Nottinghamshire’s defeat in their penultimate County Championship game of the season had an all-too-familiar look to it. A solid, if not spectacular, enough shift from their hard-working bowlers was followed by another lacklustre display by their under-performing batsmen.
Responding to Warwickshire’s imposing 547 for 7 the reigning champions were skittled out for 238 and then 222, to go down by an innings and 114 runs. As it has been for much of this term, the exception to the rule in the batting department was Alex Hales: top scorer in both innings; bat carried to record a century in the second.
It’s quite a responsibility on the shoulders of a 22-year-old who began last season as a second team player and ended this one making his England debut. That debut, after mixed results for the England Lions, ended in an unfortunate second ball duck against India in the Twenty20 international at Old Trafford.
But there has been enough in his performances this year to suggest that his chance will come again, starting with another shot at the Lions this winter.
The last Nottinghamshire opener of a similar stature to stand at the crossroads between the county game and its international counterpart was Darren Bicknell. Now Director of the Belvoir Castle Cricket Trust, Bicknell, 44, is the first to admit he failed to make the transition when as a youngster at Surrey his chance arrived.
But, while conscious of heaping undue pressure on his protégé’s shoulders, he is confident Hales can go one better. And he is quick to point out why.
He said: “He has been hugely impressive all season. He looks calm and composed at the crease and is obviously a fantastic striker of the ball. But what I’ve particularly-liked this year is that he has been prepared to work very hard to put an innings together and then go on and make hundreds. That should be the benchmark for all good players.
“He started with a crash bang and then struggled a little. Maybe that was because he wasn’t prepared to graft or because he tried to play more extravagant shots. He has now grasped the idea that cricket is a game that you have to work very hard at, and he’s beginning to reap the rewards.”
Hard work hasn’t always come naturally to Hales, whose shot selection once justified claims by his peers that he can be a little slow on the uptake. In 2009 he was also suspended by the county for late night indiscretions that might have strangled his career at birth had they gone on unchecked.
But along with Notts colleague Luke Fletcher he took himself off to Australia over the winter to play grade cricket and, in his own words, “work a few things out for myself”.
Keen to avoid comparisons with himself, Bicknell suggests the arrival of Michael Lumb at Trent Bridge next season provides a far more salutary tale for Hales than his own.
Like his partner in waiting, Lumb earned himself a place in the England set-up, helping them win the ICC World Twenty20 in the West Indies. But a combination of lost form and injury has seen his star wane while that of others like Hales has waxed, catching the eye of the watching selectors.
Bicknell added: “I hope Michael comes to Notts and does very well, but for me the jury is still out on him at the moment. He’s a hugely talented boy who lost his way and came back at Hampshire as a one-day and T20 player, and he still has a lot to do.
“Like Michael there is no doubt that Alex has the ability, but it is how you apply that ability that matters. As long as he manages himself well he’s got a cracking chance, provided he keeps his head down and continues to put in the hard yards.”
Going into their final game of the season, Hales was Nottinghamshire’s key run-scorer in the Championship, having hit 973 runs at an average of 54.05. He also plundered runs in the Clydesdale Bank 40 and the Friends Life t20, finishing second only to Australians Adam Voges and David Hussey in the averages.
Those statistics mean he is also currently top of the Professional Cricketers’ Association’s FTI Most Valuable Player rankings in the category for batsmen aged under 25. Those are no mean stats at bowler-friendly Trent Bridge – and ones most of his county colleagues have failed to match this season.
But if that has been a challenge a greater one still lies in wait: whether to fulfill his potential or slip back into the ranks of the ones who didn’t quite make it.
*The Belvoir Castle Cricket Trust is a cricket charity that aims to encourage participation in cricket among disadvantaged young people in rural communities. For more information visit www.belvoircastlecrickettrust.com