BRISTOL, United Kingdom (AFP) - Ben Stokes will join the England cricket squad in New Zealand after the star all-rounder pleaded not guilty on Tuesday (Feb 13) to a charge of affray over a nightclub incident that forced him out of the Ashes tour.
The 26-year-old appeared at Bristol Magistrates' Court in the south-west of England along with two other men and will next appear at Bristol Crown Court on March 12.
The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) issued a statement shortly after Stokes's first court appearance confirming his travel plans but he is not expected to make an immediate return after nearly five months out of the side.
"Having entered his plea at Bristol Magistrates' Court today, Ben Stokes will now travel to New Zealand to join the England squad," said an ECB spokesman.
"He departs tomorrow, Wednesday 14 February, and will arrive on Friday 16 February, ready to train with England team-mates in Hamilton."
The statement said any decision to include him in upcoming matches would be made by the England management team. He is not currently being considered for the ongoing International Twenty20 tri-series against New Zealand and Australia.
England start a five-match one-day international series against New Zealand on Feb 25, followed by two Tests.
"(The) ECB fully respects his right to defend himself in court and any obligations he has within the legal process will always take precedence over England commitments," added the statement.
Stokes, who missed England's 4-0 Ashes drubbing after being suspended from playing, appeared at the court in Bristol along with Ryan Ali and Ryan Hale.
Tuesday's court appearance follows the altercation during the early hours of Sept 25 last year (2017), several hours after England had played a one-day international against the West Indies in the city.
It is alleged a 27-year-old man suffered a fractured eye socket in the incident, at which fellow England cricketer Alex Hales was also present. Hales faced no charges.
Ali, Stokes and Hale spoke to confirm their names, dates of births, addresses and nationalities. The clerk read out the charges and all three defendants indicated "not guilty" pleas.
Stokes is accused jointly with Ali and Hale of using or threatening unlawful violence towards another.
The charge states that his "conduct was such as would cause a person of reasonable firmness present at the scene to fear for his personal safety". The other two defendants face the same charge.
All three defendants elected to be tried by a jury at a crown court, with the offence carrying a maximum penalty of up to three years in prison.
"I have decided that your trial will take place at the crown court at Bristol. The first hearing date will be March 12," said District Judge Simon Cooper. "You will be on bail."
In a statement posted on Twitter last month after he was charged, Stokes said he was "keen to have an opportunity to clear my name".
While England were in Australia, Stokes played a few games for Canterbury Kings during a month-long spell in New Zealand before returning home to England.
He is due to play in the Indian Premier League after being sold for £1.4 million (S$2.57 million) to the Rajasthan Royals.