Ben Stokes was back where he is most comfortable on Saturday afternoon in Christchurch biffing balls in the nets and “looking forward to getting out there” and playing cricket again for the first time since his arrest.
Just hours before England took the field in the pink ball Test match at the 53,500 seater Adelaide Oval, Stokes was training for the first time with his new teammates at a club ground in rural Canterbury.
The Mainpower Oval in Rangiora, about a 40 minute drive out of Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island, and will be the scene of Stokes’s playing return on Sunday when he makes his debut for Canterbury against Otago in the New Zealand’s 50 over domestic competition, the Ford Trophy.
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There were no stickers on Stokes’s bat after he was dropped by his sponsors New Balance following his arrest and he has it written into his contract that he does not have to fulfil the usual media duties of New Zealand state players.
He did stop briefly while getting into his car after nets to talk. He answered “yeah good aye,” when asked about returning to cricket. “I’d been working hard back home as well so it’ll be good to put into practice. I think it’ll be good for the club as well so – I’m looking forward to getting out there and hopefully winning. It’s the first time I’ve met quite a few of them [Cantebury team-mates] today. I knew a few of the younger guys because they’d been coming over to Durham on an exchange programme so it’s nice to know a few faces because it is always hard coming into a new team when you’re meeting them for the first time so it was nice to see a few friendly faces.”
That was it. No more. The appearance fee for an overseas player in New Zealand is around $NZ800 (£550) so Stokes is definitely not here for the money. He stayed up through the night watching the Brisbane Test from home in the UK so he could attune to Australian time should he be called up, and by playing in New Zealand he hopes he will be able to make a swift entrance if needed by England.
He was certainly hitting the ball hard in the nets, looking like his usual self. “Ben is just desperate to play cricket. He really reminded me of a young kid just wanting to get out there and play,” said Gary Stead, Canterbury’s director of cricket.
Stokes arrived in Christchurch on Wednesday and trained the following evening at Sydenham Cricket Club, where his mother used to play. He had a net at the Hagley Oval on Friday before training fully with Canterbury on Saturday at the venue for today’s game. Canterbury weighed up the negative publicity of signing Stokers with the impact he can have on a team that has lost three of its first choice quick bowlers with injury. He was expected to bat at four or five today, playing for the first time since breaking his hand on the night he was arrested.
With its grass banks and white picket fence, the Mainpower Oval in Rangiora is a quaint and picturesque venue down a quiet, tree lined road past hand painted signs for asparagus for sale.
Rangiora is a small town north of Christchurch that has grown since the earthquake in 2011 with people moving out of the city but its 18,100 population could fit three times over into the Adelaide Oval where England wish Stokes was currently playing.
It is free entry for Sunday's game and Canterbury are bracing themselves for a huge lift in interest in a domestic 50 over competition that barely gets any airplay in New Zealand, let alone on a global cricketing stage. “I can't remember a time where there's been more interest in any match I've ever played in or been involved with in New Zealand", said Stead. "There's been interest from all over the world.”
Stokes’s father, Ged, said he never expected to see his son play for Canterbury and the family are planning a trip to Rangiora.
There has been a backlash against Canterbury. Former captain Peter Fulton, who was man of the match when the team won the Ford Trophy final last year, has questioned his signing but Canterbury are delighted to have one of the world’s best players, one who could fetch £2m in the next IPL auction, basically ask if he could play for them.
“He’s down to earth with a great work ethic. All he wants to do is play cricket. We’re a young group with an average age of 23 or 24 so to have a guy of Ben’s experience and quality is really going to lift our standards,” said Brendan Donkers, Canterbury’s one-day coach. “Some people are saying we’d be foolish if we didn’t play him and some say we’d be foolish to play him – but from a cricket perspective it is fantastic, for domestic cricket in this country to have this sort of exposure leading into a Ford Trophy game is outstanding and that is alongside a Black Caps Test in Wellington and an Ashes Test in Adelaide. The fact our domestic game is on the map is brilliant.”
Canterbury has close links with Durham. Cole McConchie, who will captain against Otago on Sunday, and New Zealand Test players Henry Nicholls and Tom Latham have spent time on exchange programmes at the Riverside so Stokes arrived knowing some of the players. A popular member of the England team, Stokes will not take long to settle in even if the attention his presence brings is different level of exposure for Canterbury. “This is the first time I have been standing with four microphones in front of me,” said Donkers. “If our guys have got international aspirations, this is the norm so this is a good experience for them.”