After the high of England’s record ODI innings last summer, Alex Hales has had a disrupted 2016-17 season © Getty Images
A period out of international cricket has given Alex Hales time to “realise what he has been missing” according to England’s assistant coach, Paul Farbrace.
Hales, who has now been added to the England squad for the final ODI against West Indies, has endured a frustrating winter. Dropped from the Test side, he opted out of the limited-overs tour of Bangladesh due to security concerns and then sustained a hand injury while fielding in India that limited him to only two ODIs and originally ruled him out of selection for the squad for this Caribbean tour. It means he has had just two international innings (and scored just 23 international runs) since October.
But now, with his hand recovered, he is on the brink of a return. While Sam Billings has shown glimpses of what he can do Hales, the holder of England’s highest ODI score of 171 made against Pakistan last year, clearly remains the team management’s first choice opening partner for Jason Roy and looks set to return to the team for the final ODI of the series against West Indies in Barbados on Friday.
“We see him as our opening batsman, with Jason Roy, in the Champions Trophy,” Farbrace said. “I don’t think that will be a surprise to anybody. Having got him back into the squad it would suggest that he has a very good chance of playing on Thursday.
“As a bloke, not going to Bangladesh has given him a lot of time to think where he wants to be. I don’t want to use the word mature necessarily, but I think he has learned a lot from not going to Bangladesh. I think we saw a very different Alex Hales in India and again here we see him every morning in the gym at 6am, working extremely hard, practising well and trying to get himself into the best place he can be.
“I don’t think it was ever a case of doubting his professionalism. I just think that sometimes when you are out of the team you realise what you are missing and want it even more. That is something he is showing in abundance.”
Hales has not given up on a return to the Test team, either. But, as far as Farbrace is concerned, he has accepted that it won’t be as opening batsman.
“He’s said he’s going to bat four for Notts in the Championship this year,” Farbrace said. “And he sees himself getting back into the Test side in the middle order, rather than the top order. Once you go to No. 4 in county cricket you’re pretty much saying you’re not expecting to be playing in the top three for England in Test cricket.
“Fifty-over cricket suits Alex’s game. He isn’t the hard-hitting trailblazer that maybe Jason Roy is. He is someone who knocks it around. He can score quickly but generally he is an accumulator.”
Hales’ return is likely to be bad news for Billings, though there may be some consolation. While Farbrace suggested Billings is not in England’s first choice XI – though it does have to be said that Farbrace is not, officially, a selector – his personal view is that he has become England’s second-choice ODI keeper.
“It is tough for Billings and Jonny Bairstow,” Farbrace agreed. “Trevor Bayliss spoke to them in India and they both feel they should be playing. But Trevor’s point was that some people are not even in the squad, such as Ben Duckett, and it’s much better to be in that situation where you are leaving out good players.
“There’s not a lot we can do. There’s not a lot you can say. There’s no point keep going up to them and saying, ‘Bad luck.’ All you can say is: there’s your chance, now go out and take it.
“That’s why Sam will have been really disappointed have got 50 and got out in the first ODI in Antigua. It was a bit like Jonny Bairstow in the warm-up game in St Kitts: he scored 80, but was out needing 50 or 60 to win. If he’d made 120 or 130 not out and won the game, then he would have been making a real statement. If you get out and you leave the job half done, no matter how well you’ve played, there’s always a feeling of frustration as a player.
“Billings could bat anywhere from one to seven, but with Joe Root, Eoin Morgan, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler… where are you getting in there?
“The Ireland games at the start of May will be opportunities for one or two who aren’t regulars to get a go. Personally, I would like to see Sam Billings getting the opportunity to keep wicket in those two games. But I’m not a selector and whether or not that decision has been taken I don’t know.”
With England having taken an unassailable 2-0 lead in the series, there might have been a temptation to change the team in order to take a look at other players before the 15-man ICC Champions Trophy squad is named. However, Farbrace reasons that, with six ODIs to go before the tournament, now is not the time to be experimenting or risking denting the confidence of a player who might not be in the best of form.
The clear message from that is Buttler and Adil Rashid – whose job, Farbrace said, was to take wickets and not worry about runs (“4 for 80 is fine,” he said) – can relax and be assured they are in the first choice side for the Champions Trophy.
“I don’t see that there will be too many changes,” Farbrace, who said he was communicating with head coach Bayliss every day by email or text, said. “Over the past two years in ODI cricket, once we’ve picked a team at the start of the series we’ve pretty much stuck with it. The lads have known that if you haven’t got in in the first game, it’s going to be pretty hard to get in as the series unfolds. You don’t want to give away international caps.
“Jake Ball is pretty much back to full fitness and will play a full part in practice on Wednesday. But the longer the series has gone, the better Steven Finn has bowled and I can’t see many of them wanting to give up their spot to give somebody else a go. I reckon we’ve got 21 players who could easily be in the Champions Trophy squad.”
Among them is Mark Wood. But while Farbrace, who said he had a first choice 12 in his mind ahead of the tournament, said he would “have to bowl well to get himself back in” he also admitted that his “extra pace” rendered him someone England “definitely want” in their squad.
“Chris Woakes was on the fringe 12 months ago,” Farbrace said. “But he’s made himself into an automatic selection. David Willey brings variety and Liam Plunkett, has been really impressive.
“Wood needs to get overs under his belt and get his confidence back. He has been bowling in Potchefstroom and was a bit sore afterwards, but he has been bowling in the tent at The Oval recently. He’s someone who gives you that extra pace and is someone you definitely want in your 15-man squad. But any big decisions will be up to Morgan and Bayliss.”
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo. He will be covering England’s tour of the Caribbean in association with Smile Group Travel, specialists in hosted supporters’ packages.
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo