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Exiled Alex Hales makes hollow Notts return as England move on without him

Alex Hales at a Notts training session Getty Images

For an example of a man who has royally messed up, there's no need to look further than Alex Hales. He was the tall one, taking guard, the one with the stately stance but the ignoble reputation. The one who should have been a big part of England's World Cup plans, but was instead batting in Northampton in a Royal London Cup group tie, his dreams shattered, his presence with England decidedly not required.

One minute you are consumed by the belief that the world revolves around you, that every latest excess will make you more one of the lads, revelling in all the usual laddish addictions - alcohol, sex, drugs … you name it - Hales will either have done it, or have been happy for you to imagine he had. The next minute, you are derided as a menace to England's World Cup hopes and cast aside. The axe can fall suddenly and brutally.

Whether you regard Hales' removal from England's World Cup plans after two failed drugs tests as quite proper moral instruction to the disreputable, or something desperately sad, or both, to watch his first innings since his world fell apart was to watch something hollow, a batsman summoning as much professionalism as he could muster, if only to block out the pain.

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He played well. "He has something to prove," said one of Northampton's electronic scoreboard operators. But that did not really wash. It is not on the field where he has something to prove, it is off it. He made 36, but frankly, history suggests that he could have made 360 and, off the field, he could still make a fool of himself at every degree of the compass.

If Hales needs a sense of perspective, he should learn from Samit Patel, whose utterly captivating unbeaten 136 carried Nottinghamshire home by one wicket with three balls to spare, Northants' 325 for 7 chased down from the disarray of 116 for 5, securing a home semi-final in the process. Patel will tell you he has been unfairly overlooked by England any number of times, and once or twice he has been right, but he brings as much joy to the county game as any professional around.

Northampton actually staged a World Cup match in 1999, Bangladesh's startling victory against Pakistan - a dead match (in the context of the tournament, at least, if not the country's hopes of Test status) which later became subjected to match-fixing allegations. A picture of the match is displayed in the corridor by the Wantage Road boardroom. It was probably the nearest Hales will get to a World Cup in England, but fortunately it was hidden away from view.

It was a pleasant place to be on a Bank Holiday, even before Patel's special intervention. Children were running excitedly around an old-fashioned sweet stall (Samit paid it a visit before he went out to bat, and in case you suspect that is embellishment, there is a picture to prove it) and the Mem Saab curry shack was doing a decent enough trade. But this was not a full house at Lord's. It was just one of those days, a day Hales needed to deal with, part necessary rehabilitation, part imposition.

Nottinghamshire's director of cricket, Mick Newell, is wary of the psychological impact upon Hales of being dropped so unforgivingly from England's World Cup squad. "He knows he has made mistakes, but what a price he has paid," Newell said. "He needs to be playing, be batting, be fielding, be busy."

He is fortunate to have such a supportive county. To reflect upon lessons learned can be the path to a new maturity, to be more at peace with yourself; he is probably some way off that yet.

Nevertheless, he buckled down for his 43 balls, prospering via a succession of square cuts, square dabs, and square drives. He looked as if he might conceivably make a hundred by hitting every ball in the same place. Perhaps it was some sort of zen-like process to ease his mind. Then he tried to square cut yet again, against the medium pace of Luke Procter, and dragged on. He was surrounded by fielders in maroon, a man himself marooned.

He entered the rudimentary pavilion - "Suppliers for All Your Building and Timber Needs" - to a smattering of polite applause. One would guess that a majority of county stalwarts understand why England made the decision, but this is not the sort of audience to jeer or lose its innate sense of fair play.

The intimation by Ashley Giles, England's director of cricket, that Hales might still have been with England if his failed drugs test had not become public sticks in the craw; England's much-vaunted team ethic should also exist in private as well as public. The withering attack upon Hales by Eoin Morgan could not have been more brutal. England's desire to win a World Cup will thrust aside all those who stand in its way. But behavioural rules are better written down rather than adopted and adapted whenever cricket administrators and captains see fit.

A couple of minutes' walk up Adnitt Road, the Looking Glass Theatre Theatrical Costume Hire shop was closed up for Bank Holiday. They were promoting The Wizard of Oz in the window. Said the straw man to Dorothy in L Frank Baum's original novel: "I do not want people to call me a fool, and if my head stays stuffed with straw instead of with brains, as yours is, how am I ever to know anything?"

Dorothy took the straw man to Oz; England have sent Hales to Coventry. But the comparison does not entirely fit. In Baum's novel, in reality the Straw Man had common sense, but just lacked confidence. The opposite seems true of Hales. He can win one-day trophies with Nottinghamshire this summer and, in his new circumstances, he would be well advised to return to red-ball cricket, too, and enjoy the feel of bat on ball. The past has been a mess, but somehow, to the sound of a World Cup soundtrack that he will not be able to escape, he needs to move on.