed with a brandy and an episode of South Park), and I have no idea whether his actions were criminal or whether the bloke with a broken eye socket had it coming. All I know is that it’s not right to abuse a gay couple, and it’s not right for an England cricketer to put his career (and the Ashes!) in jeopardy by getting involved in a fist fight either.
What I can do, however, is ask all of you what you think. And I can point out what seems to be quite an obvious discrepancy in standards: why are Canterbury happy for Ben Stokes to play for them but England aren’t? Obviously the ECB have their protocols, and disciplinary procedures and investigations have their place, but this doesn’t change the fact that Stokes will be playing for Canterbury in the Burger King Super Smash next week when he could be playing in the Ashes.
I can hear the arguments now … surely if Stokes is allowed to travel to New Zealand, and pursue his career with one of their domestic sides, then he should be available for England too? Many people won’t see the difference. Have the Kiwis decided that he’s innocent until proven guilty, whereas England have decided something else? Or are us Poms simply insisting on higher moral standards than our cousins in New Zealand … and thus cutting off our nose to spite our face? It’s a curious dilemma.
Many will doubtless argue that if a professional sportsman is cleared to play then he’s cleared to play. He shouldn’t be allowed to play domestic cricket but not international games. Either he plays cricket or he doesn’t. End of.
Let’s not forget that Stokes hasn’t been banned for something he did in an international match; he’s not playing because of something that happened away from cricket. He didn’t punch an umpire of opponent; therefore shouldn’t he allowed to ply his trade up to the point that he’s actually convicted of a crime?
My point here is that England’s decision not to pick Stokes is non-cricket related and purely a moral judgement. And as moral judgements are subjective, England’s position (and Canterbury’s juxtaposition) are highly arguable and somewhat controversial. I’m not saying I agree or disagree with Andrew Strauss’s approach. I’m just stating the facts.
An equally compelling view is that Stokes shouldn’t be playing for anyone at all at the moment. Perhaps Canterbury are bringing the game into disrepute by employing a player who’s being investigated for a criminal offence? Maybe the ECB should be applauded for taking a moral stance whereas Canterbury are being somewhat opportunistic by signing England’s controversial star at a time when his country doesn’t want him?
On the other hand, I can also empathise somewhat with those who think the ECB should have stood by Stokes, picked him for the Ashes, and then defended his behaviour as a heroic attempt to stand up for the aforementioned gay couple. Portraying Stokes as a ‘have-a-go hero’ might have gone down ok in Australia.
Instead the ECB have reacted in a way that makes the Stokes incident appear more serious. They’ve treated Stokes like a naughty boy, got all defensive about the behaviour of other players (no matter how innocuous), and reminded the team that they need to be on their best behaviour. This has made life trickier for our touring party by perpetuating the perception down under that England’s squad is full of hooligans. The reality is actually very different … as eloquently expressed by George Dobell yesterday.
Maybe it would have been more prudent for the ECB to deny there’s any drinking culture, stick up for the players, and go on the offensive when dealing with the Aussie media? They certainly could have stuck up for Jonny Bairstow who clearly did nothing wrong when he “head butted” Bancroft. Instead Andrew Strauss fell for a good old fashioned Aussie windup and heaped more pressure on the England players in the process.
It is interesting to contrast Strauss’s stance regarding Stokes with the way Sir Alex Ferguson looked after Eric Cantona when he infamously kung-fu kicked a Crystal Palace fan. I have no doubt that Fergie would’ve had words behind the scenes, but he put his arm around his star player and portrayed him as something of a victim in public. This is because Ferguson knew just how important Cantona was to his team and how integral the enigmatic Frenchman was to Utd’s success. Strauss seems more concerned with sending out the right signals than winning the Ashes. Ferguson didn’t seem to give a crap about the morality.
Obviously we can argue until the seagulls come home whether Ferguson or Strauss’s approach is right. Some will think that some things are more important than winning. The CEO of the San Francisco 49ers recently sacked their most successful coach for twenty years because winning wasn’t enough. Instead he demanded “winning with class” – a catchphrase that looks pretty daft considering the team has only won 7 of its last 43 games since. How will Strauss feel if the cost of his moral stance is another 0-5 whitewash?
What I’m getting at, I guess, is that this situation is a moral minefield. And who’s to say who’s right and who’s wrong? All I know is it’s bloody annoying that England are 0-1 down the Ashes, about to play a crucial test in Adelaide, and yet our best player is playing nearby in a competition England supporters couldn’t give a rat’s arse about. The whole situation is so frustrating.
No doubt many people will argue that Stokes only has himself to blame. And in many respects they’re right. But on the other hand isn’t it good that some people are prepared to stick up for victims of abuse? Stokes may have gone too far – and yes he may have let his country down by getting into the scrap – but at the end of the day what’s more important to ordinary people: the Ashes or homophobia?
And that’s why, at least until the full facts are known, I’m not touching these kinds of moral judgements with a sixty foot pole.