Alex Hales puts drama behind him on road to redemption

Recalled opener has shown his class as a T20 batter to put England within sight of another trophy

Alex Hales' charge gave England a lucrative powerplay, England vs Sri Lanka, ICC Men's T20 World Cup 2022, Sydney, November 5, 2022

Alex Hales' charge helped England through their crunch game against Sri Lanka  •  ICC/Getty Images

For the drama kings and queens among you, England's last Group 1 game of the Super 12s was pretty much the jackpot.
Victory over Sri Lanka was fraught, with more back and forth in the chase than an Aaron Sorkin script. Were it not for Ben Stokes, for whom jeopardy is but a Bat signal, a semi-final place might have been beyond them. And then, who knows? Probably another tedious high-performance review to unpick this particular Australia-based shambles.
England made it through - just. But unbeknownst to the sickos, the real "Yes… ha ha ha… yes!" came soon after they had scraped to their target of 142 with two balls to spare.
On the boundary's edge to debrief the game with Sky Sports was Alex Hales, flanked by host Ian Ward and England's previous white-ball captain Eoin Morgan.
That Hales was in this position was because Morgan was in his: the latter having blackballed Hales for the last three years of his tenure. A failed recreational drugs test at the start of the 2019 summer led to a period of isolation for Hales that ended just a few weeks ago. It's hard to know which was the bigger contributing factor - Jonny Bairstow stepping off a golf tee or Morgan stepping down from the captaincy and international cricket altogether.
As positive as the segment was, lauding Hales for a vital 47 off 30 at the SCG as well as 52 in the previous, must-win against New Zealand, it was notable for the lack of interaction between the two former team-mates.
Ward conducted the whole thing while Morgan nodded along, smiling that inscrutable smile. The body language experts within us all came to the fore as Hales remained turned away from Morgan throughout. It was awkward, engrossing but, ultimately, only a half-truth.
As it happens, Hales and Morgan were joking with one another for the five minutes before Sky went live. Morgan knew about an hour beforehand that he would be part of the segment and was more than happy to feature. That Ward did not throw to him for a question no doubt made the whole scene seem more tense than it was.
For someone who has a reputation for making poor decisions, calling Key about his World Cup omission might rank as one of the best of Hales' career
Maybe this was a necessary, superficial step in the reintegration of Hales. None of this is about forgiveness or redemption, but simply moving on. After a couple of months fielding questions on the anguish of missing out for so long, any grudge with Morgan, the state of his friendship with Ben Stokes and, above all else, contrition for his misdemeanours, the focus has slowly turned from Hales the character to Hales the cricketer.
Though a late addition to England's World Cup squad, Hales was always coming in as a starter ahead of Phil Salt. A plug-and-play option who has almost entirely focused on the shortest format for the best part of three years, he has a wealth of experience in Australian conditions. It was so much of a no-brainer that his omission from the original list, apparently based solely on performance, would have drawn more scorn had he not been such a regular absentee. Even with all the missed caps, he is England men's third-highest run-scorer in the format, currently 13 away from the milestone of 2000.
He is also the team's leading run scorer at this World Cup, with 125 at an average of 31.25. His strike rate of 131.57 is only bettered by Jos Buttler, among those who have batted more than once. The pair have struck up a complementary opening partnership: Hales the aggressor, striking at 128.57 in the first ten deliveries of his innings while Buttler (90.63) shifts through first and second gear.
Ahead of the semi-final clash with India, it's worth taking a look at how consistent Hales' approach has been against pace. So far he strikes both full and short deliveries at 157, while those on a good length are going at a more subdued 95. Essentially, he has shown respect (restraint) when bowlers get it right and rallied against them when they've got it wrong. New Zealand's Tim Southee and Sri Lanka's Kasun Rajitha found themselves on the wrong side of that coin, taken for 21 off 11 and 31 off 10 respectively in the last two games.
Treating one of India's quicks with similar disdain will be a little harder, and surviving Arshdeep Singh, no matter how respectful the approach, will be a challenge. In this moment, however, Hales seems in a good place to cope.
There's a temptation to extrapolate all this to maturity. To string form, high-level output and acceptance into bunting to celebrate the professional absolution of Hales. The thing is, it's much simpler and far less theatrical than that. This is simply a brilliant T20 batter emerging as one of England's most valuable players when the stakes are high. Given his record at Adelaide Oval in the Big Bash League (an average of 38.77 and three scores above fifty, including a century) he will be acutely aware and accepting of the responsibility upon him to get the team to their third final.
It is remarkable to think how quickly things have shifted for Hales despite the prolonged nature of this saga. And it's hard not to wonder how much of this acceleration has come through the desire of a 33-year-old to make up for lost time as time was running out.
The initial theme of the hiatus seemed to be of a man forced on to the franchise circuit, fashioning a full life in the wilderness, never ruling himself out of international duty but reticent to show just how much he missed it. Until September, when he found himself sat in his car psyching himself up in the rearview mirror before picking up the phone to call England director of cricket Rob Key to ask how he had missed the original cut.
The answer given was deemed unsatisfactory, and Hales said his piece. Key appreciated the motivation behind the chat, and the willingness to front up for an awkward conversation. A week later, with the idea of a return for Hales a little easier for all involved, he was drafted in as Bairstow's replacement.
For someone who has a reputation for making poor decisions, that call might rank as one of the best of Hales' career. Not only has it helped rekindle his international career, but it now has England two wins away from silverware.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo