Very few men have successfully opened the batting across all three forms in international cricket. Can Alex Hales buck that trend?
After just 136 runs from four Tests in his debut series in South Africa, Alex Hales was not everyone’s choice to start the summer as England’s Test opener. Some thought he did himself few favours when, following the World T20 at the end of a long winter away with all three England teams, he opted to sit out two of Nottinghamshire’s early County Championship matches. He reasoned that a period of relaxation – and working on his long-format game away from media scrutiny – would benefit him more over the long term than yet more competitive cricket.
When he was retained for the Test series against Sri Lanka, he proved that he had learned from some of his mistakes in South Africa, and, with scores of 86, 83, 11, 18 and 94, secured his place at the top of the order for the rest of the summer. “Three scores of 80 and above from Alex Hales was really pleasing,” Alastair Cook said. “He’s certainly tightened up his game and probably just learned about Test cricket. It’s great when you see someone who maybe doesn’t quite nail it in the first four games but then goes away and shows the hunger to work on his game away from the spotlight.”
Hales, who Eoin Morgan recently described as “groundbreaking”, became the first of Cook’s opening partners since Andrew Strauss to make three or more fifties in a series and while he just fell short of a maiden century, showed he had the adaptability to improve at Test level. So how did he go about it and is it possible to maintain standards across the formats? He spoke to Ed Kemp.
After an eventful and at times difficult winter away it must have been extremely pleasing to establish yourself as a Test opener against Sri Lanka.
It was an interesting winter, full of ups and downs. Overall I’m pleased to find some form, particularly as my spot was up for debate heading into the series. So I’m pleased to have put a couple of good scores on the board. But as an opener when you do get through that new-ball phase you really want to cash in and score those hundreds because there will be times where you do get single-figure scores and some low ones with the new ball. So I’m happy but a little bit frustrated as well not to have gone on and got the three figures.
How was it left with you at the end of the South Africa series? Was anything said by the management about your chances of hanging on to your place in the Test team?
Genuinely nothing – nothing to do with my place being secure or anything like that. When we finished the Test matches it was pretty much straight on to the one-dayers and something else to focus on. So I put the Test matches behind me. I don’t think there was any guarantee of my selection. I think the guys before me that had opened had had seven or eight games, so quietly I was fairly confident that they’d give me at least the Sri Lanka series to try and prove something so I’m pleased they’ve managed to do that.
How do you reflect on your debut series in South Africa?
It was obviously tough. I didn’t perform personally but it was great to be involved in a winning series. To go out there and beat the No.1 ranked team in the world was a special feeling. On a personal level obviously I did struggle, but speaking to a few people, apparently it’s statistically the hardest place to open the batting in the world. So to go out there away from home in my first series against one of the handiest bowling attacks in world cricket, it was obviously going to be a tough challenge for me. But the best thing I took away from it – even though I didn’t score the runs I wanted – was the fact that I didn’t feel out of place, I didn’t feel like I was out of my depth at all. The times where I got out it was more me making mistakes rather than the bowlers necessarily being too good for me. In a way I’d rather that be the case – knowing there’s a couple of things to work on to score runs consistently.
What lessons in particular did you learn?
I learned a few things. A couple of times I was a little bit stuck in two minds outside the off stump about whether to attack or defend, so that’s something I’ve really worked on and it’s obviously something I’m going to have to keep on top of if I want to succeed as a Test match opener, particularly in England. I got out a couple of times early on in my innings looking to play on the front foot outside off stump and on bouncy seaming tracks that’s a big risk to take. So in the first hour or two of my innings I’ve tried to limit my front-foot play outside off stump, and wait for the bowlers to miss back of a length or stray a bit straighter. That’s something I’ve specifically knuckled down to work on over the last month or so and so far it’s worked. The fuller length, in the channel, as an opening batter, that’s a dangerous ball to be driving early on. Once you get set, get used to the pitch and the ball gets a bit older, you can expand your range of shots and those drives come into play, later in the innings. It’s something I’ve tried to be a bit more precise with.
Given your previous success in the shorter formats, there was a lot of talk about whether you’d take a familiarly aggressive approach to opening in a Test match. Do you feel you’ve settled on a more balanced method now?
Leading into the Test series I was thinking, ‘Should I go out there and be this attacking opener that everyone talks about and look to bat with a certain tempo?’ But I think one thing I’ve learned is I can’t go out looking to bat with any preconceived ideas or tempo. I think there will be times where with the fields that openers have that you do get off to a good start, and there will be times when the ball is seaming and swinging and it’s tougher to score those runs. It’s just playing the conditions and the bowlers appropriately.
Your success last year in four-day cricket for Nottinghamshire had come with a similar method – positive but measured. Do you feel there had been a misconception about the type of player you are in the longer form?
I think so, yeah. I don’t particularly want to be seen as this attacking, shot-playing opener. The biggest thing for me in cricket is to be adaptable. If the bowlers miss their areas then I want to still have the positive intent to hit the bad balls for four but also respect that if they bowl well then I can’t just go out and play shots against it, I have to have the technique and temperament to see it off and wait for easier opportunities later in the innings. So adaptability is the biggest thing.
How difficult have you found it to stick to this disciplined approach, resisting early drives and big shots?
It has been tough. Ever since I picked up a cricket bat as a kid my gut instinct has always been to try and whack the ball as hard as I can. In my first couple of years of first-class cricket at Notts I struggled a bit with it, getting out driving outside off stump. So I suppose I do have to almost fight my natural instincts not to do it. The last couple of years I’ve worked really, really hard on it. It’s something I’ve enjoyed working on, and hopefully I can keep it up.
When you’re being watchful against the moving ball early on, how do you go about moving through the gears? Can it be hard to shift out of that cautious mindest?
Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. You just have to try and play each ball on its merit. Unless your name’s Joe Root and you can naturally score at 70, 80 [strike-rate] and hit the ball for four at will, it’s a tough thing to do. Some games it happens, you naturally up the tempo when the bowlers get tired or you’re playing on a flat wicket and the spinner’s not turning it. I think it helps, in my case, being a naturally attacking player – once I get through those early stages I know that I will naturally score at a quicker rate.
With the T20 and ODI formats growing ever more power-focused and your Test match method more cautious, does that make it harder than ever to switch from one format to the next?
It’s a really good point and it’s something that throughout my career I’ve struggled with. When I first got into county cricket, Twenty20 was my strongest point, and I almost focused all my energy on that and neglected four-day cricket a little bit. Over the last couple of years I’ve really paid attention to my four-day cricket and in that period my T20 game probably hasn’t been quite up to the level I want. Managing all three formats at international level is incredibly tough but it’s something I’m really enjoying at the moment.
There aren’t many cross-format openers these days. Why do you think that is?
If you look around I don’t think there’s really anyone who opens in all three formats in world cricket, apart from David Warner. And even he recently dropped down to No.4 in the World T20. It’s really tough and it shows that each format is becoming a bit more specialist. But the challenge of trying to open in all three is something I really, really am enjoying. It’s a really good test of how far I can take myself in the game.
How do you go about it?
It’s a good question! I’ve started getting into the habit of writing stuff down. Before each series: what things I did well in the series before. Just little trigger points, leading up into a Test or one-day series, stuff to focus on to get my mind back into that frame for the specific format. Just writing down little things that have worked in the past in each format and trying to stick to those basics.
So is it more about mentality than time in the nets?
It’s a bit of both. The international schedule is a lot better for improving each format because it’s all blocked off: you play a block of Tests, a block of ODIs and a block of T20s, whereas you get back to county cricket and you’ve got a four-dayer, then a random one-dayer thrown in and then a couple of Twenty20s, so you’re always changing formats, and it’s actually quite tough to nail down certain skills for a specific amount of time. When it comes to the international calendar it’s actually a lot better to properly develop your skills in each format.
So international cricket is easier!
The catch is the standard of opposition! The standard is a hell of a lot tougher, the improvements you need to make to keep on top of your game have to be a lot more intense.
You even opted not to play a T20 for Notts between the second and third Sri Lanka Tests, right?
It was a tough choice – deep down I wanted to play but being in the middle of a Test series having just got my game going well, leaving well with the red ball, if I had a couple of T20 training sessions, then a game, I didn’t really want to risk losing some rhythm in the Test format for a T20. I kept my mind fresh and kept it on Test cricket.
Hales’ naturally friendly and approachable demeanour has survived the pressures of international cricket so far. Always determined to enjoy his life in the game – and placing high value on time spent relaxing as well as playing, to maintain freshness – he remains a popular member of each England squad as well as an amiable interviewee. For all that, in recent weeks he’s proven to his doubters that he’s utterly serious about improving and succeeding as an opener for all occasions. The evidence from across world cricket suggests he has a big challenge on his hands.