Ben Stokes is set to make his international return on Sunday as England open their five-match ODI series here against New Zealand.
Stokes has not played for his country since his arrest in Bristol last September. He pleaded not guilty to affray at Bristol magistrates court this month and then flew to New Zealand.
Since arriving on 16 February, the all‑rounder has been getting reacquainted with team‑mates and has been training the past week, including in Auckland where he was joined by Joe Root, Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes and Jonny Bairstow – the rested quartet for the Trans-Tasman T20 Tri-Series – while other players had some time off.
What has helped the 26-year-old has been a hunger to keep himself as fit as possible to ensure a smooth transition back into the side, which has come after it was confirmed that Stokes would not need to be present for his first hearing at Bristol crown court on 12 March.
Eoin Morgan has been impressed by the all‑rounder’s body and mind. “We’re expecting [him to play], providing there aren’t any hiccups,” the captain said. “He’s pulled up well over the last couple of days. Providing he gets through a little bit of bowling these next two days of prep, then he’ll be fit. If he’s not, it’s not a big decision for me to leave him out.
“He’s travelled very well and he’s turned up incredibly fit. The bowling would be the hiccup if he did pick up a niggle or something where it might put him back but at the moment it’s looking good.”
Two days out from the match, Stokes had a long batting session before turning his arm over for almost 10 overs’ worth of bowling at full tilt. Those close to him say he has never been fitter.
There need not be a risk taken considering the volume of cricket on the horizon for Stokes. But the easiest time to pick him is in this opening match. A 4-1 ODI series victory against Australia without him was a confidence boost, but the poor showing in the Tri‑Series highlighted the value of an all‑rounder, not just Stokes, as England lacked options when their frontline bowlers went awry.
Even if there is uncertainty over whether Stokes can get through his 10 overs – unless it is because of, say, a muscle injury rather than having to build up the stamina to bowl his full allocation – Morgan would have no qualms drafting him in. Similar to during the ICC Champions Trophy last year, when Stokes had a knee injury going into the tournament, he will not be relied upon to bowl his full allocation.
“He could equally be picked as a batter,” Morgan said. “If he can’t bowl, there will be a reason behind that – a niggle or something. If he’s fine he should be able to play some part with the ball.”
It looks like Alex Hales will miss out. The Nottinghamshire batsman, who this week signed an 18-month white-ball-only contract with his county, has struggled to get going since returning to the side, albeit starting at the less familiar position of No 3, with Jason Roy and Bairstow opening during the Australia ODI series.
New Zealand are in red-hot form, having won eight ODIs on the bounce, with 3-0 and 5-0 wins against West Indies and Pakistan, the Champions Trophy holders, respectively.
Morgan expects a tussle that will be a lot closer. “It is a big series. They went a long stretch of winning one‑day international cricket so they are a strong side particularly at home and we are going to have reproduce similar performances or better than we produced in Australia to win the series.”