ICC Men's T20 World Cup 2022
Alex Hales' Aussie nous has helped put England into the final of a World Cup that, to the previously cast-aside opener, had once appeared unreachable
12 November 2022, 12:30 PM AEST
If you were looking for Alex Hales after a Big Bash match during his last three run-plundering seasons with the Sydney Thunder, there's a strong chance you would have found him shooting the breeze with teammates with a glass of red wine in hand.
As his former captain Callum Ferguson admits, the image of Hales quietly sipping Shiraz jars with the one of the supposed bad boy who spent three years wondering whether he would play international cricket again.
"We started up a wine club where we'd have two guys bring a bottle of red, and the whole team, whether you drank or not, would just sit in someone's room or a communal room at a hotel and just chat, socialise over a glass or two," Ferguson told cricket.com.au.
"Guys could have gone out on the town but it was like 'No, actually we're just going to chill out, have a bottle of red, chew the fat and then hit the sack'. He was someone that drove a healthy environment in the team."
It is a revealing insight into a cricketer who very nearly did not partake in this World Cup precisely because England had, until a regime change, seen him as a barrier to the kind of environment they wanted to maintain.
That he will enter Sunday's decider as one of his team's lynchpins and key to their hopes of becoming the first men's team to simultaneously hold both white-ball world titles has the makings of quite the redemption arc.
His breathtaking 86no off 47 balls in a 170-run unbroken stand with captain Jos Buttler that led a 10-wicket semi-final demolition job against India at Adelaide Oval, was vindication England had picked the right man.
Even if it only came because regular opener Jonny Bairstow slipped while approaching a tee box during a round of golf and broken his leg only weeks before the tournament.
"He flew into Adelaide and straightaway he goes 'I love Adelaide, I love this ground, I love the pitch.' He loves the golf courses there," England's Australian-born assistant coach Mike Hussey told cricket.com.au.
The location of his comeback tournament after so long on the outer could hardly be more fitting for Hales, whose love affair with Australia started when he was still a teenager.
The towering right-hander was only 19 when he first ventured down under to play in Melbourne's sub-district competition for Croydon, for whom the 223 he made against Bayswater in his penultimate game remains a club-record score.
He returned two summers later to play for nearby Dandenong in Victoria's Premier competition, taking to the field with a young James Pattinson.
In the years since Hales has opened the batting with Aaron Finch, faced Pat Cummins on his BBL debut, and played on the same team as Tim Paine and George Bailey.
It is a grounding that even many local Australian cricketers do not often get. Having come into his own with the Thunder and scored more BBL runs than anyone else over the past three seasons, it is little wonder he is averaging 53 and operating with a strike-rate of 148.59 during this World Cup.
Ferguson, who immediately connected with Hales when the pair first played together at the Adelaide Strikers in 2013, had advocated for the Thunder to sign Hales in 2019 not long after he had lost his national contract after returning a positive recreational drugs test which cost him a place in that year's ODI World Cup.
"We were pretty quick to come to the conclusion that despite what had taken place, we were more than likely going to end up with a player that was looking for a bit of redemption and a guy that, in my experience with him, was a real competitor and a good character to have around the dressing room," said Ferguson.
"I was surprised that he found himself in the situation that he had."
In addition to the runs, what the Thunder got, says Ferguson, was an engaged, jovial cricketer who threw balls at training to younger players, gave technical advice where necessary and brought a calm demeanour on the field.
"He just seemed like he was a guy that was really keen to prove a lot of people wrong and try to fight his way back into that England side, no matter how distant that chance probably seemed to him at the time," Ferguson said.
"Certainly you won't find bigger advocates for him as a player or a teammate than (ex-Thunder coach) Shane Bond and I, and the rest of the Thunder players."
The first Englishman to score an international T20 century, Hales was long been one of the game's most feared hitters.
Yet his increasingly visible presence in Australia, and globally having played more T20s than anyone else on the planet besides Rashid Khan over the past three years, coincided with an absence of the same duration from the England team.
There were no guarantees of that ending even after former captain Eoin Morgan retired earlier this year. The pioneering leader of England's white-ball teams had drawn a line in the sand after the incident that had ruled him out of the 2019 ODI World Cup they went onto win.
When Hales was still left out of a post-Morgan squad for this World Cup, he rung up selection chief Rob Key to demand answers: "I went quite hard. I put my point across quite bluntly because I had nothing to lose," Hales said recently.
"I felt I had a really strong case with my record in Australia so I thought 'why not?'"
Key found no objections when asking other squad members if they objected to Hales' return, though Ben Stokes' lukewarm reply to a question about his relationship with the batter (the pair were both fined by the ECB in 2018 for a brawl outside a Bristol nightclub the previous year) suggested not all has been forgotten.
Coach Matthew Mott admitted his selection had been a "bit of a gamble".
"We're blessed with some world-class players, particularly in that opening slot," Mott told the BBC. "It's one area we're incredibly blessed. He's just shown he's up with the best going around and we're very lucky to have him in the team."
Hussey is adamant Hales has been a positive influence: "He's come back in and everyone has really embraced him.
"I hope he's been able to feel comfortable back in the group. There's been no issues whatsoever – between any of the players or any character issues, anything like that. And I think he's been encouraged to be himself as well."
Beneath the jovial, self-deprecating nature that so endeared Thunder teammates to Hales lies a savvy thinker about the game.
"He's a closet cricket badger," Ferguson laughs. "He watches a fair bit of cricket – I'm not sure he'd ever use the term study, he doesn't like being called a cricket badger. He does think very deeply about the game even though he doesn't give off that impression naturally."
It suggests Hales will be giving a good deal of thought to one of the final's most intriguing match-ups – England's openers Buttler and Hales versus Pakistan's premier paceman, Shaheen Shah Afridi.
The left-armer's fast, piercing in-duckers are kryptonite to not-yet-set batters facing the new ball, particularly in the unusually friendly conditions on offer for swing bowlers in this tournament.
"It's going to be good to watch," said Hussey. "The guys will be pretty clear about how they' re going to go about it. It's pretty obvious how Shaheen's going to try to get them out – (but) it doesn't make it easier to play. Hopefully they can hit a couple in the middle and take the shine off the ball."
And should Hales manage to get through that initial challenge, and England manage to overcome the side that broke their hearts in 1992 when these two sides last met in a World Cup decider down under, that glass of red will have been well-earned.
Men's T20 World Cup 2022
Semi-final 1: Pakistan beat New Zealand by seven wickets
Semi-final 2: England beat India by 10 wickets
Final: Sunday November 13, MCG, 7pm AEDT
Click here for all 2022 T20 World Cup results
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ICC Men's T20 World Cup 2022