Alex Hales cannot quite be termed an out-and-out Twenty20 specialist but it is possible that he is morphing into one. It is the short-form game that increasingly seems to consume him and it provided the stage for his most outstanding display in an in-and-out summer, his 94 the basis of a comfortable England victory in the second T20 international in Chester-le-Street.
The prize of becoming England’s first batsman to record a Twenty20 hundred still eludes Hales, however. He fell for 94 to the final ball of the penultimate over, as he dragged a low full toss from James Faulkner to long-on where David Warner plunged forward for a good catch.
The presence of Aaron Finch has stretched England’s batting to new heights in the past two days. They have made two of their three biggest totals in England: the first – 209 for 6 at the Ageas Bowl – was overshadowed by Finch’s world record score; this one grew in part from the awareness that he might just do it again. He did not, and the series was drawn 1-1.
On this occasion, Finch reminded everybody that he is vulnerable as anybody in a game that does not just expose fallibility, it ensures it. He made only five before he tried to pull a shortish ball from Stuart Broad and lopped it gently to Luke Wright at mid-on.
Hales is one of only two England batsmen to have made 99 in a T20 international, against West Indies on his home ground of Trent Bridge last year, the other being Luke Wright against Afghanistan in the World Twenty20 in Colombo, also last year.
Hales might have missed out on a hundred again, but he left Australia a formidable total, one which never looked to be within their compass.
Warner also had the capacity to cause mayhem and he took sixes off Steve Finn, Jade Dernbach and Danny Briggs in consecutive overs. When Finn failed to locate a swirling catch at long-on off Dernbach, Warner’s luck seemed in, but he fell to the next ball – 53 from 42 deliveries – as he sliced to deep cover.
Dernbach, whose continued selection has not been universally acclaimed, had a second decent game in a row and two late wickets completed exemplary figures of 3 for 23.
Watson had been run out early, turning ponderously after Warner sent him back and beaten by a direct hit from Eoin Morgan at backward point. Shaun Marsh, some murmur, is a Test batsman who has accidentally wandered into the wrong squad; George Bailey flared briefly but he was lbw on the slog-sweep to Briggs, who later bowled Matthew Wade.
The daunting figure of Finch seemed to hang over the start of England’s innings. Finch had pulverised England at the Ageas Bowl on Thursday, smashing 156 from 63 balls with 14 sixes and 11 fours, a record score in T20 internationals. Only Richard Levi has reached a century faster, a ball fewer in 45 deliveries.
With Finch’s innings so fresh in their memory, it was difficult for Hales and his county batting partner, Michael Lumb, to calculate what constituted a winning score: 160? 260? If he hit with the strong, blustery wind, twice that?
Perhaps they were best advised to put Finch out of their minds completely and work on the assumption that somebody would knock him over for next to nothing. An opening stand of 111 in 11.2 overs indicates that they dealt with the problem rather well.
There was a frenetic edge to their strokeplay in the early overs, Lumb setting the adventurous tone, Hales, who needed a little more time to bed in, following suit. But England’s start was a resounding one. By the time that Bailey, Australia’s captain, introduced spin in the form of Fawad Ahmed, England had 74 off seven.
Hales had fifty within 34 balls, his timing coming together as he progressed. His strong leg-side play was a feature, encouraged by a couple of early offerings from Mitchell Johnson, and he had one or two fortunate moments against the short ball. In a different age, he would be a stately straight driver; in 2013, he stands tall and gives it a leg-side whack, Johnson reduced to an empty sledge on one occasion as he flew over long-on for six.
Hales has had a mediocre overall season for Nottinghamshire, a season which began with being barred from seeking an IPL contract by his county, but T20 increasingly is the format which engages him.
Lumb accompanied him well. He had seen only 40% of the strike when he gave Ahmed his first international wicket, trying to slog-sweep and skying a gentle catch to the wicketkeeper Wade.
Wright, met by Glenn Maxwell’s offspin, needed time to settle and there was a definite sense that England’s innings was losing momentum when Wright himself addressed the issue by taking 18 from Maxwell’s second over. Finch’s misjudgment at midwicket might have contributed to one of the boundaries. Wright fell to Faulkner’s low full toss and an athletic off-side catch by Johnson. Ahmed, asked to bowl the last over, unravelled Jos Buttler, who stepped away to be bowled first ball by a slower, turning delivery. Morgan, after a leg-side six, also fell to a googly at long-on. It left Ahmed with 3 for 24 to go alongside the hype. We will no doubt discover more as England’s international summer culminates in a five-match one-day series.