Ben Stokes: Questions remain for England cricket chiefs after not-guilty verdict
English cricket's biggest star, and those who run the game, will be breathing a huge sigh of relief.
But while Ben Stokes' acquittal is arguably the biggest victory of his colourful and controversial career, this episode has still been damaging to the reputation of both the player, and - because of his status - the image of the game. And even though he has now been added to England's squad for the third Test against India, it is not the end of the saga.
The 27-year-old all-rounder must now wait for the outcome of a Cricket Disciplinary Commission (CDC) hearing - not likely to meet for several weeks - which had been put on hold until the criminal case was over. Although funded by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), it is officially independent of the governing body.
Although the doomsday scenario of his central contract being withdrawn by the ECB has subsided with Tuesday's not-guilty verdict, the panel may still hand Stokes and his England team-mate Alex Hales suspensions for their parts in the events of the early hours of 25 September last year. Hales, who is not involved in the Test series with India, was present with Stokes in Bristol but did not face criminal charges.
There will be considerable scrutiny on the decisions that are reached. This has played out at a time when the ECB is meant to be appealing to a new family audience and to sponsors, as it tries to justify its hugely contentious new 100-ball competition.
With a landmark summer looming next year, when England will host both a World Cup and the Ashes, the national selectors quickly moved to get the team's premier all-rounder back in the team as soon as possible after he missed the second Test against India.
His England team-mates are known to be supportive of him, and the ECB know it also has a duty of care to an employee to whom it pays an annual salary of around £750,000. Many observers believe that Stokes has already been punished sufficiently by missing last winter's Ashes series, and the loss of his £200,000-a-year sponsor New Balance, and that this should all be taken into account.
But the CDC and ECB must balance all that with the values and morals of the sport, and a need to show it is serious about respect and player misbehaviour. While the two cases are obviously very different, less than five months ago then-Australia captain Steve Smith and opener David Warner were banned for a year by Cricket Australia for their parts in the country's ball-tampering scandal. It will be interesting to see what punishments are handed down to Stokes and Hales if they are found guilty of bringing the sport into disrepute.
Regardless of the jury's not-guilty verdict, the trial has cast a shadow over England's cricket team. With events over the past two weeks front-page news in the papers, and the lead story more than once on the national TV bulletins, there will be few people unaware of the horrendous mobile phone footage of England's biggest star embroiled in a late-night street brawl just hours after a match, and in the middle of a one-day series. Or the gruesome close-up video of Ryan Ali's bruised and swollen face following the punch-up. Or the images of Stokes appearing to flick something at a gay man outside a nightclub (he denied the prosecution's claim it was a cigarette butt and that he had mocked the pair). Or the police body-cam footage of his arrest. Or Stokes' admission that he drank heavily on the night in question.
Accompanied by his wife Claire Ratcliffe, agent Neil Fairbrother and his lawyers Paul Lunt and Lachlan Nisbet, Stokes has walked calmly through the crowd of photographers, reporters and film crews to and from court for all seven days of the trial.
Each day he has sat in the dock, just inches from the two men he was accused of attacking. There was an occasional glance towards the media or jury, but he showed little emotion as he listened intently to the evidence and even to Tuesday's verdict.
But despite his composed exterior, there was a huge amount at stake here at Bristol Crown Court. A guilty verdict - and therefore a criminal record - could have affected Stokes' applications for visas to play the game in certain countries, and thrown his England career into turmoil. Certainly, the ECB would have been under huge pressure to throw the book at him.
Despite Stokes' acquittal, the prosecution's portrayal of him as a violent "bully" is the last thing the ECB wants for arguably the country's most important and high-profile cricketer.
But there are questions for others too amid the fall-out:
- For the Crown Prosecution Service - who took four months to decide to charge Stokes. And even then, on the first day of the trial, remarkably tried to have two additional charges of actual bodily harm added to Stokes' indictment. It had 11 months to consider what to charge him with. Why was that decision not taken earlier? The judge rejected its application on the basis it was too late.
- For Stokes' advisers who appear to have failed to impress upon their prodigiously talented client the need to avoid trouble after previous controversies.
- And for the ECB for its handling of this affair.
This is a man, after all, who was sent home from an England Lions tour in 2013 to Australia for late-night drinking. Who was reprimanded for using "obscene, offensive or insulting" language during a Test match against the West Indies in August 2017. Who was warned by a judge in 2016 that he could face jail for another driving offence, after being caught speeding four times. Who last year had to apologise to Katie Price and her disabled son Harvey for a video that showed the England player imitating a TV clip of the youngster. A man who former ECB chairman Lord MacLaurin accused of "sticking two fingers up at management" over the Bristol incident.
For many, it seemed confusing that in the wake of the incident, Stokes was included in England's Ashes squad (and named vice-captain), but then left out of it, even though he had not been charged with anything. Then controversially reinstated for the subsequent series in New Zealand, once he had actually been charged.
To be fair to the ECB, Stokes had to be considered innocent until proven guilty, and the governing body may well have been advised that suspending him indefinitely could have prejudiced the trial and been a potential restraint of trade. As well as risking the player turning his back on England altogether.
But the clear sense emanating from Lord's at the time was that the ECB board was divided over what to do about the crisis, with some members deeply uneasy about Stokes representing his country while images of him knocking another man unconscious were all over social media.
And it seemed even more mystifying when in November, those in charge of English cricket were unaware that Stokes had flown to Canterbury, New Zealand, to get in some match practice during his exile.
While the ECB has denied suggestions of a drinking culture within the England squad, there were clearly lessons to be learned. Chief executive Tom Harrison wrote to the players to remind them of their responsibilities after further controversies in Australia last winter - involving Jonny Bairstow and then Ben Duckett - gave the impression of a squad out of control. A curfew was introduced to the squad during that tour.
While there is clearly a limit to how much the governing body can do, some may be surprised that Stokes and Hales were not accompanied by a minder on that infamous night in Bristol, and privately the ECB admits there may have to be more changes in terms of how much it controls and monitors the players' movements.
The defence in this trial always insisted their client had been acting in self-defence, and Stokes will now feel vindicated.
But some people may also consider him fortunate that the injuries sustained in the fight - by both the co-accused and himself - were not more serious.
Stokes said nothing as he left court, but his lawyer vowed he had been reminded of the privilege that comes with playing for his country and the responsibility that comes with it. Many will hope he now lives up to that promise.