AN INTERNATIONAL cricket pro due to play for Church and Oswaldtwistle this season was stripped to his underwear during a "horrendous" airport visa ordeal – and refused entry to the country.
Kiwi Luke Woodcock, 27, who has played in the UK for the past six years, was all geared up to start as the Lancashire League club’s paid man when disaster struck.
After flying halfway around the globe, he was held in a cell for hours at Heathrow Airport due to complications surrounding his visa.
Luke, who has played for his country’s A team, was then put on the next flight back to his native New Zealand.
Five weeks into the season, slow left armer Luke is yet to set foot in Hyndburn, but he still hopes to come and is looking forward to the chance to meet up with new teammates and club officials.
Luke told the Observer: "There were problems at Heathrow but I couldn’t do too much about it.
"I am still waiting in New Zealand on my visa so I can return to the UK. It has not been an ideal situation so I hope some good news finally comes of it any day soon."
Church and Oswaldtwistle Cricket Club chairman Don Holt said he was dumbfounded by what had happened; he understood Luke’s visa had been approved by authorities in his home country prior to boarding his flight to the UK last month.
"He went through a horrendous ordeal," said Don. "I think it’s all been handled terribly. He was stripped of all his belongings down to his underwear. It must have been terrifying for him.
"What a welcome to England – he only came to play cricket."
Don said Luke, who spent last summer at Sunbury Cricket Club in Surrey, told him he had been made to feel like a criminal, adding: "If I was him I wouldn’t want to come back now. The fact he still does shows how strong he is.
"He said he’d never been treated like that before in his life.
"He told me one minute he was in a cell – the next thing I knew he was being escorted immediately back to New Zealand. We thought everything was good, but his visa clearly wasn’t."
After paying £1,130 for Luke’s original return flight, the cricket club now faces having to pay again to get him back to Hyndburn, where a house and car also await him.
"We’re not a wealthy club," said Don. "It’s going to cost £2,000 overall just to get him here. It’s so frustrating because the chap has been here six years running before this."
Assistant secretary of the club, Jack Houldsworth, said: "He was distraught. Is there really likely to be a threat to national security from a first-class cricketer coming to play cricket?"
A UK Border Agency spokesman said he was unable to comment on individual cases, but emphasised that new visa rules were tough and had been communicated thoroughly to foreign sportsmen.
He added: "We’ve also worked closely with sport governing bodies, including the England and Wales Cricket Board, to communicate these changes."
Bosses at Church and Oswaldtwistle are determined that Luke will return soon. Don said: "We are standing by him and hope Luke will be with us for our second round cup game on 6 June.
"We’ve notified local MPs and still can’t believe what’s happened."
The Lancashire League has always been a big draw for international cricketers. West Indies star Viv Richards famously landed at Rishton Cricket Club in a helicopter in 1987. Other big names include Michael Holding and Charlie Griffiths.