The sight of Ben Stokes wandering through Heathrow Airport on Monday evening, sporting his full cricket kit, fuelled extensive rumours on social media that he was heading to Australia to reinforce England’s Ashes squad in the wake of their defeat in the first Test at Brisbane.
In response to wildfire speculation, the ECB said that Stokes was making a private trip to New Zealand to spend time with his family, but ESPNcricinfo understands he has been granted a No Objection Certificate and that there have been discussions with Canterbury about him playing domestic cricket. It is possible he could return to the pitch as early as Sunday when Canterbury play Otago in a List A game.
A statement from Canterbury Cricket confirmed that they had “been in initial informal discussions with Ben Stokes’ representatives regarding his potential availability for Ford Trophy and Burger King Super Smash cricket.”
“The CCA Board and New Zealand Cricket will independently be considering this issue in the near future but, until then, we are unable to provide any more detail on the status of the deliberations,” Jeremy Curwin, the CEO of Canterbury Cricket, said. “As and when there are any further developments we will of course release further statements.”
Stokes’ arrangements have not, it is understood, been arranged by the ECB – indeed, they only found out about them late on Monday night in Brisbane – and he was not headed either to link up with the Ashes squad, or the England Lions, who are currently in Queensland shadowing the main squad, or any other official training camps with the England set-up.
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Stokes, who was arrested in Bristol on September 25, remains under investigation by Avon & Somerset Police, following allegations of Actual Bodily Harm in the wake of an altercation outside a nightclub.
A recall to England’s full squad remains unlikely in the immediate future, given that the ECB are waiting to see if the police press charges before they make any further decisions.
However, the board has made no secret of its desire to get him back on the field at the earliest opportunity, with Tom Harrison, the CEO, saying recently that they wished to “rehabilitate his reputation on the field”.
In addition, the fact that he has been cleared to travel, added to the proximity of New Zealand to Australia, means that the speculation about his Ashes status is unlikely to die down. It is understood some at the ECB were taken by surprise that Stokes was allowed to travel and have taken some encouragement from the development.
There may also be some frustration, though. The team management have done everything they could to build a calm, settled environment for their squad and had tried to silence talk about Stokes. The increased speculation this development will bring, coming on top of the Jonny Bairstow episode – he was alleged to have head-butted Cameron Bancroft at the start of the tour – and a series of injuries, will not be viewed as entirely helpful.Despite insisting that the Bairstow incident had been ‘blown out of all proportion’, Andrew Strauss, the England team director, felt obliged to act in response, instigating a midnight curfew for the Ashes squad, while insisting they needed to be smarter if they are to improve the perception the public currently have of them.
On Stokes’ prospects of playing any part in the Ashes, Strauss added: “We’re waiting for the police to make a charging decision and, until that happens, nothing has changed. We’re in the same situation as we have been for quite a long time now.
“There are certain procedural things that have taken place but there is a process that can only kick in once we’ve heard a charging decision from the police. We’re relatively clear in our minds what the procedure is from here and the start is the police coming out with their charging decision and, until that happens, we can’t move forward.”
The former England wicketkeeper, Matt Prior, was delighted by Stokes’ possible return, though, in a Tweet on Monday evening.
“If Stokes is heading to NZ then he must be cleared I’d assume?” Prior wrote. “Get the long flight out the way. Best place to get acclimatised and ready whilst not being in Oz…fly in for the Test when decisions have been made (which must be close)…”