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'Loose cannon' Coles aiming to go straight

Matt Coles has rejoined his home county Kent Ady Kerry, AK Pictures

There is one fact that the casual cricket follower knows about Matt Coles. He was the one sent home from the England Lions tour to Australia in 2013 with Ben Stokes for persistent late-night drinking. Stokes is now seen by many as the aggressive allrounder England need. Coles, designed along similar lines, remains a man striving for a new image - and new headlines.

Since England made their displeasure clear, Stokes has a defiant Ashes hundred to his name and mention of his World Cup omission sends many incandescent. As for Coles, an attempt to refashion his career at Hampshire has not worked out and he has returned after only one season to his native county, Kent, in search of the environment that will allow his considerable talents to flourish.

He has since seen Stokes change perceptions and he wants to use his sudden return to Kent do the same. "I know people are saying there's got to be something else to it," says Coles, speaking about his career for the first time since rejoining Kent. "But there isn't. I can assure you right now I haven't got a drinking problem."

Andy Flower, at that time England's team director and a stickler for behaviour, was the man who pulled the trigger to send him home two years ago. There was a certain irony therefore that on the day Coles spoke to ESPNcricinfo about a reputation he is determined to banish, Flower was at Kent to talk over the county's latest prospects: Sam Billings and Adam Riley.

Just six months ago, Coles had a new career path planned. He had determinedly left the county that nurtured him since he was 10 to help bowl Hampshire to promotion.

Except soon after the champagne toast, the experience fell flat. Just a year into his three-year deal, Coles' Hampshire career was over. A cryptic club statement said the 24-year-old had not "settled as he, or we, would have liked". The terseness of the explanation set tongues wagging. It was drink again, the know-it-alls presumed. Except it wasn't.

"If I was drinking every day then fair enough," he says. "I wouldn't be pitching up to a game, I'd be too busy in bed. How can someone perceive me as having a drinking problem when you don't do it every day?"

If Coles is determined to promote a cleaner image, Kent's protective instincts are equally sharp. Rob Key, Kent's captain and a close friend, is thrilled by his return, adamant that Coles retains England potential and that his cricketing skills can be central to a promotion push.

But the traps are apparent from the moment that Coles drives back into Kent's Spitfire Ground St Lawrence. The place is named after the Spitfire ale, a product of the club sponsors, Shepherd Neame. It's probably best, given any tags on Coles' head, for one potent local brew to stay away from another.

"I know I've done wrong in the past but there's no reason why that should still be put above my name now. I want to prove to a lot of people that this perception is not real life" Matt Coles

The dangers continue. Coles was the first of the players to have their photo taken for promotional posters in Kent's new strip, with Spitfire emblazoned on it. Some of the staff had to pose with bottles of the stuff too. Wisely, Darren Stevens was given the nod for that.

It would be easy for Coles to shy away from the most searching questions. Impressively , he doesn't. He faces them head on. He bats them away with purpose. The same purpose that saw him reach his maiden first-class century in 2012 with a reverse-sweep for six off Adil Rashid.

"I don't think anyone has ever faulted my cricket. I think they've faulted the perception that people have got of me. It's frustrating when people pigeonhole you that you go and drink every day - I don't. I know I've done things wrong in the past but there's no reason why that should still be put above my name now."

For those needing a reason for Coles' abrupt about turn, try homesickness. The issue, Coles says, was leaving his hometown of Maidstone. He describes himself as "a family man". Deciding in 2013 to say goodbye to loved ones was hard. Living without them every day was harder. He talks only fondly of Hampshire and the support they gave him.

"I'd been struggling missing my family and friends. The only people round me were cricketers, 24/7. The stress of that has been quite tough. I'd been thinking from the end of the season that there was now a chance to prove myself in the top division. I wasn't thinking I would be on my way.

"But you need your escapes. Down here, I've got my shooting with Keysie, my fishing with my brother, I can go and see my nephews, I can go for dinner with my mates. You can be a little bit more relaxed. My friends back home don't care that I play cricket. They like me to be their mate and be around them. Being away from these people was tough."

Coles took 41 wickets in Hampshire's Division Two title win. Only James Tomlinson returned more. He struck the county's quickest 50, off 18 balls, against Essex in the T20 Blast. Here was the reason why Key pushed so hard for Kent - frustrated by Coles' departure first time around - to bring him back.

The pair are good pals. Coles' face lights up when he mentions they've been clay pigeon shooting twice since he's been back. The skipper has got Coles working hard as well - helping the builders on his house. "I've been Rob Key's personal labourer and skivvy," he joked. "I'm not sure if he's going to give me any money!"

Key has 18 years of experience in county cricket behind him, and an active mind outside the game. Coles could ask for no better mentor. And if they ever raise a glass after a job well done, they should feel able to take pleasure in it.

Coles admits he has made mistakes. He describes being sent from that Lions tour as "upsetting". He concedes it weighed him down in 2013, that he bottled his emotions up and that has led to stress that could have affected him in Hampshire. But Stokes turned around, and so can he.

"Ben was the young player of the year that year - it shows that perceptions can be changed," he says. "That's my aim: to show that the perception that people may or may not have of me is wrong. To show I can get back to where I should be. That motivates me. It's frustrating when people perceive you're doing things the wrong way.

"I don't think I'm hard to manage, coach or captain. I just like people being honest and I'll be honest back. I try to give as much as I can on the pitch, which is what I've always done and always will do. The only way to stop me playing cricket is if my arm or leg falls off.

"People will be thinking 'he's a loose cannon, he does all this and that'. I'll have people criticising me for all sorts of little things. It's how people are perceived and it's not how I am. I know I've done wrong in the past but there's no reason why that should still be put above my name now. I want to prove to a lot of people that this perception is not real life."