Stokes struggles to fire

Ben Stokes bowls for Canterbury against Auckland yesterday. Photo: Getty Images
Ben Stokes bowls for Canterbury against Auckland yesterday. Photo: Getty Images
With the Kingsland train regularly whizzing past and the undersized Mobil petrol station completing the humble backdrop, Eden Park Outer Oval is a world away from the drama and intrigue of the Adelaide Oval.

And as Ben Stokes trudged from the sun-baked field, head bowed while he hit the rope with his bat on the slow walk back to Canterbury's tent after being dismissed for 34 off 41, the suspended English all-rounder's struggles looked to rest heavily on his broad shoulders.

It was a similar theme with the ball. Stokes' body language hardly improved after opening the second innings. After some brief success sedating Colin Munro, the brutal Black Caps batsman unleashed to hit Stokes for three boundaries in one over en route to an unbeaten, match-winning 174 off 118. Munro recorded Auckland's highest one-day score, blasting six sixes and taking full advantage of the miniature venue.

Munro let Stokes know about it too; the pair kicking off a verbal spat, with the umpire telling them to cool it.

Stokes' frustrations stem not just from failing to reach performance expectations, but also from his state of limbo.

The England vice-captain should not be here, playing in-front of 100-odd people on a typically laid back Kiwi summer afternoon. Not when the engrossing Ashes is in full swing.

Ironically both matches, this a low-key 50 over encounter Auckland won by seven wickets, charged gold coin entry. And yet with the second Ashes test in its fifth day (yesterday), the contrasting fixtures could not have been further apart in significance and prestige.

Stokes' role in a Bristol street brawl in late September landed him in this bizarre situation – returning to Christchurch, his city of birth, to rebuild his confidence and career while prosecutors decide whether to press charges, leaving his English counterparts in an Ashes hole.

Strangely, Canterbury are more than willing to ignore the ongoing controversy. Innocent until proven guilty, of course. But that alone was enough for Stokes to lose a $200,000 bat sponsorship deal.

Opinion of his involvement in the incident and subsequent punishment, even among England supporters who came to watch Stokes on Wednesday, continues to be divided.

"If you take cricket out of the equation and look at what he has actually done… if you did that in any other line of work you'd probably be sacked," Oxford-raised Andy Stock said.

"So the fact he's got a chance of playing in the Ashes is questionable, but at the same time I want to see him play. He's probably our most important player; he can bat, bowl, field. He brings so much to the team."

Matthew Sansome, hailing from Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, donned his England shirt alongside three Kiwi mates under an umbrella. Stokes' value as an extra seam option was enough to convince the Auckland Grammar Year 12 student he had to be included.

"The England Cricket Board made their mind up with the punishment but should we lose the second test, they have to call him up for Perth," he said.

"It won't look good for the game – in terms of public image England will probably take a hit but in terms of trying to win the test match England stand a much better chance with Stokes than they do without him.

"With Ben Stokes you know he can change a game. My worry for him would be coming off what he has he's going to get sledged by not just the players but the crowd as well. Can he be mentally strong enough to block all that out?"

Stokes' knock here which featured four boundaries and lasted 11 overs represented an improvement on his first outing in Rangiora on Sunday, when he also came in at No 4 and made two from seven balls.

Rust was again evident in this, his second appearance since September. So, too, his effortless, game-changing power. With one blow, Stokes left Mitchell McClenaghan no chance despite the former Black Caps left-armer needing to cover all of 10 metres at long off.

But in between Stokes was scratchy, and his disappointing dismissal, trapped LBW while attempting to sweep a full delivery from legspinner Tarun Nethula when set, perhaps summed up his headspace.

Stokes claimed one outfield catch, and finished with 0-39 from seven overs, on the back of 0-49 from nine last weekend.

On a flat surface he largely bowled back-of-length and struggled for rhythm, overstepping once. McClenaghan's 4-41 and 1-30 from Black Caps quick Lockie Ferguson easily upstaged the 26-year-old Englishman.

Not a cloud in the sky, but clearly a few still lingering over this world-class cricketer.

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