The improbability of Alex Hales
Occupying as it does the fragile months of the summer, English cricket is deeply influenced by alcohol. While football terrace prohibition causes binge-drinking before kickoff, cricket presents a daylong test of boozy stamina. Cup deposit schemes and zealous stewarding have made the beer snake an endangered species, but the cricket and a stag night remain the only places at which an Englishman can consider fancy dress.
This does not make for precise memories.
Ah, but I forgot. You Americans, you don't understand cricket. Actually, you relish not understanding it, this daft tortoise game of bad teeth, straight elbows, and dinner etiquette, as enacted by Britain and Her Colonies.
But you like baseball, which makes explanation surprisingly easy. Cricket is baseball but really, really hard to get someone out. While baseball outs tumble like autumn leaves, a cricket 'wicket' is a gleaming butterfly on a spring morning. Hundreds of runs are scored. A game lasts five days. This, you begin to understand, is why we drink.
I watch quite a lot of cricket, mostly Middlesex and England. (These deserve nominative elaboration. Middlesex are a London-based team named after an obsoleted county; the anachronisms pile up quickly in this game. The team called England is the responsibility of the England and Wales Cricket Board, allowing me as a Welshman to pledge allegiance.)
I drink less than I used to, as maturity has grown and my tolerance dropped. But it’s fair to say that cricket's longitude and consumptions, and my woeful memory, have made my cricket memories melt together. It's been marvellous, sunburned, imprecise fun; I've seen no-balls, legends, centuries, dogged controversies; but I'd struggle to recall exactly when and where and who.
Until last week.
England batsman Alex Hales has had an awful summer. On the brink of deselection, he was a man at war with own psyche. With a game based on quick scoring, on aggression and active intent, he too often has lacked the technique and patience required of an opening batsman. Just one week ago he played perhaps his worst ever England innings, staying in just long enough to, in the words of one commentator, look really bad.
On Tuesday his luck was in. A one-day match at his home ground, Trent Bridge, against a Pakistan team that excels at the five-day game but is short of quality in the short stuff.
Tuesday's game will stick around, unlike others, because it broke all-time records. Hales played perhaps the worst best-of-all-time innings I've seen, swiping the bat recklessly, bisecting fielders with mishits. Commitment and luck overruled control and timing. Cat-like, he survived many deaths, including a dropped catch and a dismissal reversed by a no-ball. Dancing on the knife edge of fortune, Hales was electrifying. His partner Joe Root, the world's leading exponent of eloquent batting, capable of exquisite shots that catch your breath like only great poetry can – looked ordinary in comparison.
By the time he finally yielded his wicket, Hales had scored 171, an English record. And England themselves weren't done. Hales's departure brought in Jos Buttler, a known slogger, who feasted on some poor Pakistan bowling to rack up a lightning 90 not out. Buttler too rode his luck, clean bowled at one point but – to whoops around the ground – recalled after the TV umpire declared another no-ball. With his last stroke, Buttler hit the boundary that sealed the all-time record score. England ended on 444–3 off fifty overs; a score unfathomable a generation ago.
Hales is a vigorous but fragile player who threw caution aside. Batting form moves slowly, as befits this intensely slow game. Recovery often requires a spell out of the limelight, some time playing to tiny crowds in domestic cricket. Rarely do we see a transformation this abrupt. It's easy to overplay the triumph-of-the-human-spirit angle, but Hales was somehow able to shed his mental shackles for a day and produce something extraordinary. He has not cured his technique issues. He may yet not be the man England need as a Test Match opener. But for one day, the world truly rotated along his axis. And to be there was to witness a day when cricket surpassed itself, that became not just about sunburn, cider, and cheers, but genuine sporting improbability.
“It can be a cruel game” Hales said afterwards, “and it can be the best game in the world."