Richard Edwards talks to opener Alex Hales about his determination to play for England in all three formats of the game
Alex Hales appeared understandably keen to make up for lost time when he walked out to the crease for the first time this season on Sunday morning. The way he started his breezy first innings against Yorkshire in the Trent Bridge chill hinted at something more substantial than the 36 from 53 balls he eventually scored.
His critics will suggest that that’s merely par for the course for one of the country’s most destructive one-day batsman. His supporters, meanwhile, will claim that his aggressive approach is exactly what England need alongside Alastair Cook at the top of the order.
He’s a man who divides opinions but what’s clear is that Hales – who flattered to deceive as Cook’s opening partner on England’s tour of South Africa, scoring 136 runs at just 17 – faces a nervous few weeks before the first Test squad of the summer is announced.
A certain selection in one-day and Twenty20 cricket – and despite sitting out Nottinghamshire’s first two Championship matches of the season – this summer could provide Hales with a golden opportunity to seize his place across all three formats.
It’s one he’s determined to grab with both hands.
“On a personal level my aim is to get to the end of the season with all three spots nailed down as mine,” he says. “If that doesn’t happen I would like to look back and know I gave it everything to make it happen.
“I’m confident that if I work hard and do all the right things in practice then I can take that into the games.My biggest aim is to nail down that Test spot.”
Such are the demands of the modern player that a change of mindset as well as technique is required to ensure that form in the longer formats is transferred to the 50 and 20 over game and vice versa.
Hales admits that this is something he has perhaps struggled with in the past but hopes his experience in South Africa was a crucial step in addressing that aspect of his game.
“Probably the thing I’ve found toughest in the past 12 months is staying on top of all three formats,” says Hales. “Three or four years ago when Twenty20 cricket was going really well I struggled in four-day cricket. I made a really conscious effort to improve my four-day game and that probably led to a slight drop in my T20 standards.
“Managing all three is something I’ve got better at in the past three years but if you look around the world there aren’t too many people who open in all three formats. You’ve got David Warner who does it at a world class level but there aren’t too many others.
“It’s a really tough thing to do but it’s a challenge I’m really looking forward to. In Test cricket it’s up to me just to be even more on my game at the start of my innings. I probably need even more concentration and even more application in the first session of a game.”
If Hales is handed the opportunity to add to those four caps from South Africa, he’ll be part of one of the most exciting England line-ups in recent history – providing a powerful foil for the more circumspect Cook before additional fireworks are delivered by the likes of Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow.
With the whole-hearted backing of Trevor Bayliss, who has transformed the team’s approach across all forms of the game since taking over last summer, the fear which cloaked so much of England’s batting in recent seasons has vanished.
Nowhere was this better demonstrated than at Cape Town in the New Year. With Hales contributing a well-crafted 60 at the top of the innings – runs scored off a relatively sedate 140 balls – Stokes and Bairstow came together with the scoreboard reading 223-5 after 67 overs.
By the time Stokes had been dismissed for 258 just 57 overs later, that scoreboard was almost worn out.
“It’s not dull in all three formats, is it!” says Hales. “We’ve come a long way since the 50 over World Cup last year.
“There are guys there who haven’t reached their peak in their career yet either. There were so many players in that T20 World Cup who have so much more to offer English cricket in the future. I think the next five to ten years are going to be very, very exciting for all of us.”
One player who will, of course, be absent from this exciting new era is James Taylor, who was forced to retire with a heart condition last month. That news came as a devastating blow to the whole of English cricket, but at Trent Bridge, Taylor’s shock announcement was felt even more keenly.
“It was a huge shock to us,” says Hales. “I didn’t believe it, but at the same time he’s blessed with his life.
“Health is wealth at the end of the day. It was obviously a big gutting loss for England and Nottinghamshire and I can honestly say he’s probably the hardest working player across all three forms that I’ve ever played with.
“I’ve been to see him a few times and he’s in pretty good spirits and is coping with it really well. It just shows that cricket is just a game and there’s more to life.”
For a man who came to the game late keeping a sense of perspective has never been an issue for the 27-year-old Hales. Keeping his head after getting a start across all four Tests in South Africa proved rather more of an issue.
The one-day series against South Africa did, though, show just how far Hales has come. Scores of 57, 99, 65, 50 and 112 displayed a remarkable level of consistency. His century in Cape Town, while wickets were tumbling around him, showed the kind of maturity that England will demand more of should he retain his Test slot.
An extended break after the Twenty20 World Cup has already left him playing catch-up. It’s now up to Hales to show he’s up for cricket’s marathon as well as its sprint.
This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, Friday May 6 2016