Australia v South Africa, 3rd Test, Sydney, 1st day January 3, 2009

New year but same old problems

A new year comes with the same problems despite all the resolutions and promises of change


Matthew Hayden's self-belief is no longer enough when weighed down by slowing reflexes © PA Photos
 

A new year comes with the same problems despite all the resolutions and promises of change. Like giving up smoking on the first day of the year, the fresh start is often false. Australia's opening hour was full of promise from Simon Katich and Matthew Hayden, but nothing was the same after the first stop for a drink.

On a day when Cricket Australia's chairman Jack Clarke defended his players by saying they "deserve and have earned our respect", the most senior batsmen followed the pattern of the opening defeats to South Africa and left the side in increasingly familiar discomfort. A significant change in direction does not occur from talk, good intentions or a return to familiar patterns. So Matthew Hayden remains a selector's headshake away from having his career ended and the first day of the team's 2009 revival went the same way as the end of 2008, finishing at an insecure 6 for 267.

Hayden has been great as an opener because he has refused to bow to opening bowlers and has stuck to his method when in form or out. At 37 altering the approach is impossible and he is suffering because of it. Old openers don't do new tricks, especially against such a formidable opponent, and his self-belief is no longer enough when weighed down by slowing reflexes.

If Hayden wants to play a shot he will. A couple of close fielders on the off side and a man at mid-off may put him off for a few overs, or a few moments, but he will still try to pierce the defence. It's his will to beat the ball and the tactics. He drove at Makhaya Ntini before lunch and it fell short of mid-off. He was fortunate, as he hadn't been in Perth and Melbourne, and continued attempting to hold on to his innings and his place.

After lunch Hayden and Michael Hussey, another consistent performer suffering from a summer without spark, started more positively. Hayden stuck a firm boundary off the back foot in the first over back before Hussey followed with a sharp cover drive for four in the next. They were the shots of composed batsmen and the hope from the stands was that they had re-discovered their old selves. Then Hayden started attempting to play by leaning back without moving his feet, swinging through the off side without success. He tried it enough times to know he should stop, but didn't.

With Dale Steyn operating from around the wicket, a plan which has worked well against Hayden throughout the series, the batsman had another go at perfecting the shot. This time he hit it, but the inside edge went on to the stumps instead of in front of point. After almost three hours Hayden was gone for 31 and Australia were 3 for 109. Old players who waste their starts quickly become former players.

Hussey, whose spot is not in danger even though the 30 was his highest score of the series, will be relieved that he was able to hit through cover and pull with confidence. However, his push at Paul Harris, leading to a catch at first slip, showed his tentativeness had not departed. It is a shame seeing Hussey in such confusion, but he is in a rut while Hayden is camped in a valley. What the dismissals could not hide was that Australia needed more from their most experienced batsmen after Ricky Ponting's first-ball exit.

Michael Clarke is in the processing of gaining the senior tag and the way he has varied his batting pace over the summer has shown a player who will soon average more than 50. Most of the time he knows when a flourish or a dead bat is needed and while it means the excitement of four years ago is reduced, the effectiveness has increased to the point where he can now save the side or speed it away.

His unbeaten 73 took his summer collection to four fifties and a hundred, making him the side's most consistent batsman. Clarke, Brad Haddin and Mitchell Johnson, two other men for the future, lifted Australia from the damage caused by their elders. It is still not a strong position and if something isn't working it is either fixed or a new model is sought. The sooner the selectors realise this with Hayden the quicker they are likely to gain some respect.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo

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