Ben Stokes and protecting violence

Or: Geoffrey writes about cricket for the first time and just hopes for the best, really.

Ben Stokes ambles in. It’s 2016 and he serves up a half-volley to Carlos Brathwaite in the World T20 final that he smears over the straight boundary. The next ball is another half-volley that Brathwaite, with one needed, smacks over deep-midwicket — cow corner, as we hobbyists call it — to bring up his fourth six in succession. In the final over, Stokes has failed to take Brathwaite’s hands away from him. It’s playing on the television and it’s so simple to see what he should have done in retrospect. The replay just happens to be playing on the day the ECB have cleared Ben Stokes to play for England, despite his recent charge for affray by the CPS.

After stating it would take six months to a year for the situation to be resolved should Stokes be charged, it actually took the ECB a few hours to agree he would return to the England team. The reaction to this decision has been mixed. Some have lauded it as the right decision and only “fair,” denouncing dissenting voices as having adjudged him guilty pre-emptively*. Others have, quite rightly, questioned the confusion surrounding the decision to fast-track him back once he’s been charged but keep him out of the side when he wasn’t. Some others suggest that he has already been punished enough by not being able to play in the Ashes. Many have called him a “thug” and a “brute” who shouldn’t be made available while a criminal charge is hanging over him.

*It should be remembered that a criminal charge carries its own implications, that the Queensland government put succinctly so: “The police can charge you if they believe you have broken the law.”

Regardless of the debate whirling around Stokes, there is an overwhelming feeling of confusion and desperation surrounding the decision. Some have questioned whether if England had made a better showing against Australia, the ECB might have been so quick to bring Stokes back into the team. And, given the haste with which he has been brought back following his charge, this doesn’t seem an unreasonable query.

The facts, however, remain the same. Ben Stokes, one demerit point from a ban, with a history of anger issues, was involved in a fight on the 25th September, for which he was arrested, and has now been charged. Affray might sound a slightly ambiguous concept next to ABH and GBH, but its a crime that carries a sentence of up to three years in prison. Regardless of your views on Stokes, what he did, or violence in general, it’s a serious charge. A serious charge that many are dismissing in order to see him back playing for England.

Now ask yourself, would this situation be the same if we were talking about another player? A less established player, a player with less effect on the balance of the team, or a player with less of a demonstrable temper. Would there be as much sympathy? Would the ECB be rushing to get that player back into the side? Would people be as supportive of the violence if the player wasn’t as naturally aggressive?

James Vince in his England kit.

What if, instead of Stokes, James Vince — one of England’s biggest misses in Australia — had been arrested and charged in relation to a brawl outside a nightclub on 25th September 2017?

What if, on the 26th September reports emerged that Vince had been remanded in police custody overnight and released under investigation. Only to be tentatively named in the Ashes touring party on the 27th?

What if, later that day, a video emerged in The Sun depicting Vince brawling with a man on the night in question, outside the club in question, while another man — allegedly Hales — tries to stop him, being heard to say, he’s had enough Vincey?

What if Gunn & Moore withdrew their sponsorship of Vince, and someone else pulled an advert of him, while he had to make an apology for mocking a disabled child?

What if two men claimed Vince was stepping in on their behalf to intervene in a homophobic attack? Would so many defend the violence of Vince’s reaction and argue he should face absolutely no ramifications for his actions?

What if Vince headed to New Zealand on the 27th November to play some one-day cricket? Would fans be clamouring to rush him back into the England side?

What if the case passed to the CPS for “charging advice” was Vince’s. Would it take six months to a year to resolve the issue should Vince be charged, or would Tom Harrison be more definitive about the ECB’s internal disciplinary measures or the timeframe?

What if, on January 15th, James Vince is charged by CPS with affray, facing a court hearing and a possible maximum of three years in prison? Would it still be unfair and disproportionate to keep Vince out of the England side while he waits to appear in court?

One feels the answer would be, overwhelmingly, no. Only recently Shiv Thakor was suspended following charges of indecent exposure. He was later found guilty, but during the investigation and pending trial he was suspended on full-pay. Worcestershire’s Alex Hepburn was similarly suspended following two charges of rape — and coach Steve Rhodes was sacked after it was revealed he hid details of the allegations from the club so Hepburn could play. These precedents, and commons sense, suggests that, in the face of criminal charges, players should be suspended pending trial. So what makes Ben Stokes different?

There’s a growing movement to bring the inherent violence perpetrated by men to light, be it against women, the LGBT community, or racially-motivated attacks. Indeed, there are far more important debates over what those in the public eye perpetrate; arguments with a much more obvious separation of right and wrong. Even so, many defend the likes of Kevin Spacey, Casey Affleck, and even Woody Allen based not on the question of right and wrong — not really — but rather admiration of their work.

Many feel Stokes has done nothing wrong. That he stepped in to help two people under attack and that while his exclusion from the side in the interim is not “proportionate”, his response on the 26th September was. It is important to note that two other men involved, Ryan Ali and Ryan Hale, are also being charged for the same offence. Should Stokes be absolved simply because the motives behind his violence are considered good by some, and, more pertinently, because he’s important to England cricket? No.

The fact remains that a professional cricketer became involved in a brawl outside a nightclub on September 25th, sending another man to hospital. It’s important, amid myriad opinion, that we, and the ECB, don’t protect violence for the sake of cricket as a business, nor lose sight of due process and the actual implications of Stokes’ actions for the sake of wishful thinking and his celebrity.