<
>

Is Woakes a thug? Australia continue fake news campaign

England's mafia bosses discuss their next target Getty Images

When you hear Chris Woakes denying he - or his teammates - are thugs, you know the world has gone just a little bit insane.

Woakes, as gentle and modest a man as you will meet in the world of international sport, was the latest member of the England camp to find himself forced to defend the culture of the team in Adelaide on Wednesday.

It seems not to matter that the Jonny Bairstow-Cameron Bancroft incident was finally explained as nothing more than an odd moment of social awkwardness. Mud sticks and a narrative appears to have formed which portrays this England set-up as something akin to a Led Zeppelin tour in the 1970s.

It's nonsense of course. Woakes plays alongside such mild-mannered men as Alastair Cook, Moeen Ali and Dawid Malan. He is captained by Joe Root who, like James Vince, has his family alongside him on the tour. And, while they may not much like Stuart Broad over here, in more than a decade in the public eye, one of the few times his private life has made the papers has been when he is raising money for charity.

Even Bairstow, despite his bizarre greeting of Bancroft, provides an admirable example of a young man who overcame considerable personal misfortunate to forge a fine career. Again, he will shortly be joined on the tour by his mum and sister.

It doesn't sound all that rock n roll, really, does it?

So why are they forced to defend themselves?

Because some on the pitch and in the press box misinterpreted - quite possibly wilfully - the incident involving Bairstow and Bancroft to destabilise them. Reported, in some instances, as an "attack" and reflective of a "major problem in the England team with drinking," when the full explanations were eventually made, it was all portrayed instead as excellent banter - and cunning gamesmanship - by the Australian team.

It is an episode that has not gone down well with England. While they expect a certain amount of verbal hostility - accept and reciprocate - on the pitch, the suspicion that personal information (especially misleading personal information) was drip fed to the wider public is viewed as unacceptable.

While it is understood that discussions to respond in similar fashion were soon abandoned - and quite rightly - it is probably fair to say one or two Australia players might reflect how much they would like details of their private lives to be broadcast over stump mics.

Have the ECB done enough to alter this narrative? By instigating a curfew, haven't they reinforced the impression there was a culture of late-night drinking within the team. By stating the players needed to be "smarter," hasn't Andrew Strauss implied they were less than smart in the past? By saying the players shouldn't "put themselves in a position to be targeted," hasn't he somehow conceded that they might have done so?

That's a shame. Very little happened in Perth. Keen to adjust to the time difference in Australia, several England players attempted to stay up relatively late (the WA players were there, too, remember) to help ensure a good night's sleep and avoid jet-lag. In a land where security guards wade in if you clear your throat after 9pm, no reports of drunkenness or trouble were reported by players, the club or the police.

So, rather than tightening up on his players, Strauss could have said: this incident is a nonsense; my players are blameless; we're not going to be manipulated by fake news and those with an agenda.

Instead, he inadvertently gave the story further legs by instigating a change in behaviour and policy.

There is a broader context, of course. Since details of the Ben Stokes incident emerged, the ECB has been on the defensive over suggestions that the culture of the squad is in some way unprofessional.

The Stokes episode is fascinating in that, in the court of public opinion - in Australia, in particular - he appears to have been judged guilty until found innocent.

On Wednesday, Shane Watson became the latest figure in Australian cricket to suggest of Stokes that he "does not think he should be able to come and play" in the Ashes. He needs, according to Watson, "a precedent set, even for his own, benefit [so he can] learn from his mistakes and realise there are consequences for your actions." Good old Shane: always thinking of the best for England players. And this time he's reached a judgement without waiting for a review or even the conclusion of a police investigation.

That follows David Warner suggesting his punching of Joe Root in Birmingham in 2013 was a "lot less" severe than the Stokes incident. Warner's wife, Candice, also branded the Stokes incident "way worse." We must have missed the bit in the Warner incident where Root was swinging a bottle

It is true that while Stokes broke no curfew, he may well have been unwise and unprofessional to be out so late.

More importantly, he has a case to answer over whether he used excessive force. And that's a case best left to the civil authorities - and not Watson and Warner - to decide.

But there is an alternative view to that aired and repeated at most opportunities by the Australia team. This is that Stokes deserves praise and respect for tackling anti-social behaviour. That, instead of turning his head and ignoring bullying, he confronted it. That, when he saw others attacked - verbally and physically - he risked his own safety and reputation to protect them. He could be portrayed as a 'have-a-go-hero' just as easily as he could be portrayed negatively.

Remember, two young men have come forward to say Stokes was a "hero" who saved them from attack and video footage would appear to suggest he used violence after Alex Hales was struck. There is a legitimate argument which would suggest he was over-zealous in his counter-attack, but let's not forget the full story.

The conclusion is for the civil authorities. But let us at least acknowledge that there are grey areas and uncertainty and alternate views in such matters. Let us acknowledge that any use of violence is aberrational among this squad.

The point is this: by repeating unchecked the suggestion that Stokes behaved offensively (and not defensively), by repeating the suggestion that there is a culture of alcohol and uncouth behaviour within the England set-up, by repeating the suggestion that the ECB are being weak in not being seen to crack-down on Stokes, the Australian team - and some in their media - are trying to goad them - the ECB - into a tough penalty.

They are challenging them to prove they are not weak and reactive. They are pushing them to make an example of Stokes. They are, yet again, playing them.

Do we honestly think this is because those in the Australian team are guardians of morality and justice? Or is it a bit more likely that they perceive Stokes as a threat and are doing everything they can to prevent him participating? Again, we don't need to decide, but it is sometimes worth challenging the pervading narrative.

Either way, the version of the England team currently being dragged through the media doesn't bear much comparison with the reality. Moeen funds charity projects in Birmingham, Cook supports a foundation in memory of a friend who died young, Broad raises money for research into Motor Neurone Disease which claimed his stepmother. They do it quietly, modestly, diligently.

That's the real character of this team.

This may not be the best England team in history and they may not retain the Ashes in the next few weeks. But there's quite a lot to like and admire about the character of the individuals and the way they conduct themselves. They, the ECB and the media that cover them, shouldn't be afraid to say so.