Alex Hales’ drive home from the England training camp in Cardiff in April 2019 felt like the longest journey of his life. That morning England’s former managing director, Ashley Giles, had told Hales he was being kicked out of England’s World Cup squad because he had failed a second recreational drugs test.
Hales packed and left without talking to any of his teammates. He was convinced his career was over. He says it was his “lowest moment”. Three years and four months later he is back in the England squad, as a late replacement for the injured Jonny Bairstow. “This feels like a second chance,” he says, “a chance to right the wrongs.”
There have been a few of them. Last November photos emerged of Hales wearing blackface while dressed as Tupac Shakur at a party in 2009. He apologised then and does so again now. “I was a dumb 19-year-old who had no idea of the ramifications of what he was doing,” he says.
“I was just trying to dress as my music idol without really knowing the offence it would cause. When those images got released it was very shameful.” At the same time he was accused by Azeem Rafiq of naming his dog ’Kevin’ in reference to a catch-all name to describe black and brown players.
Hales strongly denied there were any racial connotations to the name and says it was “dealt with internally” in an investigation by the England and Wales Cricket Board, “and everyone is happy where it’s at”. England’s captain, Jos Buttler, says all the senior players in the current squad agreed with the decision to recall him.
It has taken Hales a long time to win back their trust. Some of those relationships, like the one with his former captain Eoin Morgan, who said Hales had shown a “complete disregard” for the team’s values, will never be the same. Hales says they have not really spoken since, despite playing against each other. He is honest enough to admit that he felt a lot of anger at the time. “But who can you be angry at really? It was my fault, wasn’t it? I was the one who did what I did. I just have to hold my hands up,” he says. “You have to look at yourself in the mirror and try to learn from your mistakes.”
Ten weeks after Hales made that lonely drive home he watched his old team win the World Cup final at Lord’s. “It was one of the weirdest moments of my life. I felt all the joy of England winning the World Cup and then you are like: ‘I should have been there’,” he says.
“It was extremely painful. As a cricketer it’s your worst nightmare to be involved in a World Cup squad, miss out on the eve of it and then watch your team win it. Obviously it was brilliant to see the team lifting the cup but at the same time it eats at you inside that you should have been part of it and you weren’t.” Hales says that the experience drove him “to improve as a person and a cricketer” so that he could get back in the team, where he felt he deserved to be. What he did not realise at the time was just how long that would take.
“Three years is a very, very long time, especially in an athlete’s career,” he says. “At times I felt like I wouldn’t get this chance again.”
It was especially frustrating because Hales knew he was in the form of his career. He gave up first-class cricket in 2017, and the one-day game in 2019, meaning he now plays only T20 around the world.
“Focusing on one format has been a gamechanger. Having all my concentration on one format has made me a lot better.” But, he adds, “when you’ve got a squad that’s settled and a captain that is happy with where everything is, that’s just the price you have to pay.”
It was only when Rob Key took over as managing director of England men’s cricket and Buttler became England’s white-ball captain that things really changed. Hales says he has always had good relationships with both men. When they left him out of England’s squad for this tour, and the T20 World Cup that follows it, he decided to ring Key and ask why.
“It’s not a comfortable thing to do to ring up someone and demand to know why you’re not playing, I had to sort of psych myself up to do it a little bit,” Hales says. But since he was already out of the squad, he reckoned he had nothing to lose by making the call.
“I felt like I deserved my spot in that squad if it was picked purely on cricketing merit. So I felt like I had the right to ask why I wasn’t picked. I wanted to know where I stood. I wanted to know if there was a genuine chance of me playing or whether they were just saying it to the media.”
Hales got so worked up that he sent Key a message a couple of hours later apologising for getting carried away. Key told him not to worry. The call paid off when Bairstow sustained an injury and England, all of a sudden, needed another opener.
Hales, who was in Cape Town with his girlfriend at the start of a four-week holiday, had suddenly to change his plans. “To get this chance again at this time is something I’m really proud of,” he says, “and something I’m really looking forward to, because I feel like I can help push this team forward.”
He has been waiting for this opportunity. No doubt he has a point to prove now it is here.