Ben Stokes case is open and shut... except for England's Ashes desperation

That agonised moaning heard from Lord's around the world is not a group yoga session loosening some stiff upper lips, but English cricket authorities contorting themselves into a pretzel in an attempt to retain both Ben Stokes and their principles.

England's desperate desire to win the series in Australia can be measured by Stokes not having been sacked by Wednesday. Making the all-important presumption that Stokes is the same redhead known as "Stokes" in the video of this week's incident in Bristol, throwing punches in the street, visibly intimidating his victims, while his teammate Alex Hales is allegedly begging him to stop, the case is surely open and shut. Stokes cannot possibly tour Australia and must face a lengthy ban from cricket.

And yet ??? and yet ??? Stokes is an incalculably important cricketer to England and to the Ashes series overall. Stokes is arguably the most talented player across both teams and the most likely individual key to the outcome. In the last Ashes series in Australia, he was the sole Englishman to score a century, he destroyed Australia with the ball in the series-winning Test match of 2015, and he has got better and better since then. With six Test hundreds and 95 wickets, he is as pivotal to England's hopes as Andrew Flintoff and Ian Botham were to their last two series wins in Australia. England want him so much to play in this Ashes series, there have already been conversations about how to orchestrate some kind of ritual punishment - stripping the vice-captaincy, some kind of limited suspension - without actually banning him from the Test matches.

To put it nicely, they have got to be kidding. Some perspective: Botham was banned for two months of Test cricket for admitting he had smoked cannabis. Flintoff lost the England vice-captaincy for falling out of a pedalo. Mike Gatting lost the captaincy after inviting a barmaid to his hotel room. These were slap and tickle compared with the acts of violence Stokes has allegedly committed. He was allegedly threatened with a bottle before lashing out. Whether or not he was provoked into punching those guys' lights out makes no difference. Alcohol is no excuse. David Warner was provoked into striking Joe Root in 2013, and was rightly suspended from two Test matches. On the scale of violence, Warner's act bore no comparison to what Stokes allegedly did in Bristol.

Moreover, this is not an isolated incident. Stokes' importance to the English cricket team has been reflected in the soft-soaping of previous alcohol-related incidents. Unable to bear losing him, England's hierarchy could not bring themselves to effectively discipline him. He has now rewarded them in kind. By sparing the rod, they spoilt the child.

Stokes is perhaps unlucky in that the video from Bristol reveals what in past eras would have been deftly covered up. But he might also have avoided this modern-day ignominy by not beating people up in the first place. It's sad that such a tremendous cricketer is also, on this evidence, a dickhead and a thug.

Plenty of dickheads have played cricket at the highest level, a good number of them for Australia. The unspoken rule is that the greater the talent, the longer the leash. But when it comes to acts of violence, a line is crossed. This is not Shane Warne pestering a woman. This is not sledging or ball-tampering or dissent. It is not a one-off drunken peccadillo. This is, if proven, a criminal offence, and Stokes may find himself in the same category as other criminal cricketers such as Salman Butt and Mohammed Aamir. They were innocent until proven guilty in court, but in banning them, cricket did not have to wait until sentences were passed.

A principled stance will be seen as a bit rich coming from Australia, but here it is anyway: England's leaders have only to ask themselves how they would deal with this incident if it involved Mason Crane, or Craig Overton, or James Vince, or any other of the fringe Test candidates coming to Australia? If any of those players had done what Stokes is alleged to have done, would their names still be on the squad list? Australians want to see Stokes too, but this is not about entertainment, it's about the law. Nor is it a situation of England's making, but entirely of Stokes'. He has left them with little choice and ample pain.

This story Ben Stokes case is open and shut... except for England's Ashes desperation first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.