Ashes 2017: Australia's dirty tricks fuel England's desperation

With their exploitation of the Jonny Bairstow?headbutt, Australia revived an old urge to fight dirty, so nobody will be surprised that England are tempted to fight a hell of a lot dirtier. If the hosts think they have already dealt with the most macho ginger in Joe Root's team, wait till they face the one now looking to restart his career in New Zealand.

Ben Stokes is creeping closer to this Ashes series. Like smoke signals or semaphore, social media announces the next sensational development in a saga that is running parallel to Australia versus England.

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In Adelaide, it emerged officially that Stokes had been granted permission by the England and Wales Cricket Board to play for Canterbury in New Zealand on Sunday, in a provincial game that threatens to become a circus, assuming Canterbury stand by their invitation.

England will hardly want to disabuse Australia of the idea that they have an extra weapon nearby. The 10-wicket Australian victory in the first Test caused panic in England's ranks, where the word "unravelling" has hypnotic power.

To say a tour is "unravelling" sends administrators and coaches running for the smelling salts, especially when the opposition are administering a PR kicking, as Australia did over Bairstow's "weird" greeting for Cameron Bancroft in a Perth bar, on the night of England's arrival in Australia (great start, Jonny).

A 10-wicket loss and a public-image hammering would make any set of bureaucrats assess their options. So, as we moved with the camp, listening to Andrew Strauss, director of cricket, and listening to players and coaches, all of us began to sense that Stokes may yet play in this series, not through choice but from necessity.


First, a few notes. If there is a "drinking culture" in this England set-up, it is not universal. In Brisbane, you were more likely to see an England player pushing a pram through the hotel lobby than a supermarket trolley full of beer. Many have wives, girlfriends and family with them. And most would defend their right to go out after seven hours of Test cricket. As Strauss said: "It's impossible to stay in a hotel room for five months of the year and keep your sanity."

Amid the talk of midnight curfews (Bairstow playfully laid his nut on Bancroft "somewhere after midnight", Strauss said), the thought occurred that going out is not the problem. Nor is drinking. The issue is what you DO when you are out drinking. And here, causing actual bodily harm, the alleged offence for which Stokes is being investigated, would be on the wrong side of the line, as is headbutting someone you have never met before and expecting them to find it funny.

Many England players are aggrieved that their reputations have been tarnished, and their rights curtailed, by teammates who apparently have no concept of "boundaries", to use the modern parlance. Root was certainly upset, and Trevor Bayliss, the England coach, was fuming: hence his comments about "dumb" behaviour by players who had been trusted to police themselves.

On my tape of the Bancroft-Steve Smith victory press conference, you can hear Australia's captain chuckling and saying "oh, goodness". He could hardly believe how well Bancroft was executing his task of burying Bairstow as over-physical and "weird".

First, they sledged him about it in the field, destroying his concentration at the crease, then they extend the psychological warfare to an England camp forced into reactive mode.

With Australia enjoying the return of Steve Waugh's "mental disintegration" strategy, two schools of thought emerged. One was that with the Bairstow incident heaping more (partly confected) shame on English cricket, the ECB would need a whole Venice of bargepoles to keep Stokes beyond touching distance. But then an alternative theory jumped out. If dirty tricks were permissible, why not go the whole hog and ditch earlier ethical objections to Stokes returning –?preferably for the third Test in Perth.

Charged or not charged by Avon and Somerset Police, a legal case could be made for his selection as talismanic all-rounder. The ECB's lawyers have plenty of options. If Stokes were to be charged with a criminal offence, England could say it was not for them to prejudge the outcome of a trial and that Stokes should be allowed to go about his business.

If the police decided not to proceed, the ECB could say it would be too difficult to convene an independent internal inquiry (the second layer of potential punishment) during an Ashes series and delay it until after the concluding Sydney Test. A volte-face would be required, but we have seen plenty of those.

This is not the moral perspective. Stokes has an appalling disciplinary record, at odds with his reputation as a saviour. If he cares so much about England, and was so desperate to smite these Aussies, why did he have that kind of night out in Bristol so close to the Ashes squad being selected?

In Adelaide, England might be seduced into thinking this a choice between moral pragmatism and losing an Ashes series 5-0. The flaw in that logic is that Stokes has not played since September. A few games in New Zealand will not prepare him to get the better of Smith and Australia's quick bowlers.

His return would not, by itself, lift Alastair Cook out of his dip, get Root from 50 to 100 or save England's tail from a barrage of bouncers. Clearly, England are unbalanced by having to play an extra seamer and thus a longer tail.

It is fantasy, though, to think Stokes will come back and save them on his own. By the time they reach Perth, they could already be 2-0 down. Nor would Stokes' return be without complications.

If Bairstow thinks he was shamed by his bizarre behaviour coming to light four weeks later, imagine what Australia's team, public and media would make of Stokes landing in Australia, on a charge or not.

The loudest voices, however, will be for a formula that allows him to join the action. And if that day comes, England will have turned for help to the very man who created a large part of their problem in this series in the first place.

With Stokes in the side, England would have been much harder to knock over in Brisbane on Sunday and Monday. In the end, as we know, there are few things more powerful than desperation.

Telegraph, London

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