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News Analysis

Why Alex Hales' England return could define Jos Buttler's captaincy

A series of coincidences made it possible, but a team struggling for identity needs his runs

On Friday, after news of Jonny Bairstow's freak leg break was made public, along with confirmation he was out for the rest of the year, Jos Buttler was already putting the feelers out regarding his replacement in the T20 World Cup squad.
The identity of the alternate in his mind was under no doubt. Alex Hales was the main talking point during the first selection meeting last week, before it was decided to do without the 33-year-old opener. And with that decision made, taking him on the seven-T20I tour of Pakistan as some form of reintegration was seen as a waste of his time and of a spot for a younger batter to gain valuable international experience.
Buttler was very much pro-Hales in this meeting, which also featured limited-overs coach Matthew Mott and men's managing director Rob Key. He also understood the awkwardness of bringing back a player who had fallen out with the wider group since a second failed drugs test in the build-up to the 2019 50-over World Cup. Now he wanted to see just how awkward it really was.
He called up senior members in the group to gauge their thoughts. Once ascertained it would not be a problem, re-selection sat a little more comfortably.
The official call came from Key, just a few days after the pair had discussed why Hales did not make the original cut - a conversation instigated by Hales. Buttler also spoke to Hales to inform him the rest of the squad were receptive to his inclusion and that, above all else, the limited-overs captain was pleased to have him back.
It was telling, however, that Ben Stokes, one of those consulted last Friday, focussed on lauding the player rather than the man. "When it comes down to the big moments in games and World Cup games, knockout games, you want your best players there to be taking that pressure on and he certainly is one of those," the Test captain said at the Kia Oval on the eve of the third and final Test of the summer with South Africa. When asked of his current relationship with Hales, he was far less emphatic: "We've both got the same goal to win the World Cups."
Stokes' response was to be expected. Having referred to Hales as "his friend at the time" in his documentary Ben Stokes: Phoenix from the Ashes when revisiting the Bristol street fight in September 2017, any questions on the matter during press junkets were quashed by the attending PR. But the overarching feeling is that Hales gives England the best chance of success in Australia.
Since picking up the last of his 141 caps against West Indies on March 10, 2019, Hales has been one of the best short-form batters in the world. His 4,587 T20 runs are second only to Babar Azam (4,639). Even more impressive is the fact that among the 16 batters who have scored over 3,000 runs during this period, Hales' strike rate is the highest (152.74), and the only above 150. The experience along with his work for Nottinghamshire, Trent Rockets, Sydney Thunder, Islamabad United, Barbados Tridents and Durban Heat will be invaluable. In many ways, he is a luxury - a reliable, world-class plug-and-play option in the most volatile format.
Form, however, has never been the issue, even if Key cited it as the only deciding factor when the original squad was picked. Even Eoin Morgan, the sternest advocate of Hales' time in the wilderness, never doubted his qualities out in the middle. The issue throughout was "the huge breakdown in trust" and "complete disregard" for the values that Morgan's team had taken four years to instil.
Morgan always maintained that time would be the healer, and perhaps it has been, albeit in a hyper-accelerated fashion. For it is hard not to wonder at the high-profile and coincidental sequence of events that got us to this point.
Working backwards is the best way to zoom out. Bairstow's catastrophic slip on his approach to a tee box at the Pannal Golf Club. Jason Roy's disastrous loss of form. Morgan waking up in the WestCord Fashion hotel in Amsterdam on Monday, June 20, and deciding to retire from international cricket. Key, a man with few hang-ups and a desire to make decisions on merit rather than comfort, becoming the new MD, beating more traditional options who might have simply adhered to the status quo. A series of unpredicted events creating a domino effect bringing one of the most discussed hypotheticals in this era of English cricket to reality.
In the midst of all that is Buttler's ascension to the white-ball captaincy, which has ultimately bound these factors together and brought the recall to reality. He and Hales were very good friends, and even though the relationship soured in 2019, Buttler still harbours plenty of affection.
The main friction between Hales and the England group came when a statement was released upon the second failed drugs test that stated he would be "unavailable for selection for personal reasons". The ECB directive was for discretion, but many, including Buttler, were concerned Hales was struggling with other issues and required time away from the game.
That concern turned to anger when news broke in the media of the real indiscretion, with some believing they had been deliberately misled by Hales. That was exacerbated when it was felt Hales showed little remorse when reconvening with the ODI squad for a training camp in Cardiff a month before the start of the World Cup. He left early when Morgan, along with the director of cricket Ashley Giles and head coach Trevor Bayliss - who had struggled to trust him following the Bristol incident - agreed he was only going to be a disruptive influence on the group at the most important moment in their careers to date.
Even during his time away from the England set-up, controversy has dogged Hales. Last year he "categorically denied" allegations made by Azeem Rafiq in front of the DCMS committee that he had named his black dog "Kevin" after a term he and Gary Ballance allegedly used to describe people of colour. He was also subject to an ECB investigation when The Sun published photos of him in blackface from 2009 when he attended a party dressed as rapper Tupac Shakur.
Indeed, there will be a degree of wariness from certain figures at the ECB now that Hales is back in the fray. There is an unshakeable sense that trouble seems to find him.
Evidently, Buttler is not one of them. As such, this could rank as the most important call he makes under his tenure. In its own way, it feels like a decision that unequivocally makes this ODI team his own. After just four wins in 12 white-ball matches as full-time skipper, there was a worry Buttler was struggling to assert himself on a side coming to the end of its life cycle, and one that still carried the hallmarks of his predecessor. Hales' presence gives Buttler a little more ownership.
As for acceptance, runs will be the bricks, steel and mortar of any and all the bridges Hales might need to rebuild. That, really, is the crux of the matter. Above all else, the management group, the players and Buttler trust his cricket.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor for ESPNcricinfo