Ben Stokes is readying himself to make an astonishing England return during the ongoing Ashes series in the event that he is cleared by police following his arrest over a late-night incident in Bristol two months ago.
Though the all-rounder is still waiting to discover this – and is currently unavailable to play for the national team while doing so – there is a growing belief that, if given the all-clear, a backdated cricketing suspension covering the matches he has already missed could result and he would be allowed to join the embattled tour.
Stokes has flown to Christchurch in New Zealand in order to get match-fit and ultimately give himself the best possible chance of a Test return if this path opens up, with talks over a deal to play for Canterbury already under way.
Originally described as a "private trip" to visit family by the England and Wales Cricket Board – his parents live there – it later emerged that the 26-year-old was issued with a "no objection certificate" last Friday by the national team's director Andrew Strauss.
Strauss is said to be surprised how fast Stokes has since moved, however, having only been informed of the New Zealand trip hours before the all-rounder was spotted at Heathrow airport on Monday night with his cricket gear among the luggage.
Nevertheless, Stokes is now poised to play for Canterbury and could make his cricketing comeback as soon as this Sunday’s 50-over Ford Trophy match against Otago in Rangiora.
His England team-mates, who flew to Adelaide on Tuesday after their first Ashes Test defeat at the Gabba, will be into day two of the pink-ball second Test against Australia in what would be an odd look for English cricket. Stokes was, however, only ever stood down from international selection while being investigated by the police.
There remain many moveable parts that first hinge on both the timing and the outcome of the police investigation into events in Bristol on 25 September, with a recent delay understood to have arisen due to a new witness coming forward.
Once the outcome is known, the ECB’s disciplinary hearing for both Stokes and Alex Hales, who is also suspended from internationals, will then kick in over the following 48 hours. Strauss stated on Monday that certain procedural elements have already taken place.
Were this chain of events to begin in the next week – Stokes has already given his final statement to Avon and Somerset Police – with no police charge, a cricketing ban that covers the two ODIs and two Tests he has sat out already would mean a return for the third Test, starting in Perth on 14 December, could be possible.
While a heavier ban would quash any hopes of a recall, fitness also remains a hurdle. Stokes is on the mend from a broken finger suffered on the night in question and though he has been batting and bowling at Durham’s indoor school in recent weeks (and posting videos of the sessions on social media) it has been more than two months since his last match.
Picking Stokes for the Ashes would also generate a huge off-field distraction for England, with a media frenzy that would far exceed that which followed Jonny Bairstow’s bizarre but non-malicious “head-butt” on Cameron Bancroft that came to light during the first Test.
Having taken place in a bar on the first night of the tour, and in light of the late night arrest of Stokes, it prompted Strauss to place a midnight curfew on the players for the tour.
But the coaching staff and the captain, Joe Root, consider the benefits to far outweigh the inevitable outcry, both for the all-round skills that would see Stokes balance the side and the injection of his personality in the face of an aggressive Australian side that, after three days of tight cricket, ended up hammering them by 10 wickets at the Gabba.
The hosts' head coach, Darren Lehmann, was asked about the subject of Stokes when his squad landed in Adelaide. "I think he is a class player but I can't really comment too much about it, until the ECB decide what they are doing," he said.
Whatever transpires from here, Canterbury will believe they have pulled off a coup if they bring Stokes back to the city of his birth, with their chief executive, Jeremy Curwin, telling local media that "someone of his profile would do amazing things not just for [US] but for New Zealand cricket as well."
While Canterbury engaged in talks with Stokes, the young batsman Ken McClure stood down from their squad after he pleaded guilty to an assault on Friday.