An outcast made to last
Of all the brutal innings Matthew Hayden has played he rates one of the ugliest as the most important. At The Oval in 2005 he scratched and shuffled and defended over 303 balls, edging to 138 in a performance that made him look like a man who was headed for the exit. Instead it was another re-birth in a career that has contained patches where he was immortal and unstoppable, expendable and unusable.
Hayden becomes the 11th Australian to play 100 Tests on Friday and his unbending belief in his own qualities is being examined again. At 37, every failure starts the speculation over his future and after oblique references to retirement before the Brisbane game there is a chance this match could be his last. Or he could score a century and, one day when he's bobbing on his surfboard at North Stradbroke Island, look back at the past eight months as another one of the lulls that preceded a huge swell of runs.
Three years ago his hundred at The Oval was the start of four in consecutive matches and until he suffered a heel injury while training in the Indian Premier League he was as invincible as Achilles. In five Tests since his return he has posted two half-centuries, and 8 and 0 over the past week in what was almost certainly his last five-day game at the Gabba. His spluttering form in the opening two matches in India last month was one of the reasons why the hosts were able to dominate the tourists and claim the series.
It's not hard to argue that Hayden, with 8484 runs at 52.04 and 30 centuries, is Australia's greatest batsman at the top of the order. No specialist long-term opener averaged above 50 before. Of the full-timers Bill Ponsford, Bill Woodfull, Arthur Morris and Bill Lawry were in the high 40s; Justin Langer and Bob Simpson achieved comparable means during stints there, but spent large chunks of their careers lower down the list.
|The purists say bowling standards have dropped and Hayden is a brutal basher without charm or subtlety. It has never been the Hayden way.|
In 2004, when Hayden had 20 hundreds in 55 Tests, his conversion rate to triple figures was second to Bradman's. He is also one of the rare batsmen to have fewer fifties than hundreds.
The purists say bowling standards have dropped and Hayden is a brutal basher without charm or subtlety. It has never been the Hayden way. He grew up on a farm in country Queensland, left for boarding school in Brisbane, was rejected by the Academy because Rod Marsh wanted only those who were potential first-class cricketers, and was stuck behind Mark Taylor and Michael Slater in the 1990s despite years of consistent domestic excellence. The setbacks galvanised an already superior and confident outlook. His self-belief has never been seen to waiver.
A published chef, Hayden will regularly talk about his hunger for runs. Until recently he has gorged on them with his bush style, using a big step forward and a wrecking-ball swing of the bat to frighten bowlers and enliven spectators. During his then world record 380 against Zimbabwe, when he muscled 38 fours and 11 sixes in Perth, there were calls for him to get out before reaching Don Bradman's Australian mark of 334. Giving up his wicket, or his quest for time in the Australian team, was not in his nature. Even in six-a-side fun days he would put on his helmet and play like it was the innings that would determine his future.
The attitude kept him bouncing back and eventually allowed him to develop in to the block that Australia's order has been built on since he became a regular in 2000. Only twice, against India in 2001 and West Indies in 2003, have Australia lost when Hayden has scored a century. Only 16 times has he been in a defeated Test team.
In the past he was part of an outstanding team, but now he is one of two greats, along with Ricky Ponting, in an outfit that is finding its level. The new Australia needs him in form, crunching the new ball, attacking the spinners, setting up 400-plus totals and delaying the entry of a fresh middle order. If his heavy legs cannot regain their spark the selectors can feel safe looking to a younger man. But until they are certain he will not reach the 2009 Ashes there will be no discarding of an outcast who has achieved so much.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo