My phone beeps. A news alert flashes up on the screen: “England confirm Ben Stokes will not travel to Australia with the rest of the Ashes squad as it stands”. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck!
How did we get to this point? I mean, I know how we got to this point, every brit or aussie with a smart phone has seen the bloody video by now, and I dare say half of India too.
But how did England get to the point where they will travel to the most high-profile series of all without their star man? Saying Stokes won’t travel Down Under “as it stands” is vague even by ECB standards, but realistically unless he can prove he knocked out the ex-soldier in Bristol last Sunday because he had access to Kim Jong-Il’s nuclear codes I think it’s safe to assume England’s fiery all-rounder will not feature in the Ashes.
Michael Vaughan said earlier this week that most of the press box at Old Trafford were aware Stokes had been out until 3am on one of the nights during the test match in early August. With such behaviour going unpunished, how long did the England management team think it would take for some sort of damaging story to appear in the tabloids? Does Trevor Bayliss know anything about English tabloids? While the architects of cricket’s most famous expose – The News of the World – have disappeared, the remaining red-top journalists are no less ready to pounce on a juicy story than they’ve ever been. Although the Old Trafford story was successfully swept under the carpet by the ECB miraculously convincing the press not to report it, Strauss, Bayliss and co can’t say they weren’t warned (strangely Vaughan hasn’t been pressed for more detail about how the press were convinced to keep quiet). You would think that selecting a vice-captain who’s so capable of falling into their claws would be something of a no-no.
There’s no doubt the old adage “if you treat ‘em like kids, they’ll act like kids” is true across most professional sports teams. Mark Butcher has come out (since the Stokes incident) in defence of the current management ethos of not enforcing curfews and other similar schoolteacher-esque techniques upon their players. He was part of the setup that were forced to follow a strict code of conduct in the early 2000’s, with limited success and not an insignificant amount rebellious rule-breaking. He, most of his fellow players and eventually the managers too, concluded that in practice it doesn’t really work.
But clearly England’s current system needs changing. The England rugby team that won the World Cup in 2003 revolutionised their sport through how they acted off the pitch. Precious few stories emerged of them misbehaving out of hours, particularly when on international duty. Every playing member of Clive Woodward’s squad were entirely bought in to the set of values and ethics expected of them as professional athletes, and any actions outside of this were seen as letting the group down and dealt with accordingly. Why were they all so bought in? Because the players themselves came up with the rule book. It was up to the players to discuss and agree a moral code that they felt would be appropriate for a team trying to achieve number one in the world status. All of their conclusions were then put together in a leather bound ‘black book’ and any breaches of the code were referred back to the black book, and all penalties that resulted were borne out of it’s framework.
It was an exceptionally clever ploy from Woodward to put his players in charge of their own disciplinary measures. The team identity became part of the players’ DNA and breaking the code felt worse to them than letting down their manager…they were letting down their team mates – something every professional sportsman dreads. There were no arguments as to whether you had broken the rules or not, because the author of the rulebook, was you.
Ben Stokes is the ultimate team man. He has the rare ability to lift his whole team with only a couple of deliveries or batting strokes and his fiery nature means people naturally rally round him, lifting their intensity just to keep up. He also desperately wants to perform for England, and loves doing so. If Stokes was part of a setup where the players owned the code of conduct off the pitch, and a breach of this meant not only letting his teammates down, but them delivering the punishment, he might just smarten up his act.
Whatever happens with the ongoing police investigation, it certainly seems as though Stokes will not play in the Ashes. He will return one day. When he does England must try to find a way to resurrect him as the incredible performer he is whilst maintaining a professionalism away from the field of play that’s appropriate to his status as one of the game’s biggest names and highest earners. Forcing Stokes and the rest of the England playing staff to take full ownership of their own ethos might be the best way to achieve it.