COMMENT:

Not guilty of affray, Ben Stokes would be deluded to think he returns to the England camp with no professional case to answer for his part in the Bristol brawl.

If self-awareness appears in his skill-set, Stokes will be troubled by the questions the Cricket Discipline Committee (CDC) now need to put to him. In legal terms there is no stain on his reputation. But surely English cricket will not slip into thinking its image is undamaged by one of its stars allegedly mocking two gay men outside a nightclub and playing a part in two other individuals ending up unconscious.

READ MORE:
Ben Stokes found not guilty of affray after street brawl outside nightclub

Advertisement

If Stokes was indeed a vigilante outside a Bristol nightclub last September, as some now claim, let him explain to the CDC the video footage, shown to the jury, of him apparently mimicking supposedly gay body language and throwing a cigarette at a man. Let him justify as well having such a mammoth night out midway through a series against the West Indies. This fits a pattern of Stokes displaying a cavalier attitude to his place in the England side.

Much of the evidence of this tendency is in his own book, 'Firestarter,' in which he recalls being sent home from the England Lions tour of Australia in 2013. Stokes quotes Andy Flower, the Ashes winning coach, as telling him: "You don't want to play for England. You just want to piss it up the wall with your mates, and have a good time."

Stokes then writes: "It hit me like a sledgehammer. He was so clinical. So cold."

In the same book he recounts "punching a door as a young Durham academy player" and putting his fist through a glass locker in the West Indies, which later required surgery in Leeds. Nor was the Bristol incident Stokes' first acquaintance with handcuffs. On a night out in Cockermouth when he was 20, he stepped between a friend and two police officers to tell his mate to "shut his mouth" and found himself in cuffs before spending a night in a cell.

In this wider context, England fans would be misguided to think the Bristol night out is now an irrelevance with no ramifications for the country's most promising all-rounder since Ian Botham.

Tales of high jinx on last winter's Ashes tour upset some England fans who had spent vast sums to support the team in Australia. Those same followers can hardly suspend disapproval when excessive socialising occurs in England, especially in mid-series.

Stokes and other England players were given permission to go out after the win in Bristol, but presumably nobody told them they should try to negotiate their way into a nightclub that was closing in the early hours, or fight in the street. If Stokes really did fear for his own safety or that of his two new friends, he needs to give an honest account to the CDC, and then explain how the sheer scale of the evening out was compatible with the imminent selection of an Ashes squad.

In a newspaper interview before a charge of affray was laid, one of the men, Billy O'Connell, called Stokes "a real hero" for protecting him and Kai Barry from alleged homophobic abuse. Neither was summoned in court to give evidence, and the precise reason for Stokes throwing so many punches was not established. But in light of the video footage, the CDC needs to be clear about this aspect, because the image of an England cricketer parodying gay men and throwing a cigarette butt is not one that should go unchallenged.

Beyond cricket, which remains laissez-faire about players letting off steam (mostly steam is let off without incident), many people recoiled from the extent and ferocity of the fighting in Bristol - and a charge of bringing the game into disrepute is a minimum starting point for Stokes, who should not be welcomed back at Trent Bridge this weekend like some victorious pugilist (though the chances are that he will be).

Events in Bristol 11 months ago might easily have taken a tragic turn, and, at 27, Stokes needs to turn his back on these kinds of sessions or understand that English cricket will not tolerate him to treating the privilege of playing for his country so lightly. If this were a one-off, it could be treated as an aberration. Instead, by his own admission (in his book), Stokes displays a pattern of skirting the flames. Calling your book 'Firestarter' is perhaps a clue to his macho self-image.

The jury's verdict is clear, and the disciplinary committee's task is not much more complicated. It is to call Stokes to account for putting himself in a situation that would not arise for someone exercising basic professional discipline. He may think it's "over" now. It shouldn't be.