Ben Stokes

SYDNEY: Suspended England all-rounder Ben Stokes plans to play first-class cricket in New Zealand, officials said yesterday, potentially paving the way for a dramatic Ashes call-up. Social media went into overdrive late Monday when a picture showing Stokes leaving London's Heathrow airport sparked speculation he was set to join his England teammates in Australia.

The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) poured cold water on the suggestion, saying the 26-year-old was simply heading to New Zealand to visit family. But it soon emerged Stokes aims to play first-class cricket for Canterbury during his trip to the South Island, keeping him in shape if required for the Ashes.

"(We) have been in initial informal discussions with Ben Stokes' representatives regarding his potential availability," Canterbury Cricket said in a statement. Stokes is barred from international cricket as British police investigate his alleged involvement in a late-night fight outside a Bristol nightclub.

But the suspension announced in September does not apply to domestic cricket, meaning Stokes could turn out for Canterbury. The London Times cricket writer Elizabeth Ammon tweeted that Stokes was poised to play as soon as this Sunday, when Canterbury face Otago in New Zealand's domestic one-day competition.

The Stokes controversy rocked England's Ashes preparations and the team slumped to a 10-wicket defeat in the first Test in Brisbane this week. Former Australia Test captains Steve Waugh and Ian Chappell are among those who believe England can't retain the Ashes without the hard-hitting allrounder.

Stokes was born in New Zealand but moved to England as a child when his father Gerard, a former rugby league international, took a coaching role. Both his parents have since moved back to Christchurch, the Canterbury region's main city.

The ECB emphasised that Stokes was on a private trip that had not been set up by the organisation. "His travel arrangements have not been arranged by the ECB," it said in a statement.

"He is not on his way to the Ashes, England Lions or any other official training camps with the England set-up." The Ashes resumes on Saturday when the day-night second Test starts in Adelaide. - AFP