Suspended England allrounder Ben Stokes is excited to be back playing cricket again after signing a deal to join Canterbury in the Ford Trophy one-day competition.
Stokes signed with Canterbury yesterday, fuelling speculation he could yet take part in the Ashes series between England and Australia.
Christchurch-born Stokes, who was involved in a brawl outside a Bristol nightclub in September that left another man with a fractured eye socket, is set to play a one-day match against Otago at Rangiora on Sunday.
UK police recently finalised an investigation into the Bristol brawl and prosecutors must now decide whether to charge England's vice-captain. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) reiterated it will not finalise Stokes' punishment — nor let him play internationals — until there is a decision over police charges.
Prosecutors may not make that call until the Ashes series is over but there remains widespread speculation Stokes could return soon, possibly as early as the third test that starts in Perth on December 14.
Canterbury Cricket chief executive Jez Curwin said he had spoken to Stokes, who is holidaying with his family in Christchurch.
"He is just really excited to have the opportunity to get back out onto the oval and play the sport that he loves and is grateful ... for the chance to represent Canterbury," Curwin said.
"He just wants to play cricket. He's a frustrated sportsman who is not able to ply his trade and he loves cricket.
"While we have spoken to the ECB there are a lot of sensitive facts around Ben's matter that we have not been privy to. However, having spent time with Ben we are very comfortable that he wants to come to play for Canterbury for all the right reasons and get back on the park."
The moved was agreed by all parties, including the New Zealand Cricket Players' Association and sanctioned by New Zealand Cricket.
The Herald understands Canterbury gave the matter careful thought after initial enthusiasm was tempered by moral concerns. The pragmatic value in having a player of Stokes' talent was weighed against any possible backlash over his violent behaviour off the field.
There is a concern that his signing jars with Canterbury-contracted player Ken McClure standing down from representative cricket after pleading guilty to assaulting a man in Hanmer Springs in September. He will be sentenced on January 19. Curwin said there was no direct comparison between Stokes and the McClure incident.
On the field, there was no such blurred lines, with Canterbury's director of cricket Gary Stead saying Stokes had a lot to offer. "Ben will bring international experience to a relatively youthful changing room."
The other headache is for England's director of cricket Andrew Strauss, who has to decide whether to bring back Stokes if he's cleared of serious charges. Former England all-rounder Kevin Pietersen said Strauss was under huge pressure, especially with England down 1-0 in the series.
"He's going to lose sleep over it," Pietersen said of Strauss. "Will it [recalling Stokes] be too much of a distraction in a current series? Will it put too much pressure on him being the saviour if they are 2-0 down and he comes to play in Perth and he has a bad test match?"
England paceman Jimmy Anderson welcomed news Stokes would soon be playing cricket, noting "if the situation does change he can hopefully join up with us at some point".