The news that Ben Stokes has been charged with affray, in the wake of his arrest in Bristol in September, has raised more questions than answers ahead of the IPL auction which takes place in Bengaluru on January 27-28, with the eight franchises seeking urgent clarity about his availability for this year's tournament.
Stokes made a box-office debut in the IPL last year, finishing as the Most Valuable Player after helping Rising Pune Supergiants to the final. Pune had fiercely bid for Stokes, paying him a record INR 14.5 crore (approx. US $2.16 million in 2017) and the Durham and England allrounder proved he was well worth the big money with consistent performances.
However, in the wake of the CPS verdict, there are no immediate guarantees that he will be back for a second season. "We need a level of certainty in case he is not available after he is bought at the auction," an owner of a franchise that has finished IPL runner-up more than once told ESPNcricinfo. "We need to know the degree of control IPL will have on his availability.
"We will seek to understand what happens now: what is the process? What will be happen if there is one eventuality or another?"
Assuming he is provided with a no-objection certificate (NOC) to play in the IPL - and Tom Harrison, the ECB chief executive, has already indicated that the board will not stand in his way - Stokes will be one of the 36 top players who will kick off the auction, having listed his base price at the maximum of INR 2 crore (USD 315,000). He is understood to be a target for most of the eight franchises, which are busy doing mock auction exercises with less than a fortnight to go until the event.
Clarity is also sought for a scenario in which Stokes is bought at the auction, but later has to withdraw from the tournament due to the trial. Currently, the IPL only allows replacements if a player is ruled out through injury, whereupon that replacement is paid on a pro-rata basis.
"If he is not available, will there be a replacement and what would it mean for the franchise?" said the owner. "What would availability mean in this case because there are extraneous circumstances?"
The ECB is expected to convene in the next 48 hours to consider Stokes' England availability while sub judice. At present, there is no date fixed for the trial, which the authorities have already indicated could last for six months or more.
"We have to see what stance the ECB takes," a director from another prominent franchise said. "The charge has just come out, so it is too early to decide, but we are definitely bothered about the outcome of the trial.
"We need see the implications. They have said clearly it might go for six months. So assuming the trial extends beyond the IPL, as it is expected to, then there is a lot of uncertainty. Also you never know his mental state, you can't just come and play with freedom if the trial is in the backdrop."
Nevertheless, Stokes' aura has not diminished despite his absence from top-level cricket in the past three months, with few players capable of matching his world-class allround attributes. According to a chief executive officer at one of the franchises, which has a strong purse going into the auction, several teams are expected to "go all out" to secure his services, and it would not be a surprise if the player ended up as the most expensive buy for the second year running.
"The only question we want to know is about whether he is available full time or not," said the official.
However, some caveats remain for a player who will have been sidelined for the best part of six months by the time the 2018 IPL gets underway on April 4.
"You look for certainty on the cricketing front," the franchise owner said. "You will also look at what does it mean for his character. It will require now greater understanding of Ben Stokes as a team player. As a franchise we always look for players who will put the team before himself. Will he take this as a challenge and come out all guns blazing or will it affect him in any other way?"