'I've probably never been fitter' - Hayden
These are strange days for Matthew Hayden. Three months removed from calling time on his international career - an announcement he had hoped to stave off until after the 2009 Ashes, but expedited due to an extended scoring trough - Hayden now finds himself preparing to return to a game with which he is still making his peace, and a league that contributed to his premature departure from the Australian team.
Hayden speaks glowingly of his experiences in the inaugural IPL, despite the Achilles injury that marked the beginning of the end of his international career. It was that ailment, sustained during a training session with the Chennai Super Kings, that sidelined him from the ensuing tour of the West Indies, and stymied the momentum he had built since The Oval Test of 2005. Upon his eventual return, Hayden averaged just 23.93 in his nine Tests. Retirement, in the circumstances, was the most noble course of action.
Hayden has said a thousand goodbyes and completed many a lap of honour in the intervening period, only to find himself poised for a return to the middle. The pain of his departure from international cricket might not have entirely subsided - "It's hard to watch a game you still want to be involved in" - but he is nonetheless buoyant at the prospect of again turning out for the Super Kings, for whom he bludgeoned 189 runs at 63.00 last year.
"The players really feel they are part of a revolution in cricket - the way that it is played, the way it's packaged, and the spectators who are watching it," Hayden told Cricinfo. "For someone like me, who has been in the game a long time, it blows me away what Twenty20 cricket has done, and is doing, to the sport.
"[Last season] was unfortunate. I picked up that [Achilles] injury doing a running session because I wanted to be spot on for that West Indies tour. I came back [from the IPL] on a real high, not realising how bad the injury was. It didn't feel all that serious, and I wasn't expecting to miss any games let alone an entire Test series, so it wasn't until later that I realised what I was actually dealing with. But I don't look back on [the inaugural IPL] as a negative. If anything I found that really reinvigorated me and revived my enthusiasm, because you could feel you were a part of taking cricket to another level."
Had the Super Kings management harboured concerns for Hayden's physical condition post-retirement, they were placated within moments of the 37-year-old's arrival in India for a pre-IPL training camp. Hayden has spent much of the past three months immersed in one of his favourite training pursuits - surfing - and believes he is in better physical condition than at most stages of his international career.
KwaZulu-Natal beachgoers have been treated this week to the sight of a trim and toned Hayden surfing the Durban breaks with his one-time opponent, Jonty Rhodes. But the Australian batsman has also found plenty time to hit the nets, where he has discovered that the months away from the game have done little to erode the technique forged over a 103-Test career.
"Skills-wise, I've had a week and a half in India and hit a million balls, so in that regard I'm up and running," Hayden said. "But in terms of actually playing, I haven't picked up a bat since my final Test in Sydney, so it will be interesting to be back out there competing again. It has felt quite good so far.
"I've probably never been fitter. I've done a stack of surfing in the last few months and, as ridiculous as it sounds, it's probably the best kind of fitness work a batsman can do. It's all about core strength, balance and stability. Fitness was probably the one thing you couldn't get to all that much when you were playing all the time. It was sort of game-recover-travel, game-recover-travel."
Had Twenty20 cricket arrived on the scene earlier in his career, Hayden is certain he would have taken the David Warner route and tailored his game to meet the format's specific demands. Indeed, Hayden took with him a "Twenty20 mindset" into the 2007 World Cup - a tournament he dominated to the tune of 659 runs at 73.22 - and was brutal during his four game stint for Chennai last season. It is a format, he says, to which he is well suited, even at an advanced age.
"The World Cup for me was pretty much as good as it got, and that was about me basically going out there and striking the ball; trying to thump it as you would in a 20-over game," he said. "I wasn't so much worried about building innings or protecting my wicket. I was looking for boundaries, and it really took my game to another level. It's something I see in Warner. He turned the cricketing nation on its ear because he could strike a serious ball. He had everyone talking, and shows just how the game is changing.
"It's amazing to see the momentum of Twenty20. At first, it was considered quite a light-hearted thing and even now, in Australia, it's presented in a way where players are miked up and it's more about the entertainment. But I think it's changing elsewhere. Players are working more on how to develop their skills to be successful in Twenty20 cricket, which is the ultimate spectacle, and leaving the singing and jazzing about to others."
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo