On July 14, 2019, Alex Hales sat at home in Nottingham. On his iPad, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer went deep into the fifth set in an epic Wimbledon final; on his TV, England and New Zealand were going down to the wire in the most dramatic final that a Cricket World Cup has ever seen.
When Djokovic had closed out his win, Hales gave his full attention to the main screen and watched nervously as Jason Roy, his long-time opening partner, threw the ball to Jos Buttler, a close enough friend that Hales had been an usher at his wedding. Buttler broke the stumps to run Martin Guptill out, England celebrated, and Hales had no idea how to feel.
"It's probably one of the weirdest feelings I've had in my life," he said. "The joy of England winning a World Cup, and then thinking 'I probably should have been there, to be honest'. It was a tough thing to watch, battling joy and frustration. It eats at you inside that you should have been part of it and you weren't."
The worst part was that he only had himself to blame, dropped from the squad on the eve of the tournament after a failed test for recreational drugs proved to be off-field misdemeanour too many. "Obviously there was anger at the time," Hales said. "But who else can you be angry at, really?"
On Sunday in Melbourne, three-and-a-half years later, Hales will have his shot at World Cup glory. His unbeaten innings of 86 off 47 balls in Thursday's semi-final, in an unbroken 170-run partnership with Buttler, inflicted a humbling defeat on India and ensured England's progress, giving them the opportunity to become the first men's team to hold both white-ball world titles simultaneously.
He started at the non-striker's end and had only faced a ball by the time Buttler had peeled off four boundaries in his first seven deliveries to get England ahead, but soon took charge himself. All the talk in the build-up had been about Adelaide Oval's long straight boundaries, but Hales cleared them twice, launching Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami for straight sixes before he had faced a dozen balls.
After slashing Shami for four via the outside edge he was up and away. He swept Axar Patel and R Ashwin over the shorter square boundaries, backed away to slap Arshdeep Singh over the off side, and pulled Hardik Pandya's slower ball into the stands. He hit each of India's six bowlers for at least one boundary, including seven sixes in all.
"This is one of the best grounds to bat at in the world, especially in the powerplay," Hales said. "It's a really, really good surface and great value for good cricket shots with the smaller square boundaries. I never thought I would play in a World Cup again, so to get the chance is a very special feeling. Tonight is one of the best nights of my career."
Hales has thrived at Adelaide Oval before, hitting a brilliant hundred for Sydney Thunder in early 2021. But seven-and-a-half years ago, he was the second man out as England collapsed against Bangladesh in a defeat that eliminated them from the 2015 World Cup at the group stage and provided the catalyst for the white-ball revolution that followed.
Batting out of position at No. 3, he was caught behind pushing tentatively at Mashrafe Mortaza, a shot that exemplified England's outdated mentality; over the next four years, he was empowered to play in the aggressive manner that comes naturally to him and became a key part of Eoin Morgan's side.
"A few circumstances [meant that] the opportunity has arisen and he's come in. The last three matches especially, his form has been brilliant"
Jos Buttler on Alex Hales
By 2019, he was the spare batter in England's 50-over team: he lost his place after his involvement in the fight outside a Bristol nightclub that led to Ben Stokes going on trial, and Jonny Bairstow's form kept him on the sidelines. Stokes recalled in his book On Fire that when news of Hales' failed drugs test broke, England's senior players decided he was not "the level of player that we could make an exception for".
So Hales set about proving that, in T20 cricket, he was at that level. Nobody scored more Big Bash runs over the next three years and he became an increasingly consistent performer on the franchise circuit. As England continued to overlook him, various rumours swirled as to the reasons behind his exclusion - though Roy and Buttler's success as an opening pair in T20Is meant there was never a vacancy.
Days after England's defeat to New Zealand in last year's semi-final, Hales was in the spotlight for the wrong reasons once again, apologising after historic photos of him wearing blackface at a student party were published in a national newspaper and denying allegations made by Azeem Rafiq surrounding the name of his dog.
Hales has insisted that he is a changed man. "I've definitely matured," he said during England's recent tour to Pakistan. "I feel as though I've grown as a person." Only he knows how true that is and redemption narratives are always dangerous, but he has clearly earned the trust of his team-mates as a player: he goes into the final as England's leading run-scorer.
Hales' form heading into the World Cup had not been sensational: he made two fifties in nine innings during England's two tune-up series, then started the tournament with innings of 19 off 20 and 7 off 5. But as the jeopardy increased, so have his returns: he has now made 185 runs at a strike rate of 158.11 across England's three must-win games, in opening stands of 81, 75 and 170 (the latter unbroken as well as record-breaking).
In Adelaide, he was at his intimidating best - so much so that Buttler said he was "great to tuck in behind" during his own innings. "He'll have played as much Big Bash cricket as anyone and his performance tonight was amazing," he said. "It's a huge strength of his playing square of the wicket… he's a tough guy to bowl at.
"He's been performing really well for a long period of time," Buttler added, "and unfortunately hasn't been able to get back in due to other players playing brilliantly well. A few circumstances [meant that] the opportunity has arisen and he's come in. The last three matches especially, his form has been brilliant."
When Buttler clubbed Shami back over his head for six to seal the win with four overs to spare, Hales ran down, swiped at the air with his bat in celebration, and gave Buttler a bear hug as he soaked in the moment that he thought had escaped him. After fearing he would be remembered for 2019, Hales has the opportunity to ensure that it will be for 2022 instead.