Ben Stokes makes his return and divides opinion in Canterbury sun
Stokes was arrested under suspicion of causing actual bodily harm in September
Ben Stokes of Canterbury during the Ford Trophy One Day match against Otago in Rangiora, New Zealand. Photograph: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images
Under a hot southern sky, English cricketer Ben Stokes warmed up on a New Zealand provincial ground more used to hosting hedgehogs than international sporting stars.
Ringed by pine trees and oaks, Mainpower Oval, 30 minutes outside Christchurch, gradually filled with spectators as 11am approached on Sunday. Lord’s it wasn’t, but at least we had Lorde’s Melodrama blaring out across the sleepy pitch.
“Watch me disapear,” she sung on Liability, as Stokes, cap firmly settled backwards, batted in the worn nets. “Watch me disappear into the sun.”
An unusually large crowd of about 1,000 came to see Stokes in the flesh, drawn by the sudden notoreity of a player arrested following a fight outside a nightclub in Bristol and now famously absent from England’s struggling Test team. “We’ve had an incident recently where a young fella of ours was up for sentencing and once we knew that we stopped him playing. That would be no different if any charges come to Ben,” said Gary Stead, coach of Canterbury cricket, who’ve signed Stokes “indefinitely”.
“I don’t know all the circumstances behind the incident and I haven’t asked Ben about it; he’s just arrived on our doorstep. Our key thing has been is he in the right frame of mind to play cricket?”
As Stokes strides to the players’ tent after his warm-up he is trailed by an eager young kid. “I want him to sign my hat, how do I ask him, do you think he will?” squeaks the child. The players’ tent is usually no problem for journalists to wander through; but today it’s strictly off-limits and guarded by two somewhat timid sentries.
“We would also like to let you know that Ben Stokes will be unavailable to comment and talk over the whole day,” reads a printed message from Canterbury Cricket in the media tent, base for more than a dozen today, in contrast to the usual solitary local newspaper journalist.
Stokes’s parents are also unwilling to speak. Refusing request after request, they retreat to a cluster of pine trees to watch their son play, as if this were any other game.
“And a big welcome to the crease for Canterbury number 55 Ben Stokes,” shouts the MC at 11.10am, his voice swelling.
“It’s very murky, I mean it’s all we’ve been talking about for days now and Stokes has become a very divisive figure for local players and supporters. Basically there are people on either side ... I am on the fence,” said Canterbury supporter and local schoolteacher Rob Genet.
“As far as I am concerned he has not been charged with anything, it is still a trial process and until he is proven guilty, we give him a fair go. Bloody oath, in the rugby game there are boys that have done a heck of a lot worse,” said the officer, who didn’t want to be named.
“Its a load of bollocks, occasionally things like this happen ... It’s a big beat-up, a whole lot of nonsense.”
Just after 2pm the players walk off the field for their lunch break, and the spectators rush on. Families, children and cricket-star wannabes take tennis balls and bats to roll and tussle on the ground that Stokes so recently vacated. His innings was abysmal – a mere two runs for Canterbury – and drew disappointed groans from the crowd when he was bowled after seven balls.
“He was trying too hard, and I’m going to speak to him about that,” said coach Stead.
Brent McConchie, father of Canterbury’s Cole McConchie, stays put in a beach chair under a wide blue umbrella, watching the local kids pretend they’re professionals on the pitch.
McConchie is deeply uncomfortable with Stokes’s alleged behaviour in Bristol.
“He is a professional cricketer, so it doesn’t look good and I do not condone violence as a reasonable response in any circumstances, but I am not prepared to sit and judge him. It is a moral conundrum. The guy is already serving a punishment by not playing for his country,” says McConchie.
At 3pm, the pitch clears of children and Stokes opens the bowling, as clouds begin to skitter across the previously blue sky.
Fifteen minutes in and his body loosens and lengthens; the language of it becoming big, demonstrative and loud.
His team-mates wholeheartedly shout their support for his bowling: “Good luck, Stokesey-Woksey,” they yell.
On a humble home ground, surrounded by a team that wants him, is frankly grateful for him, and with his parents watching on, this could possibly be the best place in the world for Stokes to test his body and mind, and rebuild confidence.
Just in case England come knocking.
“You know who he reminded me of today? says Stead, after a match Canterbury lost, even with their international star.
“Ben reminded me of my young son who is 11-years-old and just desperate to play a game of cricket. That’s what we saw today.”