Great Batsmen on Skid Row

Hard times, and irreversible declines

A look at all-time great batsmen who spent time on Skid Row

Dileep Premachandran

September 7, 2005

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Matthew Hoggard has had Hayden's number all series © Getty Images
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In a sense, Matthew Hayden's descent from overpowering run-machine to unsure mortal has mirrored Australian cricket's decline this summer. His travails have dominated every debate about the slippery slide that the Australians have been on since Glenn McGrath turned an ankle before play commenced at Edgbaston, and when you look at the figures, it's not hard to see why.

Before the blip that has now become a deep rut, Hayden was the most intimidating batsman to have faced up to a new ball, muscling his way to 20 centuries and 15 fifties in his first 55 Tests. Since then, a fallow run that dates back to the tour of India last October, he has eked out just 842 runs at 30.07 in 16 Tests, with just five half-centuries.

It wouldn't be strictly accurate to say that he's been in wretched form either - 20 of the 30 innings have seen him cross 20, but not once has he gone beyond 70. More worryingly for Australia, the aura has slipped, and the Big Bad Wolf who terrified the Little Red Riding Hoods with the new ball has metamorphosed into a careworn and hesitant lamb, easy prey for a relentless English pace attack.

Is there a way back for Hayden? We looked at a few examples of all-time great batsmen who spent time on Skid Row. A few of them came back stronger and better, while the others found that there was no rage left to fight the dying light.

The return of the Prince

It's hard not to feel a sense of wonder when you realise that Brian Lara averaged over 60 until his 33rd Test, despite keeping his faith in a cavalier game that always kept the bowlers interested. Unlike some of his more dour contemporaries, every Lara epic was also an aesthetic masterpiece, but by 1997, both he and West Indian cricket had lurched from near-invincibility to whipping-boy status.

In a 15-Test spell that included a humiliating 5-0 whitewash at South African hands, Lara managed just 921 runs at 35.42. Like Hayden, he got starts, passing 20 in 16 of the 27 innings he played. This story, though, had a happy ending, and the renaissance was marked by a sublime 213 against Australia at Sabina Park, an effort surpassed only by the incandescent brilliance of the unbeaten 153 that he conjured up at Bridgetown a week later.

The great hustler fades away

Though well into his 30s, Javed Miandad's hunger for runs, consistency, bloody-mindedness and tactical nous had played an immense role in Pakistan's World Cup triumph a few months earlier. His pugnacity and skill with the bat had frustrated a generation of English players, and when he started the 1992 tour with a superb unconquered 153 at Edgbaston, many an English supporter would have feared that one of the modern-day masters would exit the stage in a blaze of glory.



There was no blazing-sunset exit for the ultimate competitor © Getty Images
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It never happened. In the 11 Tests that he played subsequently prior to his retirement in 1993-94, Miandad aggregated just 578 runs at 32.11, crossing 50 only four times. He faded away, instead of burning out, despite the fact that the volatile temperament remained to the bitter end.

Tubby's Torment

When Hayden made his debut as a solid strokemaker with a limited repertoire over a decade ago, Mark Taylor was the senior opener, the man who had instigated the annexing of the Ashes in 1989 with a torrent of runs. By 1995, he was also captaining the best team in the world, a side that had finally beaten the West Indies after two decades of trying.

Taylor's personal hell began soon after, and in 13 Tests from December 1995, he scratched out only 562 runs at 25.54. If he hadn't been such an exceptional leader, the axe would surely have severed neck muscles weakened from rueful shakes of the head after each dismissal. But like Lara's story, this too was about redemption, and in June 1997, he chiselled out a gritty 129 as Australia saved some face in a nine-wicket loss at Edgbaston. By the time he retired 18 months later, Taylor had also equalled Sir Donald Bradman's record score by an Australian (334), a mark that stood till Hayden blew past at Perth in 2003-04.

The Colonel's long march into the sunset

In his 16 previous Tests, Dilip Vengsarkar - nicknamed the Colonel supposedly because of the manner in which his strokeplay resembled CK Nayadu's - had effortlessly plundered 1631 runs, and eight centuries, at a mind-boggling average of 101.94. For an 18-month stretch starting with the tour of England in 1986 - his centuries on difficult pitches at Lord's and Headingley are compulsory viewing for those seeking guidance on how to cope with seaming conditions - Vengsarkar was among the world's premier batsmen, equally at ease against pace and spin.

He made two centuries against the mighty West Indies in 1987-88, retiring hurt after a tenacious effort at Kolkata. But in the 18 Tests that he was to play thereafter, he aggregated a dismal 612 runs, with only five half-centuries - a wan shadow of the imperious batsman who had conquered all-comers in his mid-80s pomp.

The Little Master's two-year drought



Gavaskar went on to script 11 more centuries once the blip was over © Getty Images
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Sunil Gavaskar's fallow run didn't quite reach 10 Tests, but he garnered plenty of headlines along the way, the most prominent being during the Melbourne Test of 1980-81, when his disappointment at the curtailment of a first innings of substance against a Dennis Lillee-inspired Australia nearly led to a shambolic walkout.

Since making his debut in the Caribbean in 1970-71, Gavaskar had rarely known failure, piling on the runs in all conditions, against all opposition. By the start of the new decade, he had 23 centuries, but in 17 subsequent innings, he could manage only 445 runs, with the 70 at the MCG being the weightiest contribution. Cheer was restored just before Christmas 1981, when he nurdled 172 against Keith Fletcher's Englishmen at Bangalore.

Pesky primate off his back, the greatest opener of the modern era went on to finish with over 10,000 runs and 34 centuries, a tally matched only by the peerless Sachin Tendulkar.

Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Cricinfo

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Dileep Premachandran Associate editor Dileep Premachandran gave up the joys of studying thermodynamics and strength of materials with a view to following in the footsteps of his literary heroes. Instead, he wound up at the Free Press Journal in Mumbai, writing on sport and politics before Gentleman gave him a column called Replay. A move to MyIndia.com followed, where he teamed up with Sambit Bal, and he arrived at ESPNCricinfo after having also worked for Cricket Talk and total-cricket.com. Sunil Gavaskar and Greg Chappell were his early cricketing heroes, though attempts to emulate their silken touch had hideous results. He considers himself obscenely fortunate to have watched live the two greatest comebacks in sporting history - India against invincible Australia at the Eden Gardens in 2001, and Liverpool's inc-RED-ible resurrection in the 2005 Champions' League final. He lives in Bangalore with his wife, who remains astonishingly tolerant of his sporting obsessions.
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