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Alex Hales: 'I thought my chance would never come again'

England opener comes in from the cold as he prepares for first opportunity since 2019

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Alex Hales at England net practice  •  Getty Images

Alex Hales at England net practice  •  Getty Images

Alex Hales is a keen enough darts player that he brought his board along in his hand luggage on England's flight to Pakistan. But he was not in the mood to throw any during his first media engagement as an international cricketer in three-and-a-half years on Friday.
Instead, he struck the conciliatory tone of an athlete who can scarcely believe the opportunity he has been afforded. Hales had planned to spend October with his girlfriend in Cape Town but is back in Karachi for the second time this year, after representing Islamabad United in the PSL. After the Lahore leg of this tour, he will fly straight to Australia where the chance to win a World Cup - and to right the wrongs of 2019 - awaits.
Only two weeks previously, Hales was sitting in his car, looking into the rear-view mirror and preparing to make a phone call. At the other end of the line was Rob Key, England's managing director and de facto selector; Hales' plan was to ask why he had been left out of the T20I squads for the winter's tours which were due to be announced publicly the following morning, and whether the decision really had been based on performance alone.
"I was quite firm and forceful when I rang him," Hales said. "I wanted to know if there was a genuine chance of me playing or whether they were just saying it to the media, so I was quite forceful. I said 'if we're talking purely cricket, I feel like I should be in the squad'. I had nothing to lose, did I?" Another similar call followed to Jos Buttler later that day.
The argument that Hales presented was straightforward: "I felt like I deserved my spot in that squad, if it was picked purely on cricketing merit. I had the right to ask why I wasn't picked; to show that drive, to show I wanted to be part of it. If they give me a chance, I feel I'm more than capable of filling that role at the top of the order, especially in Australia. If I didn't, I wouldn't have made that call."
Barely 24 hours later, while Key was explaining Hales' omission to the press - "his name was mentioned a lot," he said - an opportunity presented itself when Jonny Bairstow slipped on the tee box at Pannal Golf Club in Harrogate. Shortly after that, he was booking a flight home from South Africa: "I had to locate my cricket stuff, figure out where everything was, and get packed for this."
Hales declined the chance to throw any barbs at Eoin Morgan, who regularly cited trust issues and a "complete disregard" for team values as the rationale behind his continued omission after news of a second failed test for recreational drugs led to his axe a month before the 2019 World Cup. Had they spoken? "Not a huge amount. Not really, no," he said. Would his recall have happened but for Morgan's international retirement? "You're asking the wrong guy, I think only Eoin would know that."
And while Hales suggested that he held himself responsible for his omission - "when you do something like that, there's no-one else you can blame" - it clearly rankles that he has been denied the opportunity to play for England during his prime. "Three years is a very, very long time, especially in an athlete's career.
"It was extremely painful. It's your worst nightmare: to be involved in a World Cup squad, missing out on the eve of it ... it was brilliant to see the team lifting it, but at the same time, it eats at you inside that you should have been part of it and you weren't. I guess that drives you on, to improve as a person and a cricketer and get that spot back that you feel you deserve.
"I did think that the chance would not come again, for sure. At times I felt like I wouldn't get this chance again. I felt like I'd been playing the best cricket of my career over those three years as well, so to get this chance again at this time is something I'm really proud of and something I'm really looking forward to. I feel like I can help push this team forward."
Hales has tried to keep his head down and stay away from controversy during his years in the international wilderness, and has succeeded for long periods, but it has been hard to shake the sense that trouble has followed him around.
In November, Azeem Rafiq alleged that he had named his black dog 'Kevin' as a racial slur. "It's been investigated [by the ECB]," Hales said on Friday, having denied the allegation at the time. "I went through the process and everyone is happy with where it's at." He also apologised after a newspaper published photos of him wearing blackface at a student party: "It was shameful… I was a dumb 19-year-old who had no idea of the ramifications of what he was doing," he said.
Buttler suggested on arrival in Karachi that Hales had become "a different person" after his time in the international wilderness, a view that Hales himself shared. "I think I have changed. I've definitely matured. I'm comfortably into my 30s now [he is 33] and turning into a veteran. I feel as though I've grown as a person. Where I am at the moment - on and off the field - is probably the best of my career so far."
England trained for the first time in Pakistan on Friday night, driven from their hotel to Karachi's National Stadium in bulletproof buses in the armed convoy that will become a familiar sight to them over the next two-and-a-half weeks. For Hales, playing here is already familiar: he has played 24 games in Pakistan across his various stints PSL stints, more than any other Englishman.
On Tuesday night, he will have the opportunity to put his local knowledge to good use against Pakistan's quicks. "I've really enjoyed playing cricket here in the past," he said. "It's such a good place to play cricket so to get a chance to do it for England is awesome.
And he is confident that he will thrive. "One of the more frustrating things has been knowing how much better a T20 player I am now [compared] to when I played before. Since giving up red-ball cricket my numbers have been a lot better than they were. Just focusing on one format has been a game-changer ... it has made me a lot better.
"I'm treating this as a blank canvas and only looking to the future now ... I'm really looking forward to the next two weeks in Pakistan and what the World Cup can bring." For Hales and for England, there is no going back now.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98