Saturday, 24 September 2011

England's new batting sensation Alex Hales: a godfather's emotional reflections

I had my first chat with England’s new batting sensation Alex Hales in January, 1989. It wasn’t much of an interview. He dribbled a bit, farted and threw up on my best work shirt.

The 6ft 5in (1.96m) Nottinghamshire opener, who scored an undefeated 62 off 48 balls to help England to a ten-wicket T20 success over the West Indies at The Oval on Friday night, was barely two days old when he first met. A few months later, I became his godfather at Denham Parish Church in Buckingshamshire. And 22 years on, when he reached that first international milestone in just his second international appearance, I was in tears 5,000 miles away.

Last month, when he was snared leg before by India’s Praveen Kumar after two balls of his England debut, it had been tears of a different sort. That’s what happens when you see somebody you have known all your life suffer the cruellest of ducks live on a television screen.

Tears? Yup, sorry. Emotional moments. Alex’s father Gary and I played football and cricket together for years after we met kicking about for the now sadly defunct (and little known) Chalfont Athletic in 1985. Golf and tennis too. Squash and snooker. Even darts. The Hales genes were never hard to spot. Gaz would crush me on all fronts. He’d even beat me left-handed at table-tennis. Easily.

Gary could have been a top cricketer. He scored a double ton for Ealing in his teenage years. His brother and Alex’s uncle David did the same at Uxbridge. The Hales brothers broke all kinds of records over the years in the local leagues.

Gary once had a game stopped when an outraged neighbour strode on to the pitch at Denham to complain about the seven sixes he’d put into his garden. Made the front page of the local paper. I think Gary got about 180 that day. I was at the other end on about 40. It was the same when I batted with Alex years later.

Alex’s grandfather Dennis, just last year, showed me the yellowing cuttings of his epic encounter at Wimbledon against the great Rod Laver circa 1967. And he was still hitting a cricket ball with some venom despite a dodgy hip deep into his pensionable years.

But none of the older Haleses really got the chance to showcase their sporting prowess. Den was a Middlesex bus driver, Gary and David were Gerrards Cross postmen when fame and fortune called. Always easier to make it to the top when you’ve got a public school and a family name behind you.

Alex had some of that. But only because he was always such a bloody giant. Taller than his peers – and my son Kriss, a year older – before he came out of nappies, Hales had trouble keeping his head down. He could hit a golf ball 50 yards when he was two. Kick a football through a window. Put a stone over the fence when other kids threw like pansies.

At Denham First School, the dinner ladies decided the big kid was the one behind all the trouble in the playground. When he hurriedly moved to St Joseph’s Primary in neighbouring Chalfont St Peter he was banned from the school bus in the first week.

That’s when Gary and I decided a private school might help Alex’s development. Gaz went looking for Locker’s Park Prep in Hemel Hempstead after seeing an advert in the local Bucks Advertiser... but they ended up going to the wrong place – Westbrook Hay, a tiny, sports-mad institution just down the A41. The sports coach took one look at this towering bundle of talent and gave Alex Daniel Hales a sports scholarship.

A couple of years in boarding school settled the big kid. He ended up at the nearby Grammar School – they still have the medieval 11-plus in Buckinghamshire – in Chesham.

By then Hales was already something of a phenomenon. Gary and long-suffering sports mum Lisa had moved to the cottage on the side of the Wade-Tillard Memorial Ground in Denham, not a stone’s throw from the home of actor Sir John Mills.

There’s a grainy video somewhere of dad and god-father hurling down deliveries at eachother when Alex was one and my twins, Kriss and Laura were two. Not text book childminding for fathers, but I don’t recall any tantrums as they watched their sweating fathers from pram-side seats. Clearly, even the mightily talented Alex was too young to participate... but I guess he was taking it all in. Probably gurgling at my turgid batting style.

The edge of the cricket ground was a lovely place to live if you love the outdoor life and don’t mind lethal sixes flying over the fence. Great too, for a youngster eager to play the game. Alex was 10 the first time Denham’s Sunday XI found themselves a man short and Gary’s boy was hurriedly enlisted.

His first adult game and we put him on from the posh end, with the sprawling mansions rather than council houses behind the bowler’s arm. He was that good. His line and length never deviated. Those crack-of-dawn Sunday morning sessions at High Wycombe and Gerrards Cross, the local cricket nurseries, had paid off. As had the endless hours spent in the single, tatty cricket net at Denham.

Strange thing is, Alex was a bowler then. Too tall and too quick for his own good. Quickly spotted by the Hertfordshire junior selectors while he was at Westbrook, he was dropped at Under 14 level for “bowling too aggressively in the nets”. Gary made a quick call to Buckinghamshire and progress resumed. Wickets and bruises all round. Genuine pace and plenty of height made him nearly unplayable as an opening bowler.

Oh, he could bat a bit too. At 15 he came down to play for Chalfont St Peter’s mighty Sunday Second XI, taking a break from the increasingly onerous Saturday League cricket at local rivals Gerrards Cross. Opposition sides refused to play against us if “that Hales boy” was about. But we’d wheel him out for our annual Sunday derby against the Cross, who were once hit for 182 not out by their own young prodigy. Even the mighty Sunday Seconds won if Alex and younger brother Nick were about.

Look, it wasn’t just cricket. Like his father, Alex was a superb footballer. In 2005, aged 16, Alex joined my local Chesham Sunday League outfit, the Three Pigeons. The year before he joined we were the worst side in the area, ending our inaugural season winless after conceding over 100 goals in Division Two. Surrounded by the toughest of local youngsters with his father in goal and me next to him at centre-back, Alex serenely helped us to a League title and a local cup success.

Alex was phenomenal with a tennis raquet too, often upsetting England-ranked juniors at Gerrards Cross Lawn Tennis club where his father had left the Royal Mail to become the groundsman and administrator. Alex could hit a golf ball too. A long, long way. He qualified for district athletics with a single, uncoached triple jump. But cricket remained the passion, records fell with bat and ball.

Neil Burns, the former Somerset and Leicestershire wicket-keeper, picked the lanky youngster out of a mob of 473 hopefuls aged 15 to 24 in a “Bowling Idol” competition at Lord’s. But it wasn’t as a bowler I wrote my first story about Alex, it was as a batsman hitting 55 off a single over in a subsequent pro-celebrity match at Lord’s in 2005. Alex was 16. I wrote this at the time: It proved prescient.

By then, the bigger fish were sniffing about. The MCC Young Cricketers got hold of Alex at 18 at got him down to Lord’s. On his debut at Uxbridge, against a Yorkshire Second XI featuring former England bowler Chris Silverwood – who was genuinely quick – he scored 175 before tea on day one. Watching that day was the Hertfordshire county coach who had axed Alex for being “too aggressive”. Gary had fun chatting with the bloke.

And the rest of course, is his story. History. A move to Nottinghamshire and lengthy drives to Trent Bridge for Gary and Lisa. A late call into the England Under 19 set-up, because Alex hadn’t quite gone to what one might consider a “cricketing school”.

Winters in Australia, with varying degrees of success before a record-breaking double century for South Croydon in Melbourne. A televised 150 not out for Notts in the 40-over competition two summers ago, the highest score of the summer. A place in the England performance squad at the end of 2009 in South Africa. Mike Atherton saying on Sky: “This boy could play for England,” and everyone who knew Alex frantically calling eachother to bathe in reflected glory.

This week came the big breakthrough, 24 hours after winning the PCA Young Cricketer award in London.

Oh, there were other ducks before the debut zero against India. Some of them on the telly, one first baller against Worcestershire in 2009 sticks in the mind. But class can’t be denied. By the time Craig Kieswetter scored the winning runs at The Oval on Friday night, the cricket-speaking world were well aware of Alex Hales’ class.

The new Kevin Pietersen is what I said six years ago. He may be better than that. And not just in the shortest form of the game. He scored over 1,000 runs in the Championship last season and averages 58.99 in the first class games.

And four hours before his big moment at The Oval on Friday, Notts confirmed a two-year contract extension with timing nearly as good as the lad himself.

He’s a good lad, Alex. It hasn’t been plain sailing, there are always ducks about on the tempestuous sea that is a batsman’s life. But it’s full steam ahead now. Proud of you God-son.

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  1. Looks like he has the cricket world at his feet! And great memories for me of Chalfont Athletic too. Well written Neal and well done Alex.

  2. Thanks Stevie (Winty?), lots of memories stored in here!