Monday 20 August 2018

Stokes gets back into swing of things

England cricketer Ben Stokes arrives at the team hotel in Hamilton, New Zealand, on Friday. Photo: Rory Dollard/PA
England cricketer Ben Stokes arrives at the team hotel in Hamilton, New Zealand, on Friday. Photo: Rory Dollard/PA

Vithushan Sehantharajah

Ben Stokes was back on a cricket field alongside his England team-mates, for the first time since September 24, in a light training run at Hamilton yesterday. He did not bowl or do much else with vigour on his return to the international fold but Eoin Morgan believes the all-rounder could be fit for the first ODI against New Zealand next Sunday.

"He's coped well," the captain said when asked of the toll that suspension and court proceedings have had on Stokes. "There's a good chance he'll be fit for the first ODI."

Morgan's words were at odds with those of Trevor Bayliss earlier in the week, though the coach's trepidation over Stokes' availability was understandable considering his lack of competitive action. Morgan saw the all-rounder regularly before he went to Australia in January for the start of England's various white-ball assignments, and has stayed in touch with him by phone since. He has a good idea over where his head is at: "It depends on how his body reacts. He's been bowling indoors - it's not the same as outdoors.

"We're not going to risk him just because he's back. He's got a long year ahead of him - IPL, a full summer and a Sri Lanka tour before Christmas. He won't have time off until December."

It was a relaxed first 24 hours back for Stokes. After arriving at the team hotel just after 6pm on Friday he spent the evening in the team room, "chipping golf balls and talking crap" with the rest of the team, said Morgan, with Australia's five-wicket Trans-Tasman tri-series win over New Zealand on in the background. "It's as if he hadn't been away."

At training the following morning he pitched in with tasks usually reserved for support staff: refereeing the pre-session kickabout while media manager Henry Cowen (nicknamed 'The Great Dane' by the players for his Peter Schmeichel-esque frame) went in goal. Stokes then donned a baseball mitt for the team's fielding session, before hitting balls to help ground work. As the players drifted off, he did some catching practice of his own, taking a couple of stunning one-handed efforts.

He did not strap his bowling boots when the team moved to the outdoor nets for the first time since they arrived in town on Wednesday. The absence of local support bowlers meant the spinners' net consisted of just Adil Rashid, Liam Dawson and no off-spinner. A call for Stokes from a colleague - a passable tweaker who even bowled an over of finger spin in a Test against Pakistan in 2016 - arrived in jest but nothing more. Once most of the squad had cleared out, the left-hander had a gentle hit with the bowling coach Chris Silverwood.

Seeing Stokes up close, time on the sidelines has clearly not been spent wallowing on the couch. He looks lither, carrying the frame - dare it be said - of a cruiserweight fighter that has cut down to light-heavyweight.

The 26-year-old has thrown himself into Durham's pre-season programme. Many at the club believe he is as fit as ever, with the throwing shoulder of the head coach, Jon Lewis, getting a good work-out as Stokes insisted on throw-downs at every opportunity.

When not training he was cheering the team on against Australia via social media during their 4-0 defeat in Tests and 4-1 ODI series win. Messages between Stokes and friends within the playing group have been plentiful, with support flowing both ways. He even helped Mark Wood secure a deal in the IPL - the Chennai Super Kings coach, Stephen Fleming, texting the all-rounder for a character reference when Wood was put up on the final day of the auction. Stokes spoke glowingly of his Durham team-mate and a £166,000 deal followed.

On early evidence missing the last four months has not robbed Stokes of his spark or team spirit. Morgan spoke for the whole squad: "It's always good to see Ben back."

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