Australia v Bangladesh, 1st Test, Fatullah, 4th day April 12, 2006

When greatness scrapped



Matthew Hayden: less of a bully now but as effective © Getty Images

Few people emit the sense of change in post-Ashes Australia as vividly as Matthew Hayden. Before last summer, Hayden was the consummate bully; his broad chest and shoulders were as much weapons as his bat. Unless someone as self-involved as Shoaib Akhtar came along, bowlers had generally been smacked before they measured their run. In a wholly irrelevant mid-Test journalistic discussion last December, it was decided by two English hacks and this one, that Hayden's batting was essentially Rumsfeldian in nature.

But his subsequent failure, like that of his team, prompted introspection for his batting now is much more sensitive to mood and circumstance. It's actually acquired humility; an acknowledgement that bowlers too contribute to the goodness of this game and aren't meant for just bashing. His 72 embodied this change; Hayden pre-summer 2005 would likely have ripped into Bangladesh as he did against Zimbabwe when making 380.

Instead, he was respectful and cautious, stoutly patting back deliveries he might earlier have driven. Mind you, his defensive prods pack a mean punch but even when he charged the spinners, it was bluff, as he merely patted the ball back firmly. He accumulated steadily through the day and regressed occasionally, when cutting or driving. Yet he never looked troubled; the only time he did, he misjudged the strength of his own defensive prods, running when he shouldn't have to a firm push straight down the pitch.

Has it reduced him? In fact the very opposite, say the figures. If we accept that the gritty century at The Oval century marked Hayden II, including that match, he averages nearly 66 from 11 Tests with seven hundreds. His strike rate (61.13 before the Ashes) has come down to 55.76 since. There have also been two nineties and you can argue either way about the attacks he has come up against in South Africa and West Indies. As with Australia, the jury will be chilling on Hayden's effectiveness till at least November and the Ashes but what they cannot fail to admire is his ability to reinvent himself so completely, so radically. He has, as he displayed today, revamped the entire essence of his game.

Little though has changed in Ricky Ponting's batting save that he is even better at it since the Ashes. He's in that phase right now where he'll score runs against anyone, anywhere, even against spinners in India (average 12.28 from eight Tests). He too began quietly, hell-bent on avoiding hiccups. Conceivably, it was also recognition of how important his runs have become to his side's health; as much as the emergence of a Hussey or a Clark, it is Ponting's form that has featured heaviest in Australian success post-Ashes.



At the moment, Ponting can probably score runs against anyone, anywhere © Getty Images

For most of the afternoon, his progress was lordly and though you wished Bangladesh attacked him first with seamers, it might not have made much of a difference. The spinners were played with deft feet and hands, as when he danced down and pushed Mohammad Rafique straight down the ground in the 35th over of the innings. He wasn't ground down at any stage, just a man in control. He chose to bring up his fifty, after two and a half hours and 116 balls, with successive fours, but he could easily have brought it up substantially quicker or slower than he did, so solid did he look.

For two days, Bangladesh were also a changed team, and though there have been signs over the last two that they regressed to older traits, their three-wicket burst late in the afternoon happily suggested they are not willing to lie down just yet. They batted this morning as if only to prove Shane Warne's contention that wickets in Bangladesh come cheaper than elsewhere. It will be little consolation that he himself is probably reassessing his original verdict given that he hadn't taken a wicket for over 30 overs and that eventually his three came at over 40 runs each.

For much of the afternoon, with ball and in the field, Bangladesh were resigned. It is understandable, given 37 losses in 42 Tests (and many by an innings). They didn't let Australia canter away and though wickets didn't look likely, runs weren't shipped either. That seemed little consolation until Rafique - whose perseverance surely can rarely be questioned - struck. Having toiled through nearly 20 wicketless overs, he suddenly remembered that Damien Martyn often attracts rippers from left-arm spinners and that Michael Clarke's exuberance continues to eat away at the impression he made when he first arrived. Two late wickets, classically left-arm in method, were just personal reward though the greater one was that it hauled Bangladesh back.

Whatever the result - it isn't yet set in stone - Bangladesh have provided an almighty contest against the best side in the world. In even setting Australia a 300-plus target, seen objectively or subjectively, there is a victory. Their ability was evidenced in the first half of the match, but some spirit was also revealed at the very end today. Ponting lives on and tomorrow morning will once again reveal just how important his continuing excellence is in this time of Australian transition. But we're also just learning that Rafique - and maybe some of his team-mates - will not back down so readily.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo