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Peter English at Melbourne
December 27, 2006
Matthew Hayden and Andrew Symonds circled like alpha males when they first met in the Queensland squad. Today they hugged so hard that two animals further down the food chain would have collapsed in the crush. Seconds earlier Symonds had registered his first Test century with a six and Hayden charged at his partner, lifting him in a rugged embrace which must have made Justin Langer envious.
The two big, powerful men with passions for the outdoors and strong desires to hit cricket balls hard quickly found their common bonds in the state squad in the early 1990s. Both batsmen have since spent years in the wilderness - a combination of off-season choice and national selections - and developed a strong friendship over eventful fishing trips and hours of throwdowns.
Hayden was responsible for showing Symonds the outlook of a professional batsman when the junior partner struggled to turn occasional one-day bursts into regular returns. The lessons worked and he became an essential limited-overs member at the 2003 World Cup, but the same blurriness had afflicted him in his brief Test career.
For 11 matches over three stints he was able to impose himself only once and struggled to be the allrounder Australia dreamed of since being dominated by Andrew Flintoff. He even found it hard to be the useful bits and pieces man the country would have happily tolerated. With Hayden as his partner and comforter, Symonds has found his Test level after they joined forces to take the game away from the opposition for the second time in two Melbourne matches.
Symonds came closest to cracking the Test arena - and parts of the MCG - when he smashed 72 from 54 balls against South Africa last year. Playing for his spot, he showed he could be worth a long-term gamble. Four Tests later he was dropped and until Shane Watson suffered a one-week hamstring injury that turned into a two-month drama Symonds' Test claims were endangered. Two wickets in Perth showed his value as a bowler who could chip away, but his No. 1 skill faltered again and he became a match-by-match prospect. A week later he produced the most mature innings of his career.
Hayden was set when Symonds arrived with Australia in danger at 5 for 84. He waited 21 deliveries for his first single, which is an age for a batsman who is happiest bashing a run a ball. Time at the crease was earned and it wasn't until he fired a cover-driven four off Matthew Hoggard and backed it up next ball with a lofted boundary to mid-off that he found his natural pace. He was 36, the first-innings scores were level and he quickly dropped back a gear. The reward was impressive.
Symonds' half-century came from 79 balls and his push towards the century was similarly well paced. It was an innings he seemed incapable of playing. Another short volley arrived when he smashed a Monty Panesar long-hop to midwicket and two balls later he unleashed his first six of the innings, taking him from 96 to the glory of three figures. He reached for the drive and employed his full follow-through, watching the ball plop into the bottom level of Melbourne Cricket Club stand.
Having escaped Hayden's grasp, Symonds stood with arms up accepting the applause like a gladiator. He has taken similar praise when wearing green and gold but this innings drowned his five one-day hundreds. By stumps he was 154 and had outlasted Hayden, who broke the liaison when he departed for 153.
Put in a pressure situation Symonds surprised even himself with the most important response of his life - and that includes his near-misses while hunting wild pigs and capsizing boats. When he got 143 against Pakistan at the 2003 World Cup he suddenly felt at ease and began to rampage through opposition attacks. Now that he is comfortable in the Test side Australia would be happy if he contributed with a half-century every two or three games and collected a couple of wickets. Centuries like this would be a wonderful bonus.
Hayden's advice helped Symonds' transformation and they carried the same pink bat handles as they shared two causes. Both were raising money for breast cancer and during the massive 279-run partnership they forced Australia closer to a 4-0 result. The men have enjoyed many days together but the one where they both got 150s in the summer's biggest Test will stand out as heavily as their muscular hug.
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