Alex Hales defied the expectations of many to hold England together at Headingley – but he described his unbeaten 71 as “just a start” in his bid to establish himself as a Test opener.
Swing and seam provided a stern test of technique and patience on day one of the Investec series against Sri Lanka and, while others faltered, including England captain Alastair Cook who fell short of his 10,000-run milestone, Hales proved he was up to the task.
England therefore recovered from 83 for five, with 54 not out, too, from Jonny Bairstow, to close a rain-shortened day on 171 without further loss after Sri Lanka debutant Dasun Shanaka had begun his sequence of three wickets in eight balls by having Cook caught-behind.
Hales, whose maiden Test tour of South Africa last winter did not convince everyone by any means, needed to dig in to stay on course for a maiden century.
“There was consistent swing most of the day, and a little bit of nibble [off the pitch] – and some bounce from the far end,” he said. “So conditions were tough. I had to rein myself in a little bit, in the channel, particularly coming forward. I’m pleased I managed to get through it, but it’s just a start.”
Hales, who began this summer by sitting out Nottinghamshire’s first two County Championship matches, insists his confidence was intact despite the mixed results in South Africa.
“I’ve tweaked a couple of things, just outside off-stump,” he said. “I think in South Africa a couple of times I maybe got caught between defence and attack. It’s something I’ve been working on, but it’s still a work in progress – and I think it’s going to be key to me being successful as a Test player.
“Throughout the Test series against South Africa, I didn’t feel out of my depth – and I kept that in my mind. I think it was me making mistakes, rather than balls getting me out. I’d rather it was that way, knowing it was up to me to correct a few things.”
There were no guarantees from selectors, but Hales sensed – even allowing others that two-match start on him this summer – he would be given another chance as Cook’s latest opening partner.
“Four games abroad, in one of the toughest places to open the batting, it would have been quite harsh [to drop me],” he said. “I feel like I have come a long way in the last six months, and hope I can continue.”
Another 29 runs in Leeds will be further vindication, and decidedly handy for England too as they try to sustain their recovery.
Hales was grateful for Bairstow’s help, the wicketkeeper-batsman continuing his much-improved form on his home ground.
“He’s been brilliant, hasn’t he?” Hales asked.
“The way he comes out and almost naturally scores at a 70/80 strike rate, to do it on a wicket like that – where it was pretty tough work – he made it seem like nothing.
“It shows how much he’s come on over the last year as a Test cricketer, and he looks the real deal.”
Both will need to be at their best once more on the second morning, though.
“I think it’s delicately poised at the moment,” continued Hales.
“The first hour tomorrow is going to shape the game a lot. If we can get through without losing many scalps, it’s going to stand us in good stead.
“If we give them a sniff, they’re going to be all over us.”
Shanaka caused an uneasy stir in the home crowd, bagging Cook with only his seventh delivery and then Joe Root and Nick Compton in quick succession too.
“It’s a great wicket to start my career, and I’ll remember the moment forever,” said the all-rounder.
Meanwhile, the Sri Lanka team are to donate one million rupees, almost £5,000, to the relief fund for those affected by this week’s floods in their country.