TIME RUNNING OUT FOR HALES
Can Hales string a few scores together, given an extended run? © Getty
Through squad depth and his own misdemeanours, it seems Alex Hales is destined to walk around with a target on his back. Weirdly, it’s one he wears “well”. He has never been the sort to care what others make of his manner or work ethic, comfortable in the knowledge that he knows best.
It is a trait that has countless examples, the most amusing of which transpired when he was fielding on the boundary for his county, Nottinghamshire, in a four-day game against Sussex. The members of the Notts side felt that the amount of time he spent with his hands in his pockets was indicative of a lazy approach and, disgruntled, made a complaint to his coach, Mick Newell. Newell, however, allayed their worries by assuring them that the opener’s hands were concealed for a reason – he had hand-warmers in his pockets.
Hales, though, having caught wind of this exchange, was irritated his “behaviour” was called into question for something so trivial. So, the next time he fielded in front of those fans, he put his hands into his pockets once more, only to then turn them inside-out and reveal that they were empty. The complaints came back louder while Hales smirked on.
That smirk was missing on Saturday: Hales, offered the chance in the XI because of Jonny Bairstow‘s sprained ankle, could only muster 12 from 23 balls. All told, he looked pretty good – as good as you can look for 12 – only to be stumped on the outside edge by Akila Dananjaya‘s doosra.
It was a decent ball. The pitch had just started to grip. Runs took a bit of work. Hales, for the most part, looked to have settled on a steady gameplan of playing inside-out through the covers and, at times, working the ball against the spin to find singles. Again, it was only 12, but he did not look like a batsman whose last competitive innings came in a Twenty20 on August 26. But none of them will be remembered beyond this match.
Since his part in the infamous September 2017 night in Bristol, Hales has played second fiddle to both Jonny Bairstow and Jason Roy. The incumbent pair have gone on to set records as openers, dovetailing brilliantly to emerge as the bedrock of the many great things this ODI side have achieved this year.
Hales, to be fair, has played a role in some of these moments, too; most notably his glitzy 147 off 92 balls in the Trent Bridge ODI which saw England post 481 for six on their way to inflicting Australia’s heaviest ODI defeat (by 242 runs). Yet, when the India series came around and England had a full deck to choose from, he was back on the bench.
Therein lies the quandary for Hales. Big runs matter less in this squad and only serve as a reason to keep you around. But false starts put him further back. Another blemish on his copybook. Another reason to distrust.
What doesn’t help his cause is his fielding. He has one of the more unreliable hands in a side packed full of exceptional fielders. Another drop today nearly cost England dearly. Having misjudged how much room there was between him and the boundary, he spilled a chance off Dasun Shanaka over the rope for six when the all-rounder had just 25. He went on to finish with 66 to push Sri Lanka to what looked a tricky total of 273.
It would be over-egging the point to say Hales’s position as a spare batsman is under threat considering his body of work to date as an opener, coupled with how important fast starts are for this side. But with Sam Billings and James Vince not only highly rated but also more diverse in their ability to bat in the middle order, as well as up top, these are the sorts of opportunities he simply has to take.
That is especially the case now he is not playing first-class cricket. Behind the scenes, some at the ECB are concerned that shying away from the red ball will lead to Hales stagnating and developing a degree of ring-rust over the course of next summer. Should he nab a last-minute deal at the Big Bash League, his winter’s work could be as full on as the summer months. Even so, it is his performances in the England shirt that will really count to those that matter. And it will be those performances that will keep the critics at bay.