DOWN and very nearly out, England’s cricketers have trudged across to Perth to step up their preparations for the third Ashes Test, which begins on Thursday. Lose that, and the series will be done and dusted before Christmas.

Out-batted in Brisbane, England were out-played in every department as they crashed to a 120-run defeat in Adelaide. Their batting collapsed as they failed to pass 240 in either innings, and while their bowlers threatened to spark an unlikely comeback as they dismissed Australia for 138 second time around, their listless performance in the first innings, when their opponents were able to declare on 442-8, was ultimately the decisive factor in England’s defeat.

If only there was a world-class all-rounder waiting in the wings to transform England’s prospects. But hold on a minute, who’s that over there in New Zealand, a short plane ride away from the WACA in Perth? Why, it’s Ben Stokes. And what’s he doing? That’s right, he’s playing cricket, turning out for Canterbury in New Zealand’s domestic league.

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Isn’t Stokes one of the best all-rounders in the world? Hasn’t he been the linchpin of the England side in the last couple of years, adding depth to the batting line-up by solidifying the middle-order while providing a valuable pace bowling option that enables the likes of James Anderson and Stuart Broad to restrict the length of their bursts?

The Durham all-rounder would improve the prospects of the current England side at a stroke if he was selected for the third Test. It won’t happen, but it should. By adopting their current stance of not selecting Stokes, the ECB are putting a misguided attempt to be moral guardians of the game ahead of both the presumption of innocence and the need to give England the best possible chance of beating Australia. The clock is ticking, but it is not too late for them to change their minds.

As things stand, the ECB have stated they will not select Stokes for England until the Crown Prosecution Service has decided whether or not to charge him following his arrest for his alleged involvement in an incident outside a Bristol nightclub in September.

They have decided they do not want someone with a potential criminal conviction hanging over them representing England, yet they were quite happy to grant him permission to play in New Zealand instead. One rule for the ‘holier-than-thou’ England team, quite another for the rest of the world.

The distinction makes absolutely no sense. Either Stokes’ alleged behaviour is so serious that he should be banned from playing cricket full stop while the ECB continue to pay his wages, or it isn’t and he should be free to play for whoever wants to select him. To confuse the matter even further, the ECB this week named Stokes in their one-day squad to face Australia in the New Year.

The situation is a mess, but it needn’t be. The simple fact is that Stokes has not been convicted of anything, indeed he hasn’t even been charged with a criminal offence. The notion that he is innocent until proven guilty appears to have gone out of the window when The Sun chose to publish video footage of the altercation in a Bristol street on its website. People saw Stokes appearing to throw punches, and in the ECB’s mind, the court of public opinion had reached its verdict.

Yet that is grossly unfair to Stokes. None of us know the context behind what happened because we were not there. Until the CPS decide on their next move, and until a potential case reaches court, we are all second-guessing as to whether Stokes’ conduct broke any laws.

He definitely broke the ECB’s rules about an England player’s conduct, but the ECB have opted to shelve their own disciplinary procedure until the police investigation runs its course. He wasn’t the only England international out in Bristol that night though, and while Alex Hales was initially banned along with Stokes, his suspension has been lifted after the police confirmed he is no longer being investigated in connection with the incident, even though he also has an internal disciplinary process pending. In other words, there is nothing in the ECB’s regulations preventing them from picking Stokes.

Other sportspeople have continued playing while legal proceedings have been ongoing. Lee Bowyer famously played for Leeds United in the Champions League a matter of hours after appearing at Hull Crown Court. He was eventually acquitted after being charged with grievous bodily harm, but even if he had been found guilty, Leeds’ decision to play him would still have been the right one. At the time of their Champions League game, Bowyer still had the right to be presumed innocent.

Sunderland were condemned for their decision to continue playing Adam Johnson after he was arrested for child sex offences, but in that case, there were clear safeguarding issues that should have meant the Black Cats hierarchy deemed Johnson unsuitable for selection. From the point that they knew the winger had privately admitted kissing a 15-year-old schoolgirl, they should have issued an immediate suspension.

The situation with Stokes is completely different, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the ECB are looking to cover their own backs rather than attempting to support and protect one of their employees.

Admittedly, it would be embarrassing for the governing body if Stokes was to be selected for the third Test, and then the CPS was to charge him with an offence just as he was taking guard against Mitchell Starc. Even in that scenario, though, there would still be nothing to stop them from standing by Stokes.

Instead of moralising about an offence that might or might not have happened, wouldn’t the ECB be producing a more powerful display of leadership if they were to stand squarely behind Stokes and say, ‘We are supporting one of our players up to the point where he is actually convicted of something’? The governing body loves to talk of ‘Team England’ and nurturing a supportive environment; shouldn’t part of that be backing a player who is going through a difficult time, but who at this stage has not been found guilty of a single offence?

On the pitch, Stokes’ return would provide England with a massive shot in the arm ahead of a Test they have to at least draw in order to keep the series alive. Off it, it would see the ECB stand by one of their key employees, something that, so far, they have singularly failed to do.