Matthew Hayden May 19, 2008

'Walking down the track is such a rush'

Australia's long-serving opener on preparation, adapting to situations, playing the sweep, and putting the fear of God into bowlers

What does it take to swagger down the pitch and hit bowlers back over their head? To intimidate the opposition with your very presence? Cricinfo spoke to Matthew Hayden, the one modern batsman who has made an art out of attacking before he has even struck a ball.



Marking territory: "I feel grounded when I squat on the wicket" © Getty Images

Tell us about your routine once you get out into the middle to bat.
I go to the middle, I mark the crease and I squat on the wicket. I feel grounded when I do that. It's like a centring process. It's like, I'm out in this amazing place with millions across the world watching but right now I'm feeling very solid here. I don't say these things aloud but I just feel it every time I go out there. The middle of the cricket ground is the most comfortable place on earth for me.

All the grounds have something special. There is great history and a special vibe about each place. There are memories of each place - your own impressions of it. You try to draw positives from the venue.

Can you describe what batsmen call the zone? How often do you get into it?
The zone to me is pretty much every time I go out to bat. I never feel out of that. Not that it necessarily means there is a good result coming my way every time ...

Being in the zone is really relevant to the expression: "Time goes fast when you're having fun." I never remember anything about the strokes and the game. I'm always like that. That's the space I am in when I am batting.

What's your preparation before a game like?
I do lots of batting. I think I hit more balls than anyone else before a game. That's for two reasons: for my fitness and power, and for body position. I try and analyse bowlers and work out my strategies. That takes time. If there are five bowlers in an attack, I will analyse and commit serious time to each one of those bowlers.

I have learnt that your performances are really only one part of it. They keep going up and down. So if you were going to base your motivation solely on your performances, you would end up forgetting about preparation. Preparation is the key.

You walk down the wicket to the bowler every now and then. Why do you do that?
I do it when the bowlers settle into a pattern of play where you think they are bowling very well. Walking down is a good way to unsettle play. It's really throwing out a challenge to them: I know you're bowling really well here, but I am not going to let you.

What are you thinking when you walk down? Are you looking to play straight?
When I walk down, I just think: "I just want to see the ball, and wherever they bowl, I hit it there." (He laughs.) There's a tremendous adrenalin rush when you walk down the track.

 
 
I get comments in streets: "Oh you look so massive on screen. But you look fine in real life, you know!" It's like an expectation that people have
 

Can you tell us a bit more about how you use intimidation?
I find I am aggressive, and I think my size perhaps sort of gives that image too. I get comments in streets: "Oh you look so massive on screen. But you look fine in real life, you know!" It's like an expectation that people have. In my mind, in real life, as you can tell, I'm quite placid.

When did you first adopt this approach? And when did you first get the feeling that the bowlers were being intimidated?
All my career I have always loved hitting the ball. Even before I started playing first-class, my intentions were always to score. I was a big, strong boy, you know, and my intentions were to look to score runs.

I enjoy that feeling of actually hitting the ball. Of course, there are situations when the wicket is not playing like you think and you can't be too aggressive. Like [in the IPL game] in Bangalore. The wicket was doing something and the last thing Chennai wanted was to get blown out of the water in the first four overs. So I sort of played a more conservative role. That's just experience I guess. Putting in place a strategy and understanding that it might change and you have to be flexible to let your experience kind of speak for itself.

Speaking of experience, you didn't have a great start to your international career, against South Africa and West Indies.
I never really got an opportunity, to be honest. Against South Africa the first time, I was in for Mark Taylor who was very, very solid in his position. So that was just an opportunity by chance of his misfortune rather than my success.

So you didn't feel you belonged there?
No, I felt I belonged but I just knew that for whatever reasons it wasn't my time. So I quietly accepted that and made an affirmation to myself to try and get better every day, learn more about my game so that the next opportunity - which I always believed was going to come - I would be a better cricketer, better team member and a better, more rounded person.

What did you change in your game? Let me quote you an observation on your earlier days from a writer: "People still remember how the young Hayden would poke grimly round his front pad. How he looked lost against the spinners. How his clunky footwork was exposed by Allan Donald and Curtly Ambrose." Would you agree with that?
Yeah, that's right. As fine a cricketer as I am right now, I don't think as a young player I had it right. But having said that, momentum is an enormous thing in sport. The Donalds and Ambroses got a young Hayden - someone who had no momentum. You're starting from scratch. It's like building a business: you just don't strike rich straightaway. You've got to build steadily in a very organic way. Momentum in cricket is exactly the same. You gradually get to a position where you have a profile and expectation, and there is a reverse pressure as well - they know you are a fine player.



Hayden took up the sweep as an attacking option on the 2001 tour to India © Getty Images

When did things start to turn around?
I think in 2000. We played West Indies; I was playing really well but I just had a run of no luck. I got run out a couple of times in the 40s and 50s, and I could feel that it was all starting to happen there.

I was a changed player when I came back. In 2001 [in India], it obviously was my series, where I reached my expectations. And that took a while to deal with as well, because I didn't have a particularly good Ashes series after that. That was the reverse adjustment, where I had to tone it down a little bit.

You go through these little patches where people understand your game and you reinvent yourself and go again. It takes time to do that, lots of energy and effort, but you have to do that to have any longevity in the game.

That series in India - how did you prepare for it? Especially your sweeping.
I was really looking to come to India. I think I was savouring the Indian tour more than any other on earth. I prepared hard for that and sweeping was a strategy. I had a solid defensive strategy but what I came prepared to do was to have an attacking strategy with that sweep. It has been copied around the world now really. Most left-handers now look to play that sweep as a go-to shot to scoring.

How did that sweeping strategy come about? Did you speak to anyone?
The seed was planted in 1993, when I was working with Allan Border and Bob Simpson. Border was a very good sweeper as well and I got the foundation of it from him: understanding when and how, what lines to play, and picked his mind on that. Now it's changing again. It's reverse-sweeping! It's great. I just love the way people play the game now.

You reverse-swept Shaun Pollock in an IPL game. How do you predetermine something like that?
Yeah, idiotic wasn't it?! You know, I have never reverse-swept a seamer before in my life. It's too risky to practise because you can get hurt. It was just instinct. I just felt I knew where the ball would be, and as it turned out that's exactly where it was.

How often does that happen to you: the ball landing where you think it will?
Magically often, I reckon. I don't know what it is, it's just experience.

Do you look for cues from the bowlers?
Yeah, I do pick up cues early. For all of the bowlers, really. They have all got cues. You can tell from the field where they are supposed to bowl, but I just feel that I understand where the ball is going to be a lot. I think any batsman who rises to the top of his game in Test cricket understands that. It's not premeditation - it's just picking up the cues very well.

You seem to move towards the ball earlier than others. The very good batsmen pick the length early. You do that but you seem to move into line earlier than some of them.
Yeah. They say in life keep your enemies close. The ball is something I like to keep close to me! On bouncy pitches in Australia, if you get further away from the ball there are more chances of nicking it. In subcontinental conditions I do a lot of work on getting away from the ball because you need to have the freedom of your arms to generate bat speed, whereas at home you need to get in line and hit it on to the line of the ball.

You have had great success against Pollock. He is known for his nagging line and length but you hit him down the line, or pull the slightly short ones - even off the front foot.
He is a very fine bowler and he has got me out a number of times, but yeah, I just feel comfortable facing him. But then I feel comfortable facing most people in the world.

 
 
You go through these little patches where people understand your game. Then you reinvent yourself and go again. It takes time to do that, lots of energy and effort, but you have to do that to have any longevity in the game
 

I am in a really good space in my cricket right now. I am enjoying my batting and enjoying being in the middle.

There is a massive difference between good bowling and great bowling. Against good bowling you don't necessarily need ever to take a risk. Great bowling, you need to have your instincts about yourself; there is a risk there and there is a benefit to that risk. So then there is an unsettling process. Someone like Pollock is a good example of that. He is a great bowler who brings his instincts and that brings the best out of me. I start using my instincts to create opportunities. That may involve a risk but that's the balance and the trade-off.

What are basic requirements to have a great opening partnership like you had with Justin Langer? You two are good friends, but do you really have to be friends to form a successful pair?
Yes. You are like a couple, you know. Like any couple, you go through good times and bad times but you're always there for each other. That's who we are. We just get each other. When you get someone, it's a really good feeling - you are so comfortable in that person's space. You know their life enough that when they or you are under pressure, you can talk about it, about anything. It's just a nice feeling. Walking out with Justin was a real treat and something I really savoured.

I love to win. In Australia we are all just the same. We all like competing, we like to work hard and fight hard together and like to win. It's addictive and it's the best feeling from a sporting point of view to achieve something together. Team result is better than individual result.

How much do you think about the game when you are not playing?
Not very much, I must say. I practise a lot and train a lot. But I feel training has got nothing to do with cricket - its just about my own fitness and for my enjoyment. I enjoy doing stuff outside cricket, like fishing and surfing. I love to cook. I love cultural experiences. I want to travel more and do some business stuff.

Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo