Cricket Nerd: Based on cricketing reasons, Alex Hales should be in England's T20 team - sign up for our free newsletter here

Tim Wigmore
The Telegraph
Alex Hales: one of England's most in-demand T20 players - except by the national team
Alex Hales: one of England's most in-demand T20 players - except by the national team

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What’s the best ever Twenty20 innings played for England? Unlike in Test cricket, such debates are seldom had. But when it comes to the pantheon of England’s T20 innings, all debates should begin and end in Chittagong in March 2014.

Weighed down by injuries, the fallout of the 5-0 Ashes humiliation in Australia and an unfortunate opening defeat to New Zealand on the DLS method, England were enduring one of those World Cup campaigns. Sri Lanka, their opponents in their second group game in Bangladesh, were rightly ranked the top team in the world, en route to winning the competition. England’s motley band had shelled four catches in Sri Lanka’s 189-4, and then subsided to 0-2 after one over of their daunting chase. Sri Lanka had an attack perfectly tailored to Bangladeshi conditions, combining new ball swing with Lasith Malinga’s yorkers and mystery spin from Ajantha Mendis and Sachithra Senanayake.

At which point this familiar script was inverted. Alex Hales, nonplussed at the non-striker’s end during the first over of carnage, promptly drove his first two balls for four, and then went about the business of building a partnership with Eoin Morgan. Even with a required rate exceeding 12 an over for the last 11 overs, Hales remained calm, reasoning that he could target bowlers who struggled to grip the wet ball in the Chittagong dew. When Mendis returned for the 15th over, Hales promptly heaved three leg side sixes in four balls. Then, with Morgan dismissed and glimpses of English panic, Hales dispatched Nuwan Kulasekara for consecutive sixes in the 19th over, to reach England’s maiden T20 century. The miracle was, aptly, sealed with a six, when Hales lofted Angelo Matthews into the leg side with four balls to spare. His wonderful 116 not out that sweltering evening remains the top ever England score in T20 internationals.

And yet as the next T20 World Cup looms into view, Hales remains locked out of their side. In T20 internationals this winter, England have selected Joe Denly, Dawid Malan, Tom Banton, James Vince Sam Billings in the top six - all players who, notwithstanding Malan’s stellar T20 international record and Banton’s rich promise, lack anything like Hales’s T20 pedigree.

Cricket Nerd newsletter - CricViz
Cricket Nerd newsletter - CricViz

Then again, Hales hasn’t been absent from England’s T20 team because of anything that has happened on the field. He is absent because he failed a drugs test before last year’s 50-over World Cup, leading to what Morgan called a “complete breakdown of trust”. Speaking after the T20 series in South Africa last month, Morgan said that it would be a “considerable amount of time” before Hales was considered for international selection again. Morgan has also said that “his form has never been a question about him coming back into the squad.”

The question will be whether this impasse can last all the way until the T20 World Cup, which begins in October. On the T20 franchise circuit, Hales’s standing may never have been higher. He just excelled in the Big Bash League - finishing as the tournament's second-highest run scorer, and reaffirming that his game is ideally suited to Australian pitches. Hales’s record of 576 runs at an average of 38.40 and strike rate of 146.93 was of an altogether different order to what Vince, who averages 23.07 with a strike rate of 123.28, mustered. This winter he has also thrived in the Mzansi Super League and Pakistan Super League too, though he did flounder in the Caribbean Premier League.

Take a step back, and the notion that Hales is not in England’s top six T20 batsmen today is absurd. His raw international record is outstanding - 1,644 runs at 31.01 with a strike rate of 136.65. While the context of T20 cricket precludes simple comparison between players based on their numbers, unlike Test cricket, any top order batsman who both averages over 30 and has a strike rate of over 130 is essentially combining consistency with belligerence. Hales T20I average is the same as both David Warner and Quinton de Kock, two opening titans; his strike rate is fractionally higher than de Kock’s, and four runs below Warner’s. Hales average one less than Rohit Sharma, with an almost identical strike rate. At international T20 level, Hales’s record suggests that he belongs in this class.

Yet the case for Hales is not merely historical: at 31, he may be in the best form of his life. In all T20 cricket since the start of 2018, Hales has scored nearly 500 more T20 runs than the next most prolific Englishman. Compared to his rivals for a place in the team and squad - Jason Roy, Vince, and Denly - Hales has both a better average and strike rate.

His ideal position in England’s side would be in England’s top three, where he has batted in all but four of his T20 innings. The simple way of doing this would be to slot Jos Buttler down to, say, four, behind a top three of Roy, Bairstow and Hales - probably in that order, with Bairstow breaking up the other two players who are less strong against spin. This may well be England’s optimal T20 top order.

Yet England, for now, are committed to opening with Buttler - entirely understandably, they want their best player to face the most balls. If they continue to do so, then Hales would have to slot in in the unnatural position of four, just as Denly and Malan also had to adapt to the middle order in South Africa. While Hales has a fine record against pace in the middle overs, he is less strong against spin, scoring at seven an over while averaging 17 against spinners in the middle overs since 2018. But Hales has already suggested that he could succeed at number four for England. In 2018, he batted at four twice for England, hitting 49 off 24 balls against Australia and 58 not out from 41 deliveries against India.

Despite Roy’s two half-centuries in South Africa, Hales has a strong case for being picked ahead of him as opener. Hales averages seven more than Roy in T20 internationals. In all T20 cricket since the last T20 World Cup, Hales averages five runs more than Roy and has a better strike rate to boot.

The upshot is unambiguous. If they leave Hales out in Australia, England will be trying to win the T20 World Cup without picking their best possible team.

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