And so to a cloudy, chilly Adelaide, more like London in October than Australia in the early days of high summer, for one of the most thrilling Ashes Tests of modern times. Now the key moments in the fate of these Ashes are becoming very clear. Forget Joe Root putting Australia in, or Steve Smith’s unimaginative reluctance to give his bowlers more work and enforce the follow-on on the third day under the lights. Forget that rousing final session for England as the pink ball seamed and darted and hooped as if it were on crystal meth, and the Aussies were reduced to 53 for four. Forget even that extraordinary fightback led by Root that, for a tantalising few hours, allowed us to dream of a miraculous victory.
No, the fate of these Ashes was decided in the small hours of a late September night when Ben Stokes, the best all-round cricketer in the world and vice-captain of the national side, got into a spat with the locals outside a Bristol nightclub. It was the only place to get a drink at that time of night, so Stokes and some teammates, including Alex Hales, had clearly decided to get ‘on one’. Whatever your feelings about that — I think it was irresponsible and selfish and Stokes deserved to be severely disciplined — surely the time has come for some common sense. He was punished by England with a heavy fine and banned for two one-day matches and two Tests. But it was not English cricket’s responsibility to do the work of the police, and now the Crown Prosecution Service.
Why did the ECB indicate that Stokes would not be picked with legal proceedings pending? He obviously couldn’t pick up his bat if he were in the dock at the Bailey, or doing time, or breaking rocks in the hot sun. But the wheels of justice grind exceeding slow, and rather than leave him in limbo, the cricket authorities should have said that the legal process was none of their business.
That is why Ben Stokes should be picked for the Third Test next week in Perth. I fear he won’t be, but it could transform a beleaguered tour. Sure, there will be a whole heap of argy-bargy from the Baggy Greens when Stokes walks to the wicket, but most of the England players are getting mouthfuls of that anyway. And Stokes has never struck me as a man unduly flustered by a bit of verbal aggro. Or indeed anything much.
England haven’t won at the WACA since Nelson came off his long run at Trafalgar, and they are unlikely to do it again this time, least of all without Stokes. What’s more, the tattoed battler is just over the water in New Zealand, to ‘see the family’ and play a bit of cricket. So come on England: do the brave thing. The Aussies won’t like it and the CPS might raise a bewigged eyebrow, but my gosh all England fans will love you for it.
Finally the BBC has got round to tweezering a cricketer into the shortlist for its Sports Personality awards. Not Root, nor Moeen Ali, nor Anderson nor even the inspirational Jonny Bairstow. It is in fact Anya Shrubsole, the talented England player who, fair enough, helped the women’s team to a fine World Cup win.
Of course, women’s sport is a jolly good thing, but this when England’s men have been riding high for most of the year, and in Joe Root have one of the best batsmen in the world. The BBC is happy to give a nod to eventing or triathlon or darts, but its cruel neglect of our national game is shameful (of course, I don’t mean you TMS: we all know how wonderful you are). Like many who grew to love cricket while watching flickering images of Compton, Trueman and May on tiny black and white TVs, I wonder how many youngsters who can play the game are turned away because they can only see it on pay-TV.
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