We used to write a weekly, and later fortnightly, Twitter round-up for ESPNCricinfo. All those hours of trawling through players’ feeds left us with very firm impressions about a few people. One of those people was Alex Hales. We internally categorised him as a ‘Banter Dick’.
Everyone has experience of a Banter Dick. They like to have a dig at people and they say they’re just having a laugh, but for some reason every joke is at someone else’s expense and they don’t massively enjoy it when the laughs are at theirs. They’re not necessarily bad people. They’re just hard work.
People use social media differently and you can be certain that this was a keyhole-narrow view of Hales. All the same, that perception of a fragile man with a bit of a thin skin has never really been swept from our mind. His Test career could be seen as Exhibit A.
On balance, we suspect that Alex Hales is probably a bit of an idiot. However, we still feel a lot of sympathy for him right now.
A quick recap
This week, Ali Martin reported that the “personal reasons” which had been keeping Hales off the field in recent times could more accurately be termed “a drug ban”.
It was the second time Hales had tested positive for recreational drugs, so ECB guidelines said he’d serve a short ban and get a bit of help and advice and support.
It’s arguably not really that big a thing when taken in isolation, but it followed his part in the Ben Stokes’ Bristol fisticuffs thing and also a bout of decidedly subpar relationship behaviour in the West Indies that was reported in the tabloids.
What’s interesting is that now that the drugs ban is public knowledge, the ECB has looked at all of the above and gone, “No, get out. Go away. No World Cup for you.”
Why have they decided this and where does this leave Hales?
The ECB’s decision
Hales’ management company has pointed out that until the matter became public, the ECB had followed its own guidelines (a 21-day ban). A little later, when it became common knowledge that Hales was serving a drugs ban, they gave him the hoof.
The drug use doesn’t seem to be the problem. People knowing about it seems to be the problem. Why is that?
It’s tempting to see the change of mind as a “brand management” thing; an attempt to keep Team England looking all pristine and wholesome. But then Hales had already kicked a guy in the head while pissed-up on a night out and they were happy to keep him around after that, so it doesn’t feel like that’s the full story.
Most likely they simply don’t want this hanging over the team. They don’t want any of the other players answering questions about it or dealing with tabloids keeping extra close tabs on them all.
Whether excising Hales also excises the story is very much up for debate though. Genies are rarely inclined to return to the bottle. If nothing else, the ECB will now have to answer questions about why they overruled their own policies. This might not seem a colossal issue right now, but wait until Jason Roy’s back goes.
And what about Hales himself?
Hales has clearly not helped himself a huge amount, but let’s set that aside a minute and try and consider where he’s ended up. Let’s think through the life that he’s built for himself and try and work out how it all hangs together and how whisking the World Cup away from him might feel.
Sportsmen are pretty single-minded. It can take a certain level of monomania to even reach the elite level and from then on a lack of balance in your life can sometimes be rewarded. If you practise when others don’t, maybe it’ll gain you an edge.
Hales has gone further than most. Last year he pared his career back to one specific aspect with the home World Cup the motivation and overwhelming focus for that decision.
His personal life is reportedly a bit, um, up in the air of late and a logical response to that might be to place even more emphasis on his narrow professional life. “A few things not exactly going to plan at the minute, but at least I’ve got this,” kind of thing.
The “this” in that reasoning is the home World Cup; the logical endpoint of a whole life that’s been devoted to playing cricket.
(Amateur psychology klaxon, but who’s to say that the looming significance of that tournament hadn’t become so overwhelmingly, crushingly important to Hales that he started looking for escapes in other parts of his life? Maybe that explains some of the shonky decisions. Who knows?)
Imagine being in Alex Hales’ position. Imagine building your life around being good at cricket, and then further refining that to just one-day cricket. Then, on the eve of the biggest one-day cricket thing of your life, imagine being told, “Actually, you’re going to sit this one out.”
However you arrived at that position (and let’s be honest, some of your own actions will most likely add a load of guilt to the mix) that’s got to be hard to deal with. It doesn’t really matter that your hopes and dreams are, in the grand scheme of things, utterly trivial. If this is what you’ve devoted your life to then this is what your emotional wellbeing hangs from.
And someone just unhooked it.