Hales achieves blast-off
Inspiring and record-breaking
There was not a whole lot of joy for England in 2014, especially when they clad themselves in coloured clothes. However, on a sultry night in Chittagong they were, however briefly, transported to a place of cheering, high-fives and backslapping.
Their build-up to the World T20 had been dominated by the dumping of Kevin Pietersen. English cricket was full of simmering feuds, whispers and ill-feeling. As history shows, that lingered for much of the year (and arguably still does for some), but for the duration that Alex Hales was dispatching Sri Lanka for a 60-ball hundred, England's first in T20, it was just possible to forget the bickering. Pietersen produced England's finest sustained period of T20 batting, when they claimed the World T20 crown in the Caribbean, but this innings rivalled anything he unfurled.
Hales had already established himself as England's premier T20 batsman, able to stand toe to toe with those who had blazed a trail in the format; the McCullums, Gayles and Warners. But the hundred at international level had just eluded him. When he walked out at the beginning of the run chase at the Zahur Ahmed Chowdhury Stadium he already jointly held England's highest T20 score alongside Luke Wright - the 99 he made against West Indies, at Trent Bridge, in 2010.
In many ways, Hales' young career has symbolised English cricket's difficult relationship with T20 since it exploded in the hands of India following their World T20 success in 2007. His success for Nottinghamshire and strong start for England had lifted his profile and Hales' appetite had been whetted by the interest of others.
Hours after stepping off a flight to Sydney in early 2013 he smashed 89 off 52 balls for Melbourne Renegades in the Big Bash League, but it has not been an open door to T20 riches for him. Nottinghamshire took a strong stance about the potential of losing a key player early in the season, barring him from entering the 2013 IPL auction. What followed was a horror first-class season, but runs continued to flow in the limited-overs formats.
Nottinghamshire's stance softened, somewhat, the following year, although only on the proviso that Hales was bought in the highest price bracket. He went unsold but took the disappointment far better than he had the previous summer: an ODI debut followed, and there was even talk of him as a Test cricketer. Still, the T20 world will never be far away and how long he can be shielded, however subtly, from the IPL remains to be seen.
Yet when he had the chance to take guard against the Sri Lankan attack in Chittagong, in pursuit of 190, a record-setting innings appeared most unlikely. Throughout the opening over he had stood at the non-striker's end and watched two team-mates, Michael Lumb and Moeen Ali, depart to the nibbling swing of Nuwan Kulasekara. Hales' response was to drive his first two balls for four, but when the Powerplay was finished the asking rate was already touching 11 an over.
One factor, though, loomed to give England hope: the evening dew. Hales was dropped on 55 by Mahela Jayawardene at deep square leg, then the 15th over, bowled by Ajantha Mendis, swung the match England's way. Mendis struggled to control his length and Hales dispatched him for three sixes in four balls, with the over costing 25 in all, to bring the requirement down to 48 off 30 balls.
Still, that was an equation that did not leave much room for error. And Lasith Malinga had two overs up his sleeve. Hales and Eoin Morgan managed to milk nine off his third, and it was actually Kulasekara who looked to have done most to hurt England's prospects by nabbing Morgan and Jos Buttler in the 17th over. But Hales remained.
It came down to 23 off 12 balls and he was sat on 95 when Kulasekara began the 19th over. A squeezed two was followed by a thumping blow over cover to raise the hundred. Time to keep emotions in check. Not quite job done. Next ball it nearly was, as another six disappeared over midwicket. Malinga had bowled out his four before the 20th over; few other bowlers would have a chance of defending seven off six balls. So it proved, as Hales ensured there was no last-ball worrying with his sixth six to send the England dugout into delirium.
Hales' innings, though, did not provide the spark to revive England's fortunes. Defeat against South Africa ended their tournament and then there was the embarrassing loss to Netherlands. A change in coach followed; the year continued to have many challenges. Hales' hundred was a diamond in the rough. And how it shone.