Ben Stokes’ Ashes prospects remain unfathomable to Joe Root despite the latest revelations about the all-rounder’s arrest on suspicion of causing actual bodily harm.
In the near 48 hours between Root’s two much-awaited assessments of one of English cricket’s most vexed topics of recent years, the Test captain switched hemispheres and arrived down under with a 16-man squad – minus Stokes, of course – at the start of his maiden Ashes series in charge.
But between Friday’s departure press conference in London and Root’s arrival salvo in Perth on Sunday, a new twist in the tale emerged thanks to a Sun interview in which two gay men claimed Stokes was defending them from homophobic abuse when he was arrested after disorder outside a Bristol nightclub in the early hours of September 25.
Billy O’Connell and Kai Barry described Stokes, respectively, as a “hero” and a “gentleman” for helping them.
Stokes is still under investigation by Avon & Somerset Police, despite being released without any charge as yet – and following last month’s events, he and one-day international opener Alex Hales are not under consideration for selection until further notice by the England and Wales Cricket Board, pending a Cricket Discipline Commission inquiry.
As for Root, the small matter of 9,000 air miles changed nothing about the line of questioning he faced as the Australian media took their first opportunity to quiz him – and he diverted only marginally from previous remarks.
“As a friend, I hope (this) can be good news for Ben,” he said.
“But the reality is we’ve all got to wait and see ... we’ve got to plan as if he’s not going to be here.
“In terms of the criminal investigation, we have to let the police get on with that.
“(Then) there’ll be an internal investigation that follows. We’re completely in the dark as to what’s going to happen.”
Root’s opening address as captain on Australian soil was inevitably overshadowed by the Stokes saga – but given the chance, he managed a more generic positive spin on the series ahead.
“There’s always a psychological edge to the Ashes,” he said. “I’m sure there’ll be plenty of banter flying around on and off the field.
“I just try to be myself, and (enjoy) what’s such a great tour to be involved in.
“That’s something you’ve got to cherish and relish, and be able to look back on at the end of your career and say ‘I gave it my best shot’.
You don’t get chance to play here very often, so I think it’s really important you try to make the most of it.England and Yorkshire’s Joe Root
“You don’t get chance to play here very often, so I think it’s really important you try to make the most of it.”
Meanwhile, Sam Billings “totally disagrees” with former England captain Michael Vaughan’s opinion that Australia are clear favourites to win the Ashes.
England’s 2005 Ashes-winning skipper and Yorkshire batsman says if Stokes is not out there, the hosts would be favourites to take the series.
Billings, speaking at the opening of Rwanda’s first national cricket stadium on the outskirts of the capital Kigali, would not comment on Stokes but said of the Ashes: “I think it is going to be a great contest.
“I think both teams are very close and (are) two high-quality sides so I think it will be a very close series, actually. It will be small moments that will have a big impact on the series result.”
When asked if Australia were “clear favourites” as Vaughan said recently, Billings, who was in the Central African country to play in a celebrity Twenty20 match as part of the inauguration celebrations said: “I totally disagree”.
The 26-year-old wicketkeeper-batsman, who has predominantly been used as a batsman in his 26 England appearances, said it would be a dream to play Test cricket for his country.
He said: “I was close to being considered, I just hadn’t played enough four-day cricket really towards the end of the season which was a real shame.”
Vaughan said at the same event that Stokes is still unlikely to play in Australia despite O’Connell and Barry’s claims the Durham all-rounder was protecting them.
“I still don’t think he’ll be in Australia,” said Vaughan. “I don’t think it’s going to have any impact on Ben Stokes playing cricket over the next few weeks –but I think for it probably was, in terms of a story that would come out, a good one for him.’’
Billings predicted Yorkshire’s Root would be player of the series, which begins on November 23 in Brisbane, simply “on weight of runs”.
“As captain, he’ll be inspirational in that job,” he said. “I’m backing him, for sure.”
Former South Africa international Herschelle Gibbs said he hoped England would win the Ashes.
“I like England, I’m a big fan of Stokes and Joe Root,” he said.
“(Stokes not being there) could be a bit of an issue because he’s a fantastic player but I’m a big Joe Root fan and for South Africa, Australia has always been the big foe.
“I wouldn’t mind if they went down again so I’d definitely have to back England on it.”