Hales farce sees England World Cup preparation in familiar crisis mode

Alex Hales England 2018 PA

Ah, this is more like it. After four years of baffling and confusing excellence, amid growing fears that England might actually go into a World Cup with a settled and successful squad fully focused on the job in hand, we are now back in the warm and comforting presence of a clusterf*ck.

Until the last week or so, there has been very little to go on for the legions of fans England’s long and proud history madcap World Cup antics have created. For most of the last few years, the mood has been one of hope rather than expectation that England’s astonishing excellence would only make it funnier when the inevitable omnishambles kicked in.

We’re not quite at that stage now, but things suddenly look far more promising. First, and admittedly not all that promisingly, there was the apparent unrest among existing members of the squad that England’s chances of success might be severely hampered by *checks notes* the inclusion of the most exciting uncapped talent in world cricket.

Now, though, things have moved on. Thanks to the foolishness of Alex Hales and the inevitable failure of a classic hamfisted English cricket subterfuge, we’re getting there.

First and foremost, the ECB are well entitled to feel massively let down by Hales, a wally, who has tested positive for recreational drugs for the second time and earned an automatic 21-day ban. It is in no way Hales’ first indiscretion, and on the face of it Ashley Giles’ decision to axe Hales, made swiftly and decisively two weeks after he found out about it and coincidentally just after everyone else did, is justified.

Whatever duty of care England have to Hales – who is clearly struggling with the aftermath of his and Ben Stokes’ ill-starred night out in Bristol two years ago – doesn’t extend to an automatic right to a squad place. Similarly, nor does England reaching the limit of their exasperation and dropping him from the squad constitute an ‘unfair’ extension of his 21-day ban. Actions have consequences, and Hales can have few complaints if, as seems to be the case, he has depleted his final reserves of goodwill.

In truth, though, nobody comes out of this looking good. Not Hales, not the ECB, not Giles, and not Hales’ club Nottinghamshire who played their part in the initial subterfuge by saying Hales had “made himself unavailable for selection for personal reasons”.

Perhaps subterfuge is too strong a word. This appears to be have been at least well-intentioned rather than deliberately deceptive. There are solid, important reasons why positive tests for recreational rather than performance-enhancing drugs are treated as a welfare issue.

Yet Notts’ decision to imply it was Hales’ choice and for unspecified ‘personal reasons’ is problematic not just because it was untrue. What now for the welfare of any player who genuinely requires time away from the game for personal reasons? Lord knows it will happen, and the Hales situation means such a player will face innuendo and suspicion about the true cause of his absence.

It would have been better to be honest and up front from the start.

The timeline makes Giles’ decision and the reasons given for it troubling as well.

Hales was named in England’s provisional World Cup squad on April 17. On April 19, he supposedly took time out of the game for ‘personal reasons’.

On the morning of April 26, Hales was still set to attend the squad meet-up that weekend. That afternoon, the Guardian’s Ali Martin broke the story that Hales’ absence from the Notts team was in fact because he was serving a drugs ban.

On April 29, Hales was removed from all England squads, with Giles talking about the importance of the “right environment around the England team” that so much work had gone into creating.

Martin’s story – and nobody has contradicted this – suggests Hales’ three-week ban would have been served in time for him to play in Friday’s game against Ireland. Given that the protocol in place means Giles would have been informed of this ban at the same time as Hales, it means England picked him in the initial squad knowing he was serving a 21-day ban for a failed test and all the apparent strife this would cause to the all-important team environment. Yet he was only removed from the squad when it became public knowledge.

Retaining Hales would of course have been a distraction, with players and coaches inevitably asked about it at every turn. But it’s still hard to shake the notion that Hales has been axed to preserve the idea of England’s “environment” rather than the reality of it; nothing has really changed for the squad, only the external perception of it

In England-at-the-World-Cup terms, this is no disaster. It’s not the as distracting as the Zimbabwe Situation of 2003, or as embarrassing as the Fredalo of 2007. It’s probably not even as damaging as clinging desperately to Alastair Cook until the last minute then ditching him in 2015. It is probably worse than the panicked decision to drop Steven Davies for Matt Prior in 2011, but probably not as bad as dropping Nick Knight at the last minute in 1999. Hales is an immensely talented wally, but even before this episode he was an immensely talented wally outside England’s first-choice XI. Assuming Jason Roy’s back doesn’t given out, he may well have been an unused reserve throughout the tournament anyway.

He did, though, provide truly world-class cover for at least four and arguably five players; he could have slotted in to the side in place of Roy, Jonny Bairstow, Joe Root, Eoin Morgan or Jos Buttler without major reconstruction being required elsewhere in the side.

England do have other talented bench options, and the timing of James Vince’s career-best 190 for Hampshire last week was as impeccable as any of his cover-drives.

What England don’t have his anyone of Hales’ experience. Only five men have made more ODI centuries for England than Hales, and he has 130 white-ball caps. England are weaker for his absence.

If and when things go fully England-at-the-World-Cup over the coming weeks, the scapegoats are now being lined up.