Ashes 2017-18: With Ben Stokes in trouble and an uninspired squad, Schrödinger's England is fighting against itself

Even before Stokes marked the recent death of Jake LaMotta with his own Raging Bull tribute act, his side’s Ashes preparation was looking shaky.

James Marsh, Sep 29, 2017 16:02:36 IST

There are two Englands available at the moment. The first is the one that triumphed in two Test series this summer playing some exhilarating cricket and has carried this panache into the One Day arena against the West Indies. The second is the one that has just announced its Ashes squad to widespread apathy, has a middle order weaker than Australian beer and whose vice-captain is to be interviewed under caution on suspicion of actual bodily harm. Somehow both exist at the same time, a sort of Schrödinger's England to leave everyone scratching their heads in bemusement. It's a bit strange.

The most headline-grabbing of the issues facing the latter England is undoubtedly the fracas involving Ben Stokes and Alex Hales in Bristol in the early hours of Monday morning outside a nightclub. The video footage, though already amusingly turned into a DRS pastiche, is patently a very serious business with implications both for Stokes’s England career and, if prosecuted, even his personal freedom.

Assessing grainy footage and unclear sound without full context leaves anyone doing so at risk of making mistaken assumptions, but Stokes and Hales are seen being threatened by a man wielding a bottle so claims of self-defence initially appear not insignificant. There are also suggestions the Durham player was intervening to prevent the homophobic abuse directed at a couple nearby.

It's a confused and confusing time for English cricket. The team is buoyant with results but laden with doubts. AFP

It's a confused and confusing time for English cricket. The team is buoyant with results but laden with doubts. AFP

In terms of his ultimate punishment from the ECB – the law is another matter – both things seem mitigating for the free-for-all which then ensues. What is more problematic is the knock-out punch at the end, when one of the men is seen backing away from Stokes with his arms up in surrender only to be left lying in the gutter beneath a cricket star. This will be seen as justice by many, but others – including Hales himself who was shouting “It’s enough!” – may regard it as a swing too far. It’s a moral mess, let alone a legal one.

Andrew Strauss faces a difficult enough situation as it is, but it is further complicated by the firm stance he took on Kevin Pietersen when he took over as ECB director of cricket in 2015. Whatever defences Stokes puts forward, it is going to be hard to go easy on a player with a growing track record of not being able to fully trust his red mist after freezing Pietersen out for something as subjective and wispy as a “trust issue”. This point is seen as irrelevant to some commentators because Stokes was allegedly defending his mates but Pietersen allegedly stabbed his in the back and “knife crime far worse”, but this seems a rather generous carte blanche.

Let's hope Stokes never falls out with a team mate, or the repercussions might be rather more visible than those stemming from Pietersen’s misdemeanours, whatever they actually were. Still no one really knows.

Regardless, Strauss himself has suspended both Hales and Stokes indefinitely. Plenty of people online are already suggesting this initial decision was the result of a media witch hunt, but irrespective of whatever provocation or even valour was involved, the ex-England skipper had very little wriggle room. Stokes is innocent until found guilty, but the rather uncomfortable reality is that releasing a statement to that effect and taking no action would have seriously compromised the board’s corporate standing given the graphic nature of the footage.

It shouldn't be forgotten, as was seen in the recent ECB proposals advocating four-day Tests, just how important corporate interests are at Lord’s. Stokes's right hook might go down well when being discussed around some pub tables, but it is unlikely to be similarly well-regarded in the boardrooms of the ECB’s advertisers and business partners. One of its most marketable stars brawling in the street is not a great look whatever the mitigating circumstances.

Even before Stokes marked the recent death of Jake LaMotta with his own Raging Bull tribute act, his side’s Ashes preparation was looking shaky. The England squad named on Wednesday could actually do quite well in Australia this winter, but sadly national teams aren't allowed to compete in the Big Bash. Instead, it will be playing five Test matches and in this regard its prospects look considerably thinner.

The worrying fact is that, while the inclusion of some batsmen probably better suited to T20s than Tests makes the tourists look brittle, the selectors cannot really be too strongly pilloried. There are plenty of other names they could have gone with but no truly stand-out, irrefutable cases of injustice. So, while picking Mark Stoneman, Dawid Malan, James Vince and Gary Ballance will not have Australia trembling, the lukewarm response to their selection does suggest there is something a bit shaky about the talent production line within county cricket.

Aside from the Stokes incident and the underwhelming squad, another less high profile Ashes hurricane has been quietly gathering speed in India. There is a situation vacant for pom-trembler-in-chief since the retirement of Mitchell Johnson and on Australia's ODI tour of India, Pat Cummins has looked particularly menacing, with the speeds in question being regularly over 90mph.

He also – thankfully and unusually – looks incredibly fit, thriving even in heat where his team mates have had all manner of problems relating to various muscles, joints and orifices. Johnson himself also regained his Mojo – MiJo perhaps – in India (during the 2013 IPL) and while Cummins lacks both the left-armer’s snarl and moustache, he is certainly capable of similar Exocet destruction. How he's deployed will be an interesting subtext of the Ashes series and perhaps even one of the main stories.

So it's a confused and confusing time for English cricket. The team is buoyant with results but laden with doubts. Moeen Ali is batting like a man with a halo made of willow above his head, but many of the batsmen who will walk out before him in Australia have serious question marks over theirs.

Their flame-haired star all-rounder has divided the nation over whether he's a heroic lad or a drunk thug. The only certainty is that The Gabbatoir awaits, a ground where most away sides, no matter how pugnacious, end up being knocked out cold. After the last few days, however, it’s hard not to conclude England have left themselves punch drunk before they’ve even got on the plane.

Updated Date: Oct 04, 2017 17:11:57 IST


Pos. Team P W L D Pts.
11 8 3 0 16
11 7 4 0 14
10 6 4 0 12
10 5 5 0 10
11 5 6 0 10
11 4 7 0 8
11 4 7 0 8
11 4 7 0 8
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Rank Team Points Rating
1 India 5007 116
2 New Zealand 3570 108
3 South Africa 4397 105
4 Australia 4566 104
5 England 5490 104
6 Sri Lanka 4737 93
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1 England 7259 123
2 India 8508 120
3 New Zealand 6071 112
4 South Africa 6181 112
5 Australia 5701 108
6 Pakistan 5147 97
Rank Team Points Rating
1 Pakistan 5280 135
2 India 5726 122
3 England 3036 121
4 Australia 3613 120
5 South Africa 3366 120
6 New Zealand 3367 116