Alex Hales: Reluctant member of the 99 club
Although he was close to tears when he fell one short of a ton for England he's laid down a World T20 marker. But, he also has bigger goals
There is something eerily fascinating about an innings of 99. It is much more resonant than one of 100, combining accomplishment and disappointment as it does. Cricket history is littered with great 99s. Arthur Chipperfield, making his Test debut for Australia in 1934, made 99 before lunch and was out the third ball after it. Mike Atherton never made a Test hundred at Lord's; his name does not therefore feature on the dressing-room honours board, but he will never be forgotten for being run out for 99 against Australia in 1993. There was the agonising case of England nightwatchman Alex Tudor who was 99 not out against New Zealand in 1999 when he watched Graham Thorpe hit the winning runs. To this honourable list can now be added the name of Alex Hales.
He made 99 in the hardest arena of all. In 247 Twenty20 internationals there have been only six hundreds and none for England.
Hales was on the verge of making history on his home ground of Trent Bridge a fortnight ago. England needed three for victory against West Indies and he needed one for his hundred, when he received the perfect delivery for his purposes, a full-length, leg-side yorker which he simply needed to clip into the open spaces on the on side.
He knew it, the crowd knew it. They were getting ready to rise as one to hail Hales, one of their own. And he missed it. Hales, bowled Rampaul, 99.
He has just about recovered from the experience, though in a way you never get over it. "I was emotional about it," he said. "Being in front of my home crowd and in that atmosphere, it felt like I had let the whole place down. I wasn't far off tears. I have replayed that delivery more than you can imagine. Probably every day.
"On the day, if I could have picked a place for him to bowl that ball it would have been there. If someone offers you 99 at the start of the day you would snatch their hand off but to get so close to a Twenty20 hundred, which so rarely comes around, is desperately disappointing."
It is entirely possible that Hales will never now score an international Twenty20 hundred (nobody has yet scored two) but there is a bright side to this little story. Hales now looks to be a shoo-in as one of the openers for England's defence of the World T20 title in September and his breathtaking audacity gives reason to believe that the cause is far from lost.
He is one of a new breed of professional cricketers. At 23, he is part of the first generation who were brought up with Twenty20 and do not consider it a Johnny-come-lately hybrid. It is simply an exciting part of the game which also provides the opportunity to make money.
This season's Friends Life T20 domestic tournament has been badly affected by the weather and it has been easy to discern a lessening of broad interest in the game. An injection of something or other is needed, whether it be cash, fancy-dan players, a different context or franchises. Mostly, however, it could do with some sunshine, for the essential components are still present.
"All the young players are now brought up with no fear and it is exciting to see Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow, Samit Patel and Ben Stokes," Hales said. "Twenty20 is very hit-and-miss. Sometimes you run your luck, it comes off and everybody praises you. Other times it doesn't work. Fortunately for me, I needed a big innings that day and it paid off.
"Sometimes it is just gut instinct; you see a bowler on TV and work out their plans but at the end of the day it is a ball coming down at you and you have to try and watch it and put it to the boundary."
At 6ft 5in, Hales is tall even by the standards of modern batsmen, who are inordinately taller than their predecessors. The advantage it gives him amid the shot-a-ball trappings of T20 is long levers. He can reach for balls denied to smaller men and has done so resoundingly, as that innings at Trent Bridge amply demonstrated.
Hales never expected to be a professional cricketer, though he was brought up in a sports-mad family of some accomplishment. His grandfather, Dennis Hales, took a young Rod Laver to five sets in a qualifying match for Wimbledon in the 1950s, but was on the wrong end of the fifth.
Young Alex was not an especially outstanding schoolboy and, although he played in age-group sides for Buckinghamshire, he failed a trial with Middlesex. But his fearless attacking was evident early.
He may be the only batsman in history to have hit 52 runs in an over. It happened in a T20 competition on the Nursery Ground at Lord's, featuring four teams from London County. His side needed 78 to win from the final two overs. Hales hit eight successive sixes, including three off no-balls, and four from the final ball – meaning that 55 was scored from the over in all.
Hales eventually joined Nottinghamshire when one of his dad's friends who was a friend of the county's captain, Jason Gallian, fixed him up with a trial. Notts realised his potential for Twenty20, which they take extremely seriously.
He was in a spot of disciplinary bother early in the season when he was fined for being late on parade for a game against Middlesex. It is to his credit that he is not blaming anybody else, but it also illustrates what an effect cricket can have on its practitioners. At the time Hales was in no sort of form.
"All I can put it down to is a young lad being a bit immature," he said. "I had a bad couple of weeks and I stayed out longer than I should have done. I was not in a great place. I'd just got out five overs before close of play. I was ticked off. I made a massive cock-up. My phone ran out of battery and I overslept my alarm. All I can do is learn from it. The coaches say it is in the past. They had a stern word with me. It was a poor decision for me to do it but, hopefully, I have learnt from it and come back a better person."
Although the World Twenty20 is his immediate ambition, Hales, like others in the T20 generation, wants to play Test cricket. But he needs bigger scores and it seems that the shorter form is affecting the longer form. For the second season in succession he is struggling to turn good starts into something more substantial after apparently having broken that particular barrier last year.
"It is very frustrating, especially as an opening batsman at Trent Bridge, where if you get in you've really got to knuckle down and convert starts into hundreds," he said. "That has been the frustration this year. There are still eight games left in the season and I think I can push on and make four hundreds. That is definitely what I am trying to do because I don't want to be labelled a one-day player.
"At the moment the stats would say my game is more suited to Twenty20 but I continue to work hard on my four-day game and it is something the club takes as the most serious competition. At the forefront of my aims is to play Test cricket.
"That and a Twenty20 hundred, perhaps in the World Cup."
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Alex Hales: Factfile
Born 3 January, 1989, Hillingdon, Middlesex.
Early career At the age of 16, he hit 52 runs off an over playing at London County Cricket Club's Founders Day on the Nursery Ground at Lord's in 2005.
County Played for Buckinghamshire in Minor Counties, but signed for Notts in 2008. Hit his highest score of 184 against Somerset in July 2011. Current first-class average: 37.52. 2011 PCA Young Player of the Year.
Accepted a sanction from Nottinghamshire earlier this year for a "breach of club discipline".
International Represented England at Under-19 and at Lions level. Has five Twenty20 international caps for the full team.
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