England v Australia, 5th Test, The Oval, 3rd day September 10, 2005

Hayden - The renaissance man

Matthew Hayden reaches his 21st Test hundred, and 6000 Test runs into the bargain © Getty Images
Matthew Hayden's mission at The Oval was to save his career and his team. The first aim was taken care of with a hard-working effort that became easier and more fun the longer he stayed. The battle to hold onto the Ashes, however, increased in difficulty with every drop of rain. The weather frustrated Australia for long periods, but by stumps they were a bright and confident 277 for 2, setting up a fascinating end to a magnificent series.

On a day of milestones for opening batsmen, Hayden finished it smiling like the surfers he joins when the waves at Stradbroke Island are double overhead. This ground has been a venue for Australian resurrections as well as last goodbyes, and Hayden added his name to the first list. Four years ago Australia celebrated Justin Langer's revival with a century and today Hayden produced 110 unbeaten reasons for praise with his 21st hundred. It was a brave performance.

As well as waking up on day four with a head clear from months of pressure, Hayden will carry a sore back from the hundreds of slaps of his supporters, starting with the joyous pats from Ricky Ponting in the middle and including a tap from Trevor Hohns, the chairman of selectors, as he entered the dressing-room. The three men have been pushed to make changes and stuck to their beliefs that Hayden's dormancy would not be terminal.

Hayden had not passed 70 in 30 innings and 14 months, but with a mistimed pull from Steve Harmison he moved to 74 and was showing the purposeful follow-through and foot-sure movements that earned him a Test average of more than 50. With 180 runs in eight innings leading into The Oval, the streak was winning regular comparisons with Mark Taylor's dramatic drought leading into the '97 Ashes series and the end-of-the-road danger was extreme.

Hayden and Justin Langer celebrate their and their team's comeback © Getty Images
Where Taylor could not make any impact until Edgbaston, Hayden made regular starts before falling under the control of England's all-angle attack, which eased with the injury-enforced trade of Simon Jones for Paul Collingwood. At 33, Hayden's age remains an issue, especially when the side's poor form arrives in batches, as it has on this tour with the struggling thirtysomethings Martyn, Gilchrist, Gillespie and Kasprowicz.

However, his 21st Test century earned his 6000th run and gave Australia excuses to be cheerful as they cut England's lead to 96 and focused on securing a large first-innings advantage. The 185-run partnership with Langer, which was 17 fewer than their opening innings in 2001, gave the team a satisfying base and the confidence to plot plans for a victory that would retain the Ashes.

The speed of Langer's innings was incredible considering the disruptions of weather and the series circumstances. Staying 145 balls for his 105, he steered the proceedings as Hayden battled for control on day two, and today passed Don Bradman's 6996 career mark in the same over that he raised his 22nd Test century - a figure higher than the former openers Taylor and David Boon - and played on to Harmison. He sits on 7001 runs and owns the proud record of successive centuries in Oval Tests. Like Hayden, Langer's individual objectives were successfully conquered, but they must wait two days to measure fully the success of Australia's late charge.

Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo