Ridden by doubt, Hayden's time is running out
There are few more disheartening sights in sport than watching a great career sputter towards an unbefitting end. It's a feeling that has gripped cricket fans in Australia and India in recent months and on a day when Rahul Dravid's half-century against England at least delayed further queries about his retirement plans, Matthew Hayden's second failure of the match against South Africa has only intensified speculation over his future.
Hayden has hit a wall that is starting to look as impenetrable as Dravid's defence at its peak. He took so long to get off the mark in the second innings at the WACA that when he finally struck his first runs in his 37th minute, he raised his bat to the crowd in a mock celebration. The fans cheered but must have been wondering if they will ever see him enjoy another genuine milestone.
If he remains keen to go on next year's Ashes tour, he needs to make a big score quickly. Hayden loves the MCG, where he has made centuries in six out of the past seven Boxing Day Tests, and he will be desperate to harness that positive vibe next week. The way he played in Perth it will take quite a turnaround. A horrible umpiring call contributed to his disappointment when he was given out caught off his pad, but he had been so scratchy that it was hard to imagine him lasting much longer anyway.
In his early days Hayden had an unfortunate habit of occasionally getting bowled misjudging the length and shouldering arms. It's such an ugly mode of dismissal that it magnifies a batsman's flaws. The uncertainty returned in this innings when he was lucky not to be given lbw when he left a Dale Steyn ball that swung in and would probably have clipped the stumps.
His hesitance was understandable. It was only by stripping away much of his aggression and returning to a cautious approach that he returned to form after a miserable Ashes tour in 2005. His first-innings dismissal must have been weighing on his mind as well. On the opening day, Hayden was buoyed by three confident fours when he flashed at a short, wide ball that he could easily have left and edged to slip. A man who made his name by intimidating new-ball bowlers around the world is himself beginning to look daunted.
There have been glimmers of hope in recent months - he made two half-centuries on the tour of India - but he hasn't looked right since missing the trip to the Caribbean due to an ongoing Achilles tendon injury. The heel was the fatal weakness of the mythological Greek soldier for which it was named and it could yet contribute to the undoing of a modern Australian warrior.
|There is doubt created by the fact he's not having the success he'd like, there is doubt created by he hasn't got a hundred for a few Tests, there is doubt created by the fact that people are speculating about his future, all those things go into making this a tough gameCoach Tim Nielsen on Hayden's poor run|
Tim Nielsen, the Australian coach, would like him to be sticking around longer and not exposing Ricky Ponting to the new-ball as early, although he said all the signs from Hayden off the field remained positive. But the pressure builds after every missed opportunity and Nielsen said it was to be expected that it might make things harder for Hayden each time he went to the crease.
"There is doubt created by the fact he's not having the success he'd like, there is doubt created by he hasn't got a hundred for a few Tests, there is doubt created by the fact that people are speculating about his future, all those things go into making this a tough game," Nielsen said. "There is speculation about you every day and at the moment he's the one who's under the gun."
But he insisted Hayden was not facing pressure from the Australian camp or the selectors and he did not believe the batsman had made a decision on his future. A chat with the team management is likely at the end of the South Africa series and Hayden's future should become clearer.
"At the end of this series we'll sit down and see where he's at," Nielsen said. "It'll make it more difficult if his scores aren't as consistent as he'd like them to be but at the moment I think we've got to be patient. I'm sure over the next six months we'll all know exactly where he stands."
If he gets a tap on the shoulder from the chairman of selectors Andrew Hilditch, it would be a disappointing way to go. Hayden deserves to exit the game on his own terms, like so many of the men who with him were key parts of Australia's most dominant period.
Glenn McGrath departed after taking a record number of wickets at the 2007 World Cup. Shane Warne quit the game after helping Australia to a 5-0 Ashes triumph and has wisely resisted calls for his return, preferring the positive memories of his international swansong. Justin Langer went following the same Ashes victory. Hayden has missed Langer since their long-standing opening partnership was severed for good and Langer said this week that he felt Hayden was not sure about whether to try and push on to England in 2009.
If he does not make the trip to England, Australia have plenty of opening options. Simon Katich and Phil Jaques would be the likely first-choice pair but there are others pressing their claims at first-class level. Two of the three leading run-scorers in the Sheffield Shield this season are opening batsmen: Chris Rogers, who has played a Test, and Phillip Hughes, who is only 20 but is in superb form for New South Wales.
Hughes' timing is impeccable. In the current match against South Australia at the SCG, he made 114 to add to the 93 and 108 he compiled in the previous game against Tasmania. Hayden, who is 17 years his senior, needs to rapidly rediscover his own sense of occasion to avoid a forgettable farewell.
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo