Joshua Peck wonders whether a record-breaking batsman may have allowed rivals to usurp his place in the international side
Andrew Flintoff, James Taylor, Craig Kieswetter. All brilliant players for England that had their career, at international level at least, ended by illness or injury. Could Alex Hales’ name be the next one added to this list?
Okay, we all knew of Flintoff’s unfortunate run of knee injuries that severely limited his appearances, and indeed, impact, while Taylor’s heart condition was one of the worst cricket-ing stories of 2016. We all thought Kieswetter would return, but after being smashed in the face by a cricket ball in 2014, there really was no return.
Hales’ story is really quite different and he’s definitely going to hold a bat again. But having not toured Bangladesh due to a self-imposed exile, a fractured hand has cost him his place in the England set-up for the foreseeable future.
Some may see it as harsh to say Hales’ days as an England player are numbered, if not completely over, but the Nottinghamshire batsman has hardly excelled this winter (when he has made himself available).
Still to hit a century in his 11 Test matches, despite passing 50 five times, he didn’t play a single five-day game this winter. His Bangladesh exile opened the door for Ben Duckett, and when the selectors decided he wasn’t up to the task of India, Lancashire rookie Haseeb Hameed was handed his spot.
And even when Hameed was sent home with an injury – another batsman with a fracture to their hand, this time the finger – another young player was handed his debut in Keaton Jennings.
Both Jennings and Hameed performed well in the gap that was originally left by Hales, and one of that duo will surely take an opening spot when England host South Africa at Lord’s in the first Test of the summer in early July.
There may still be another space to fill as opener with the future of skipper Alastair Cook uncertain, even now, but would Hales, at 28, provide the experienced head that is surely needed with one of the young prospects?
Of course, it’s not just the opening spot that could be Hales’ saving grace. He plans to move to either three or four in the batting order for what will now be Division Two Notts, with the hope of filling another space that England never seem sure of in Tests at No.5.
Hales himself recently told the Daily Mail: “Some people will say it’s a move triggered by failure, and in a way I accept that might be what it looks like.
“But it has been on my mind a while now and I just didn’t want to look back at the end of my career in my mid-30s, thinking, ‘why didn’t I do what I wanted to do, to give myself the best chance to succeed?’”
Even in the one-day arena, where Hales and Jason Roy have formed a formidable partnership in both T20I and ODIs, Hales is surely in trouble. He broke Robin Smith’s 23-year-old record last summer by smashing 171 against Pakistan, but that doesn’t mean his place in the line-up for this summer’s Champions Trophy is secure.
Both Jonny Bairstow and Sam Billings have been on the periphery of the Three Lions limited-overs team, but Billings, in particular, is making loud noises. Never given a prolonged run in the side, the Kent batsman is impressing at the top of the order in Hales’ absence. As long as injury doesn’t strike, he’s now likely to have at least five more chances in the line-up in the Caribbean.
A 35 in his only ODI against India and starts in the first two T20s might cause the same frustration that is often felt with Hales, and Billings himself knows that he needs to go on if he wants to apply the pressure on Hales even more.
Billings, 25, said: “From a personal point of view, it’s just a matter of actually converting these starts into substantial scores. I’ve shown frustrating glimpses of what I can do and then kind of managed to run past one, and then york myself.
“It’s incredibly healthy to have competition in the side and personally it’s hard not to think about the future. I keep on telling myself to take it a game at a time.
“If you look at the England side, it is so competitive so if you don’t play then someone else will get the opportunity. I got my chance in Bangladesh and I probably wouldn’t be on this tour now if I hadn’t gone.”
Billings’ inventive shots and power with the bat has everyone astonished, but just as good is his fielding. A wicketkeeper by trade, he’s equally as able without the gloves, leaving Jos Buttler to remain in the side as a power-hitter and keeper.
Fielding is becoming more and more important in the current age, with games, especially T20s, coming down to just one or two runs. If the powers-that-be class Billings as a better fielder than Hales, then the writing really is on the wall for the Notts man.
Billings added: “That’s initially why I got in the Kent team. It was between Daniel Bell-Drummond and me back before that first year and my fielding tipped the balance.
“Trev (Bayliss) absolutely loves his fielding and prides himself, and us as a side, on that. We price it so high that it can be the difference between us and a lot of sides around the world. There shouldn’t be a side that outfields us.”
So the pressure is certainly on Hales to perform with Notts, but don’t be surprised if you never see him wear the Three Lions again.
This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, February 3 2017
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