Joe Root has conceded that Ben Stokes will have to be on his “best behaviour” when he makes his comeback to Test cricket against New Zealand in Auckland on Thursday, amid the very real threat of more time on the sidelines if he steps out of line.
Stokes, who missed the Ashes after being arrested in Bristol in September and subsequently charged with affray, resumes his Test career with three active ICC demerit points to his name. He is therefore just one transgression away from triggering an automatic one-match ban, an issue that was brought back into focus this week by Kagiso Rabada’s disciplinary hearing during the South Africa-Australia Test series.
Stokes’ points, which stay on a player’s record for 24 months, stem from three previous on-field incidents. In October 2016, he was sanctioned for an altercation with Bangladesh’s Sabbir Rahman, and then picked up two further Level 1 offences, against India at Mohali in November 2016, and West Indies at Headingley in September 2017.
“You’re always aware of that,” said Root. “You want to make sure, not just that [your players’ behaviour] is sitting well with you, but they’re able to be on the field for the next game and next series.
“I’m sure there might be a bit of noise about that after what’s happened [to Rabada] – about demerit points and missing games. He’ll have to be on best behaviour.”
Stokes’ disciplinary status had been hanging over him even before his Ashes omission, with opposition teams beginning to realise that his hot-headed nature was liable to boil over if provoked. And, to judge by the events of Australia’s subsequent series, a flashpoint would surely only ever have been a matter of time.
On Tuesday, Rabada was cleared to play in this week’s third Test at Newlands, after successfully appealing against a Level 2 charge, and two-Test ban, imposed in the wake of his shoulder-brushing incident with Steven Smith, the Australia captain, at Port Elizabeth.
However, the nature of Rabada’s original punishment has highlighted a potential flaw in the ICC’s demerit point system, in that players with previous blemishes on their records are likelier to find themselves in repeated hot water.
Radaba had already served a one-Test ban during last summer’s tour of England, after being caught swearing on the stump microphone after taking the wicket (of Stokes, as it happens) during the Lord’s Test in July.
However, arguably the biggest incident of the Australia-South Africa series to date was David Warner’s off-field outburst against Quinton de Kock, which was caught on CCTV as the teams left the field during a break in play at Port Elizabeth. Warner was charged with a Level 2 offence and handed three demerit points – but because he had not previously attracted the attention of the ICC match referee, he did not automatically cross the four-point threshold for a ban.
“It is a perception thing, I suppose, isn’t it,” said Root, “because no one really knows what’s said out in the middle. You can see what you think is going on. But I suppose the consistency of things has to be there. It’s certainly got people talking about Test cricket, hasn’t it? That’s one thing, for sure.
“There’s always been that cloud of recent times between Australia and ‘the line’ – where theirs is compared to everyone else’s,” Root added. “But I’m sure they’ll come back and say they’re probably disciplined less than anyone else around world cricket – in terms of bans and fines.
Asked if it was the captain’s responsibility to uphold a team’s standards of behaviour, Root said: “For me, it’s your team and you want to make sure you’re heading up this team, and if it’s portraying an image of something you don’t like then I suppose that’s on you.”
James Anderson last week insisted there was still a place for “emotion” on the field, in the wake of Rabada’s admission that he needed to curb his temper out in the middle, and Root agreed that there needed to some leeway for players to get their juices flowing during an intense passage of play.
“I suppose you want to make sure you’re getting the best out of your players and they feel they can maximise their game – if they like to get in a little one-on-one battle with the batter, then they’re able to do so.
“But [it’s] to a point which does not exceed your own line. That’s where I’m at with it. It has to sit well with me – and generally I think we’re very good at it.”
Root hoped, however, that it was not the case that opposition teams were starting to target certain players in an attempt to trigger a reaction.
“I wouldn’t want to go into a series as captain and my players be trying to get someone banned,” he said. “You want to beat the best team. That [would be] detracting from the game.
“For me, it’s about making sure you’re doing everything you can to improve Test cricket and make it the best it can be – so that when you go and win, it’s that bit more special.
“I think one of the problems is they’re on demerit points in the first place. They can almost use the excuse ‘I’ve been pushed to this point of getting banned’ – but they’ve got themselves into a position where they’ve got two demerit points to start with. People sort of forget that bit.
“If then someone wants to behave out of order on the field, then that will be called upon but I suppose that’s the responsibility of the match referee, to see if someone is trying to provoke it.
“That’s his responsibility to keep an eye on that and make sure that’s not the case.”