Ben Stokes was back in the thick of it in his first England training session this winter here on Saturday with his captain Eoin Morgan declaring it was as if he had never been away.
England, conscious of the risk of injury so soon after a 24 hour flight from London, wanted to ease Stokes back and insisted he referee their pre-training game of football rather than rush into anything too strenuous.
But then he played a full part in their session at Seddon Park ahead of Sunday morning’s final Twenty20 tri-series qualifier against New Zealand, taking a couple of brilliant one-handed catches on the boundary.
Ben Stokes was back in the thick of it in his first England training session this winter
There was time for laughs in a difficult situation too, with his team-mates finding great amusement from a stretching routine which momentarily made it look as though Stokes was wearing a pair of handcuffs.
Only when the rest of England’s squad had finished in the nets did Stokes, who did not bowl during the session, have a bat against bowling coach Chris Silverwood’s throw-downs and there is no chance of him playing on Sunday in a match England have to win comfortably to progress to Wednesday’s final in Auckland against Australia.
Yet England, who had urged caution over Stokes comeback before he arrived because of his lack of cricket since the infamous incident in a Bristol bar, are already talking of him playing in next Sunday’s first one-day international.
‘It’s always good to see Ben and it was as if he had never been away,’ said Morgan, who declared himself fit for Sunday’s match after a groin injury that kept him out of the last two defeats.
Stokes tried his hand with the bat against some throw-downs but did not bowl on Saturday
‘We got together, a group of us in the team room at our hotel, and caught up on Friday. A lot of us have seen him in the interim while he’s been away but some of the guys hadn’t.’
Friday’s gathering was ostensibly to watch Australia’s ridiculously high-scoring win over New Zealand in Auckland which gave England, who had lost their first three games in this tournament, a lifeline on Sunday.
‘We sat in the team room, chipped a few golf balls, talked some crap and had the game on in the background,’ said Morgan of England’s first evening back in the company of Stokes, who has pleaded not guilty to affray and faces a crown court trial on his return. ‘We did watch the game and it keeps us in the hunt.’
Clearly, the arrival of Stokes has given a lift to England who, without him, were thrashed in the Ashes and have been distinctly second best so far in this Twenty20 series after the boost of an emphatic one-day series win.
Arrival of Stokes has given lift to England, who have been second best in this Twenty20 series
‘He’s been training hard and aspiring to play for the last couple of months,’ said Morgan. ‘So it’s a big deal he’s here, not just for us but him as well.
‘It’s been a difficult time but I think he’s coped well. I saw him a lot during October and I’ve kept in touch with him throughout the whole period. He has seemed good. Now there’s a good chance he’ll be fit for the first one-day game.
‘It will depend how his body reacts. He’s been bowling indoors and that’s not the same as out here. We just don’t know about the impact on his body. If he picks up a niggle or is overly stiff we won’t risk him just because he can play. He’s got a long year of cricket ahead of him.’
Morgan, who barely plays any first-class cricket now, is perfectly qualified to comment on the potentially game-changing decision of leg-spinner Adil Rashid to give up the red-ball game to concentrate solely on limited-overs.
England captain Eoin Morgan declared on Saturday it was as if Stokes had never been away
‘I think it’s something we’ll probably see happen a lot more in the near future,’ said England’s white-ball captain. ‘Cricket is changing a lot and I think Adil’s very brave to say he’s going to put red-ball cricket on the back burner and focus on the white-ball game.
‘When Adil came and told me what he was doing he said his decision sits really well with him and it’s an encouraging sign for me that he wants to focus so much on white-ball cricket because you never know down the line how significant red-ball cricket is going to be.’
That is a sobering thought in so many ways but for now England’s one-day leg-spinner is in a good place as is their returning talisman.
Now it remains to be seen whether the off-field presence of Stokes will give them the lift they need to provide a final twist on Sunday morning to what has been an underwhelming Twenty20 series.