England’s preparations for the World Cup have been silky smooth for the past two years, during which a settled side with a very good captain, audacious batsmen and tenacious bowlers who have learned to keep their heads high even when the ball has just disappeared over the boundary have become the best in the world, according to the ICC rankings.
But now with the start of the tournament a month away the usual pin-pricks – an inconvenient list of injury concerns over Jason Roy, Joe Denly, Tom Curran and Sam Billings and the perennial worries over the fitness of Chris Woakes and Mark Wood – have been exacerbated by news of Alex Hales’s recent 21-day ban for recreational drug use.
This raises a raft of uncomfortable questions for the England and Wales Cricket Board – and for Hales. Since the incident outside a Bristol nightclub in September 2017 Hales’s career has inevitably faltered. He is no longer assured of a place in England’s ODI side, which makes him arguably the best reserve batsman in the world; he has been shunned by the Indian Premier League and in the meantime he has opted out of playing red-ball cricket for Nottinghamshire, a decision that leaves him in the wilderness for chunks of the season.
Because of his suspension and his decision to restrict himself to white-ball cricket Hales has not faced a single delivery in competitive cricket this season. Yet he retains the potential to be one of the most destructive batsmen in the world at the top of the order in the shorter formats. When news of Roy’s back spasms emerged there was, fleetingly, the consolation that Hales was an ideal replacement.
Now the ECB must act fast to keep the World Cup campaign on an even keel. They have to assess whether Hales should retain his place in the squad. There are two issues to decide: first, does recreational drug-taking make him such an unsuitable role model that he should be omitted? In part this may be dependent on the class of drug that Hales has used even though the ECB’s protocol demands no more than a three-week suspension. And, secondly, is Hales going to be in the right mental state to give of his best in the tournament?
Assuming Hales is retained in the squads for the matches against Ireland and Pakistan, it is imperative that he plays as much as possible. After his barren start to the season he is desperately short of cricket while the coach and the captain need to be able to assess his form and his mood. From a cricketing perspective it would be a major blow if Hales were not in the World Cup squad even though he has not been guaranteed a slot in the best 11 recently. He needs to face up to his latest setback, another self-inflicted one, and score some runs, starting with the ODI in Dublin on Friday.
The Hales situation has diverted attention from the likely debut of Jofra Archer, who has been outshining Ben Stokes in the colours of the Rajasthan Royals in the IPL. In his last match in the tournament on Thursday Archer sealed victory by cracking 27 from 12 balls at the end. Moreover he has been bowling with excellent pace – and economy – for the Royals. The 50-over game requires different skills from T20, though this no longer appears to be the view of the ECB, but Archer now has the chance to demonstrate that he is able to prosper in both formats. The odds are that he can.
As with Hales the coaches and captain will want to see as much of him as possible before naming their final World Cup squad around 22 May. On Sunday Archer will be getting acquainted with the England squad, some of whom will be strangers, when they all meet up in Cardiff. No doubt he will receive warm man-hugs from the likes of David Willey, Tom Curran and Liam Plunkett even though his presence threatens their places in the final squad of 15.
There is some resistance to the inclusion of Archer on the grounds that such a late inclusion threatens the happy equilibrium among a successful, stable side, allied to protestations that he should be playing for West Indies rather than England – even though his father is English.
However, that now seems a more straightforward debate than the one about Hales. The hope – and expectation – are that both of them can justify their inclusion in England’s World Cup squad over the next three weeks.