It started, as these things tend to, with a distant sense of unease on an otherwise mundane morning. The preview day to the penultimate match of the longest international summer in English history is not, to be frank, the moment when you expect the biggest story of the summer to erupt.

But then the rumours started to swirl. Text messages pinged, warning of an incoming bombshell, and as the press gathered at the foot of the pavilion steps at The Oval, it was clear from the ashen faces on the outfield and whispered briefings in quiet corners that the England team was moving into crisis management mode.

It was also pretty clear which England player was at the centre of everyone's discussions. Ben Stokes, like Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff before him, is one of those larger-than-life characters who seems to exist within his own gravitational pull. It is this trait that makes him the single most unmissable cricketer in the country. But, on this occasion, like a black hole right at the heart of England's practice session, his glaring absence was soon consuming everything around him.

Eoin Morgan, England's captain, had been due to speak at midday, to offer a few platitudes about the prospect of another series win, and maybe even throw ahead to tomorrow's Ashes squad announcement. Instead, it was gone 1pm before Andrew Strauss, England's team director, arrived armed with a brief statement to outline the severity of the situation that was unfolding.

The details of what exactly took place outside Bristol's MBargo nightclub in the small hours of Monday morning will remain sketchy until the police investigation has run its course, but the cricketing implications will have to become pretty clear pretty quickly. At 10am tomorrow morning, England's Ashes squad is due to be announced, and though Strauss insisted that the selectors - meeting today - had been encouraged to pick their players on grounds of "form and fitness", Stokes' actions may already have defined the parameters of the 2017-18 tour.

To win in Australia, teams, especially English ones, need to withstand a barrage both on and off the field. The press and the public can be as in-your-face as the players - witness the vendetta against Stuart Broad during the Brisbane Test in 2013-14 - and it's not for nothing that winning the Ashes Down Under tends to be a once-in-a-generation achievement. Team unity is paramount, but so too is an ability to escape the hubbub and let down one's hair - something that England's current management, with their absence of curfews, have so far been willing to indulge as their young, talented and erratic squad begins to find its identity in all formats.

But, if there was any doubt before Bristol, there is absolutely none now - from the moment the squad lands in Perth in the last week of October, Stokes and all who stand with him will be men under siege. There is, arguably, a far greater likelihood of England's players being recognised in the bars of Brisbane and Perth than in a dingy student dive in Clifton, and something, clearly, is going to have to change in the management of a player who, lest it be forgotten, was sent home from the 2013 England Lions tour of Australia for too many nights on the tiles.

That prospect doesn't augur well if the experiences of his forebears are anything to go by. Flintoff, whose exploits in 2005 had made him the biggest name in the game when he toured Australia as captain in 2006-07, proved unable to cope with that life in the goldfish bowl as England succumbed to a 5-0 whitewash. And though Botham proved instrumental to England's success on his last hurrah in 1986-87, he did so by bringing the party into his hotel-rooms - Elton John et al - rather than face the consequences of being spotted out in public. In fact, when he returned to Australia a year later to play for Queensland in the Sheffield Shield, he spent the eve of the final behind bars following an altercation with a passenger on the flight to Perth (but still managed to take the field the following day).

And that's just the off-field aspect of the challenge that awaits. For it is not as if Stokes' volatility has gone unnoticed in his short and explosive career. For the most part his determination to fling himself headlong into the action has been part of his glorious appeal - take his iconic catch in the gully during Stuart Broad's 8 for 15 in the last Ashes for example. However, it is clear that his opponents have long since cottoned onto the flip-side of that urge for bull-headed aggression.

From Marlon Samuels to Sabbir Rahman, even via Kagiso Rabada at Lord's this summer, it's self-evident that Stokes has made himself a target to be wound up at every opportunity. And understandably so, seeing as he is a player who can compound a golden duck in an ODI by punching a dressing-room locker and breaking his own hand. And yet, it is a grim irony that - in the wake of his latest demerit point for being caught swearing during the Headingley Test - he had already been set to go into the Ashes on a disciplinary knife-edge. The potential for a one-Test ban for an ill-timed F-bomb now seems utterly trivial.

And that really does need restating during this strange lull between action and consequence. Although Stokes was released yesterday evening without charge, he remains under investigation for Actual Bodily Harm, an offence that carries with it a maximum of five years' imprisonment. We do not know yet if he was provoked, or even acting in self-defence - Alex Hales, his team-mate, has returned to Bristol voluntarily to help the police with their inquiries, and his testimony could be crucial - but either way, this is no trivial slanging match between rival cricketers. This has the potential to be a career-ending error of judgment.

Despite everything hanging over him, Stokes still seems certain to be named in England's Ashes squad (unless Strauss's "fitness" caveat was a veiled reference to a hand injury for which he is understood to have had an X-Ray). What does seem abundantly clear, however, is that Stokes cannot travel to Australia as Joe Root's designated vice-captain. Ten years ago during the World Cup in the Caribbean, a precedent was set in that regard following Flintoff's encounter with a pedalo in St Lucia - he was stripped of his vice-captaincy duties and stood down for England's subsequent match against Canada.

Besides, it might not be the worst thing for England's fortunes if they were to distance Stokes from such artificial responsibility. The idea of handing him the vice-captaincy in the first place had been to cement his status as Root's right-hand man, and make it utterly clear - as if his on-field achievements weren't voluble enough - that the days of doubting his value to the team had long gone. It had served, also, to put some distance between the young thruster Root and his more measured predecessor, Alastair Cook. But the idea of Stokes actually stepping up for Brisbane if Root were to tweak a hamstring on the eve of the game? Nice in theory, but that's as far as it goes.

What happens next will be determined by the findings of a police investigation in Bristol. But, you fear already, something fundamental may already have changed for a player who is never better than when he's allowed to be a free spirit.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket