“In terms of what that looks like, practically, it’s human nature, it’s about developing trust. I don’t think you can put a time limit on gaining back that trust, and that’s not just with me, that’s with every member of the squad, the backroom staff, the selectors. And that does take time. It’s actually not that long ago that it happened. What happened was actually quite considerably harmful to the environment, which obviously led to the breakdown in trust between Alex and our players, so to say how long that will take to regain… we don’t know, but certainly the door is still open for that trust to be built back up.”
Got it? In case you missed it, that was Eoin Morgan speaking earlier this month about the possibility of Alex Hales winning his England place back. It’s a pretty simple task, Alex: you just need to win back the trust of everyone who wears an ECB tracksuit (although we can’t tell you how long it will take, or how to do it, and you can’t spend any time with them either since you’re not in the squad) and then stroll through a still-open-but-seemingly-also-closed door – Schrödinger’s recall, if you will – and into the team. Easy!
The facts of the saga are these. Hales was ‘de-selected’ from England’s World Cup squad a matter of weeks before the tournament last year, after a story in the Guardian revealed that he had breached the ECB’s recreational drugs policy for a second time. Morgan accused Hales of showing a “complete disregard” for his team-mates, and then led England to the trophy. Hales has been paid handsomely for his services on the T20 circuit, and has been the format’s leading run-scorer worldwide since his axing, but has not played international cricket since.
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In a pre-pandemic world, Hales’ season would start next Friday night, with Nottinghamshire’s T20 Blast opener. No doubt, he would be as destructive in that competition as usual, but with England ramping up their planning for October’s World Cup, there would be little chance of him winning a recall at such a late stage. Barring a catastrophic showing in Australia, England would then stick with the same core ahead of the 2021 tournament in India, leaving Hales out in the cold, and by the time a new cycle started the following summer, he would be a 33-year-old journeyman competing against Next Big Things like Tom Banton, Phil Salt and Dan Lawrence.
Instead, things look very different: for a start, October’s World Cup seems increasingly unlikely to go ahead. England are set to name two enlarged squads – one for Test cricket, the other for limited-overs games – next week, with three ODIs against Ireland and three T20Is against Pakistan the white-ball fixtures most likely to be played. And the result is that there will never be a better opportunity to bring Hales back than now.
Solely from a cricketing perspective, picking Hales is a no-brainer. In 50-over cricket, Hales is the best batsman outside of England’s World Cup top six, and with respect to Dawid Malan and Joe Denly, England have a hole to plug in their T20 line-up. Debates about batting order can wait for another day, but it is worth remembering that Hales’ two T20I innings at No. 4 have brought scores of 49 and 58 not out. On sporting merit alone, he would walk into the T20 team – not least with resources stretched by the need to pick two squads.
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Instead, the rationale behind Hales’ continued exclusion appears to be based in some notion of character. Of course, it is worth remembering just how poorly timed his indiscretion was: the news broke almost exactly a month before the tournament opener against South Africa as England met for a training camp in Cardiff, and threatened to derail the work that had been done over the past four years.
What’s more, Hales was effectively on a final warning after his involvement in the Bristol saga 18 months before. And unlike Ben Stokes, who has made efforts to demonstrate his remorse and his self-improvement, a public mea culpa from Hales has not been forthcoming.
But there is also a sense that Hales’ continued absence doesn’t quite add up. For a start, when the ECB updated its recreational drugs policy ahead of the 2020 season – which a spokesperson said would take into account “the important consideration of player welfare” – it quietly dropped the unexplained 21-day ban that ultimately caused Hales to be ditched. Without the ban, and Nottinghamshire’s euphemistic explanation that he had been left out of their squad due to “personal reasons”, it seems unlikely that the press pack would have dug up the story; and Ashley Giles, England men’s managing director, has accepted that if the story had not been broken, Hales would have been in the World Cup squad.
Any recreational drugs policy needs to strike a balance between meaningful sanctions and player welfare. But in the case of Hales, the most high-profile offender, it seems the scales have been weighted differently. It is worth spelling out that under the new regulations, any England player could fail two hair follicle tests without Morgan ever finding out. So just how solid is that concept of ‘trust’?
The upshot is that the will-he-won’t-he rigmarole around Hales is completely avoidable. If the damage done was terminal, then a line (no pun intended) can be drawn underneath it, leaving Hales to continue to star for T20 teams around the world and England to look to the future. If there is a serious will to bring him back, then this is the perfect chance to kickstart a Kevin Pietersen-style reintegration process. If it means a stage-managed press conference in which Hales has to make an awkward public apology, so be it: surely he would be willing to swallow his pride if it meant another three years as an international player?
Hales claimed in a Daily Mail interview this month that he has “matured as a player and away from the game”. How better to prove it than with several weeks in close proximity to the team management in the bio-secure bubble with the on-site hotel at Old Trafford or the Ageas Bowl? There’s no room for indiscretions when you’re stuck in a ‘contact cluster’ for the best part of a month.
If not, with two T20 World Cups coming up in quick succession (even if they are pushed back a year), England will be without one of their best-ever white-ball batsmen when he should be at the peak of his powers. There has never been a better time for a bit of perspective.
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