Oh dear. Where to begin? It emerged on Friday that Alex Hales, who despite losing his place in ODI side remains a key member of the squad, is currently serving a 21 day ban for using recreational drugs. And now news has broken that he’s been dropped from the World Cup squad.
The ECB has a very clear protocol on recreational drugs. If it’s a first offence then it’s dealt with in private. A second offence results in a 21-day ban and the player’s county is informed. A third offence results in a 12-month ban and in certain circumstances the player might have his contract terminated. It’s basically a ‘3 strikes and you’re out’ policy.
The fact this is Hales’s second drugs offence is quite worrying. It reminds the management that he’s a loose canon and a liability. In fact, many observers from the hot headed Michael Vaughan to the very considered Michael Atherton have called for Hales to be dropped entirely.
One can see their argument. Hales should have been on his best behaviour after the Bristol incident. What’s more, he still had a suspended ban of 4 games hanging over him for bringing the game into disrepute. The ECB are apparently furious with him – and rightly so.
However, there are some mitigating circumstances to consider. I’ll start with the broader context: the ECB’s paranoia about cricket’s image and it’s conviction that England’s players have a discipline problem. This is an assumption which I believe has led directly to the decision to drop Hales today.
Personally I think the ECB are wrong on this. Although the Bristol incident was high profile, I really don’t think England’s current group of players are particularly unruly. They’re certainly no angels but they’re not a bunch of bad boys either. In fact, these negative perceptions mostly stemmed from the Aussie press winding us up during the 0-4 Ashes tour the winter before last. And the ECB fell for it hook line and sinker.
The Johnny Bairstow head-butting incident was a complete non-story. A complete storm in a teacup. And then we had Ben Duckett being sent home for pouring a drink over James Anderson. A complete over-reaction. One might also point to the recent Joe Clarke and Alex Hepburn texts messages, but this was not connected to the England team at all; therefore it’s irrelevant as far as I’m concerned.
Personally I think the ECB are probably just worried that off-field stories might overshadow the excitement of the World Cup buildup. This is understandable, of course, but it’s just vanity at the end of the day. They want this to be the perfect summer. And they don’t want negative headlines to detract from what they’ll see as their crowning achievement: England winning the World Cup.
None of this should affect the sanctions dished out to Hales, however. It is wrong to break existing protocol and punish one individual player more harshly than you might in a non-World Cup year. Although Ashley Giles and Ed Smith talked today about protecting the team environment, and making sure there are no distractions, I’m simply not buying this for two reasons:
(a) If Hales was to fail another drugs test then it wouldn’t emerge until long after the world cup anyway – and it would be an insignificant footnote whether England go on to win the tournament of not.
(b) I don’t see how one player taking drugs can affect the team environment unless you see the squad as a bunch of schoolboys with sheep-like tendencies. Is Hales really a ringleader likely to lead the others astray? I think not. He isn’t even in the team at the moment.
Consequently I think this decision has more to do with the ECB wanting to appear tough than anything else. It’s political. A bit like Sajid Javid taking a hard-ass approach to crime so he seems attractive to Tory party members.
Ashley Giles has similarly positioned himself as a hard-ass since taking on his new brief – partly because this plays to his bosses’ erroneous view that the team has a discipline problem – and making an example of Hales is just the latest manifestation of this.
Remember the following: the ECB seemed happy with the 21-day ban initially. And it was all handled behind closed doors. But now the story has been leaked to the press they’re coming down on Hales like a ton of bricks. Does this seem fair? It seems they’re just playing to the gallery.
But what about you? Do you think Hales should remain part of the World Cup squad? I’m guessing your attitude might depend on your personal views, experiences, and depth of knowledge of recreational drugs in general.
Personally I think he should stay in the squad. He should serve his ban and that should be the end of it. I’m not trying to defend his actions – he’s obviously made some huge mistakes, not least his reported infidelity in the Caribbean, but I don’t think you can throw someone out of the squad just because they’ve made mistakes or acted like a twat on occasion.
What’s more, the people who are calling for blood the loudest don’t actually know all the details yet. At this point we don’t know which recreational drug Hales took, where he took it, or when exactly the offence took place. Indeed, the BBC reported that the incident happened last year but was only picked up in routine a hair follicle test fairly recently. Apparently traces of drugs can be picked up in your hair months after the event – which is why the method is so effective.
If the offence was indeed last year (I’m guessing September or October) then it would’ve occurred not long after Ben Stokes was acquitted, and around the time the ECB brought its disrepute charge against Hales. If that’s the case one might have a little more sympathy. Hales’s head would’ve been completely messed up at the time, and it’s not unusual for people to seek solace in drugs or alcohol to relieve anxiety.
What’s more, if the timings above are correct, then the drug taking would’ve happened before Hales gave all his media interviews promising to grow up and turn over a new leaf. This is a small point but one worth making to the ‘he’ll never change so string him up’ brigade.
I’d like to wait and see what recreational drug Hales took before I pass final judgement. This won’t matter to those who have a fearful and somewhat puritanical view of narcotic abuse: “all drugs are bad, m’kay”. However, I’m fairly liberal about some recreational drugs.
For example, if Hales had smoked a little pot in the privacy of his hotel room, then I really wouldn’t give a toss. He wouldn’t be the first – Sir Ian Botham has admitted doing the same – and I’d much rather England players stay in, get high, and stay out of trouble than go out on drinking binges (especially players who have got into trouble outside nightclubs).
Although I certainly wouldn’t advocate smoking marijuana – don’t do it kids! – it’s important to note that many societies now have a pretty relaxed attitude to dope. Indeed, the Olympic committee itself takes a pretty relaxed stance. It’s technically prohibited but really not policed rigorously.
What’s more, some of the most celebrated sportsmen of all time smoke (or have smoked) dope. NFL players use it for pain relief, and Michael Phelphs, who is the greatest Olympian of all time, was photographed smoking dope in 2009 in the middle of his career. Those like Michael Vaughan who seem to have a zero tolerance approach to drugs might want to consider whether they would’ve banned Phelps ten years ago and prevented him from breaking all those records.
On the other hand if it transpires that Hales took cocaine, for example, then I’d be a lot less sympathetic. Why? Because coke can be performance enhancing. What’s more, once we get into the realms of class As then the situation becomes more sinister. I’d still, however, advocate that a player needs help rather than persecution.
Whatever one thinks that England should do with Alex Hales, I think it’s safe to say that the poor guy is currently a mess. And anyone who’s struggling off-the-pitch deserves sympathy and support in my opinion.
The life of a professional cricketer can be extremely tough. You only need to read the autobiographies of guys like Marcus Trescothick and Graham Thorpe to understand this. Mental health is a really big issue in cricket and it’s not restricted to a handful of individuals. Go back and read the interviews given by the likes of Michael Yardy and Steve Harmison.
Of course, individuals who feel under fire will react in different ways. Andrew Flintoff got drunk and fell off a pedalo. Pretty daft I think you’ll agree. Alex Hales has obviously responded by using recreational drugs.
Daft? Certainly. But a big enough issue to rule him out of the world cup and potentially ruin his career? Personally I don’t think so.
I can understand and respect contrasting views on this one. It’s a judgement call. But in my humble opinion the ECB have made the wrong decision. And they’ve made it for all the wrong reasons too.