October 8, 2008

It takes two

A couple of men, both of whom have been at their peak in India-Australia contests, are going to be vital again

Hayden: beneath the imperious exterior lurks a hardworking professional © Getty Images

Let the games begin!

After an eternity of speculation about pitches and selection and injuries and retirements, and with unsuspected newcomers eagerly sandpapering bats, and veterans anxiously oiling their joints, the Indian and Australian sides can finally get down to business. Everyone remembers the recent exchanges, the hot and the heroic, and hopes for another contest on the same scale. Above all, let the exchanges retain their force. Let the tottering local ancients go out with a bang. Let the Australians struggle like a hooked fish. In short, let the game's most compelling confrontation continue to deserve its audience.

Not since the glorious contests for the Ashes staged between the World Wars has cricket known a rivalry to equal that developed between these sides. In those days the latest scores were sent by telegraph and posted in shop windows, in front of which citizens patiently waited for the updates. Decades later pensioners were still telling children about the mighty deeds they had witnessed, if only in the window of the local newsagent. Cricket needs stirring memories, for then it has meaning. Either it aspires to glory or it is nothing. And glory is not to be confused with glamour.

Happily the rivalry between these new foes and secret friends has provided a second wave of superb competition. Modern spectators may follow events on screen or online but the fervour is the same. It has, too, brought out the best in both parties. Admittedly tempers have occasionally frayed, but that is little to put beside the enthralling contests and astonishing performances that have illuminated various grounds, much as glorious oratory or fine acting enlivens a stage. Contention has periodically reared its head but between teams of this calibre, with so little to set them apart, the smallest thing can make the difference, and so they scrap over every issue like hungry crows upon a hunk of bread.

Both camps have secured the victories needed to sustain the rivalry. India have not been scared to win and nor have they made the mistake of regarding a single triumph as the completion of the task. India's players have a higher ambition and greater expectation. Indeed they have come to regard themselves as the equals of the Australians. It is the essential first step towards beating them. Certainly India have been fearless and enterprising, daring to play their own game, as opposed to seeking to emulate their muscular opponents. It helps that the Indians know themselves. They come from a large and thriving country and the players arrive armed either with the grit of the back streets or with brains hardened by exposure to high learning. In short, they are as tough as the Australians.

On paper the Indians begin as favourites, an unusual position for them to occupy, considering the identity of their opponents. In theory it will be a struggle between the waned and the waning, as Australia's newcomers try to find their feet and mighty Indians seek to prolong their careers. It will be a duel in the sun between sweating fast bowlers from down under and redoubtable batsmen from hereabouts, and between resourceful run collectors and a varied home attack. All of them will know the stakes. It is not only about first and last, victory and defeat (for those things appear a thousand times in every career), the celebrations and commiserations, the ducks and the tons. This rivalry goes beyond results, offers an exposure to greatness. It is not a time for the half-baked.

Let the exchanges retain their force. Let the tottering local ancients go out with a bang. Let the Australians struggle like a hooked fish. In short, let the game's most compelling confrontation continue to deserve its audience

Of course both sides have much in common. Both depend upon a mighty figure at the start of their innings, a batsman capable of imposing himself from the outset, in manner as much as deed. The last time these teams met neither finished on the losing side. Matthew Hayden did not play in the Perth Test match, where a reduced Australian side was hounded into defeat. Virender Sehwag was omitted from the first two contests of the series, a misjudgment India had cause to rue. Despite all the palaver, India were five minutes shy of saving the SCG Test. Meanwhile their most damaging batsman watched from the sidelines. Belatedly the tourists remembered the need to reject mere logic and to embrace the exceptional.

Hayden and Sehwag will again have big parts to play in the forthcoming encounters. Over the years both have been at their peaks in these matches as they responded to their singular challenges. Nowadays Hayden's abilities are widely acknowledged but it took him years to establish his credentials. Just as well he did not doubt himself. Although imperious in manner and imposing in technique, he is in essence a hardworking professional. Now and then he forgets about due diligence and relies on effect and then he always fails till humility returns and he goes back to basics, watching the ball closely, playing it on its merits, hitting straight and hard and preferably along the ground. Not that in this mood he is a pushover. In some ways it is better for bowlers when he bashes. It is not punishment that worries bowlers but the crushing of hope.

From a distance, and especially from the bowler's end, it must seem that the Queenslander simply steps arrogantly down the pitch and starts belting the ball around. Of course it is not as easy as that. As with Sehwag, Hayden's batting is more planned than it seems. It is a matter of developing and keeping faith in a method. In his early years, as a Test cricketer desperate to make his name, naked before the critics, he looked as awkward as Hercules with a knitting needle. It took him time to find the truth about his batting, to chart his path forwards. And it took him longer to pluck up the courage to apply that method in Test cricket. Indeed he did not do so till he was unexpectedly chosen for the 2001 tour of India.

Hayden knows the risks he takes at the crease, considers them worthwhile and seeks to reduce them with hard work in the nets. Even before the Twenty20 matches he spends hours practising the shots he intends to play, notably the lofted drive and the pull off the front foot. He feels that he must try to dictate terms, for then the opponent will retreat and the battle is already half won. But he also realises that he may look an ass, may expose a middle order he is supposed to protect. But they understand his role and encourage his approach. Against most expectations Hayden made his name in India, and ever since has been an influential opener.

Sehwag: not nearly as reckless as he seems © AFP

Contrary to most predictions Sehwag has been at his best against these formidable opponents. Hayden was dismissed for an unconscionable time as a destroyer of bad bowling on flat tracks, and Sehwag was for ages taken at face value. Since he looked as daft as a brush and waved his bat around like an Italian conductor directing traffic at rush hour in Kolkata, he must belong in that box. Yet his batting is not nearly as off the cuff as it seems. Admittedly he has more rushes of blood than an enraged bull but his game is sensibly constructed.

He does not hook, and moves behind the line on the back foot. Once he is in control he is content to push the ball around, taking the easy runs on offer. Truly there is method in his madness. Patience is his weak point; his shot selection is superb.

To hear Sehwag talk about the game is to discover a sharp and dutiful mind at work beneath that faraway look. Not that his career has been faultless. At times he has lost his appetite for the game, with its hotels and tours and room service, and then he has played poorly and the team has suffered on and off the field. Although he had already batted magnificently in a World Cup final and against the Australians, he was deservedly dropped. A willing battler gives better service than a reluctant star.

Realising that he enjoyed the game, perhaps even needed it a little bit, Sehwag came back not as a whiner but as a leader, and ever since has been a powerful force in the side. When he speaks it is not about his own brilliance or pleasure but about his need to give the team a good start. And he means it.

Hayden wears the colours of his country with pride and power. He fought his way to the top and intends to stay as long as he can. If he succeeds in India for the third time running, the visitors will be hard to beat. If Sehwag prospers then a splendid series lies in store, for he remains a most engaging cricketer. And if he flourishes then so will his middle order and his team. If both openers play well then it's going to be a ripper. Let the games begin!

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Norman on October 10, 2008, 6:38 GMT

    Peter is capable of quality writing and an understanding of the game. However he will not be forgiven for the garbage he wrote during the Australian summer. I look forward to the time when I can express my thoughts to him personally on that matter.

  • rajan on October 9, 2008, 18:17 GMT

    Peter reminds me of former writing greats John Arlott, Christopher Martin Jenkins, John Woodcock, Alan Magalvery, K.N.Prabhu,Ron Hendricks, etc.His analysis brings out the combination of both past and present quality of play including the art of play in both forms of the game ie TEST & ODI ,T20 included. Sehwag is the only Indian to have made triple centuries twice and has his own variety of play while Hayden adapted himself to varying conditions with fierce determination and typified with aggression and dominance. Sehwag too dominates the bowling and his masterly innings at Adelaide against Aussies in early January 2008 on the final day of contrasting style before and after lunch was superb exhibition of batsmanship. Peter's style provides any connoisseur the thrill to enjoy the game without entering the ground. Peter'S judgement of the game is fantastic and hope he wILL thrill his readers with pleasure of the cricket. Rajan Nair, Nagpur.

  • Paul on October 9, 2008, 14:41 GMT

    As always Peter, a wonderfully well thought through article. May the series begin!

    I disagree with some here that have criticised Hayden and Sehwag for their lack of 'technique.' I think as cricket fans we are often far more obessed with finding technicians than those who get results, an imbalance in my opinion. In other sports, like AFL, we are less obessed with the grace and looks of our stars if they get results. Performance is to be respected, and Sehwag and Hayden have records that deserve that. This said, both sides bat deep, and it's about way more than 2 players. This is my only worry in regards to the series. Media coverage from here (maybe the Indian fans can shed a different light on this) indicates that the tracks will be turners, but generally benign. This, and that both sides strength is their batting (albeit India has the more rounded bowling attack) makes me worry a hand full of draws could be the result. Which would be a shame, for a contest of the greats.

  • Rajaram on October 9, 2008, 13:43 GMT

    I fail to understand why ICC has not made the Umpiue Referral System mandatory for all Test matches, particularly the Australia - India Series. it worked very well at the recent Sri Lanka - India series.

    Last year, the Aussies were made out to be villains -- Indians conveniently forget that Sachin Tendulkar was out lbw to Michael Clarke, was given not out, and went on to score a century. today, the First Day of the First Test at Bangalore, both Mathew Hayden and Ricky Ponting were not out,but were adjudged out by the lousy umpire Asad Rauf.

    Both - the Ashes AND the Border -Gavaskar Trophy are equal in intensity.

  • maneendra on October 9, 2008, 12:40 GMT

    Its being a good article as sehwag and hayden both are destructive players and both will be the crucial for their teams. as I read comments on sehwag's patience, in my opinion there is no batsmen in the world to hit two triple hundreds and most of a long centuries like greater than 150 runs without having patience. Yes his temperament is a weak point for his wicket but that's his nature of play "where there is a ball to hit I will hit." this will put sehwag in a leading Indian Cricketer, and as far as he continuous it we will encourage it and love to watch Indian cricket. As sehwag settles for his team, there will be no burden for the middle order and for the team and also the chances of winning are more.

  • Roger on October 9, 2008, 10:42 GMT

    Thanks Peter.

    Yes...we all crave an evenly-contested and hard-fought series. One wonders whether the "Retirees" in the Indian side will be physically (and mentally)strong enough to overwhelm the Australian focus and commitment. Alot will be established in the course of the first test.

  • Patrick on October 9, 2008, 10:24 GMT

    R1m2 -The pace attack that England put together in 2005 was very good due to a combination of factors - previous good form and confidence, no injuries, and an aggressive and risk taking approach from coach and captain. They were also fortunate enough to capture Australia at a point where they were coasting, as all in their path had been destroyed for many years previous, including a ground breaking series win in India. The focus was not there - it was sharpened severely by the series loss - and this give the inspiration back to the Aussies for the 06/07 whitewash. Your comment about Sharma - the 'tearaway' - he is currently overrated despite his youth. He is currently averaging over 36 - just because he grabbed Ponting's wicket in Aus a couple of times doesn't mean he will be quality! . I don't agree that either Hayden or Sehwag are paramount to their teams success, as we have seen in this mornings session with Hayden going for a duck with no disturbance to his middle order.

  • karthikeyan on October 9, 2008, 8:49 GMT

    I don't want to say anything about Sehwag.today he will play well,but he will fail consistently later.He is not a team man.sometimes he will play ,many times he will fail.But that is not the case with Hayden.It takes much time to praise the cricketer above the nationality.For me Haydos is good batsman. He is a strong man,who can punish any ball.Sehwag don't have patience.Once he lose that one,he will fail.

  • Laurie on October 9, 2008, 3:11 GMT

    Regarding r1m2's comments about Hayden's 2005 form, he was certainly not at peak form prior to the Ashes series. Throughout 2004/05, he scored 504 runs against Pakistan, India and NZ at an average of just 33.66 without a century in the whole season. He actually improved on that slightly during the 2005 series. Jones brilliantly exploited his lack of confidence at that time and got on top of him early in the series, but it was not as if the England pack exposed him for the first time. He has always been a bit susceptible to a late swinging ball, but few countries have been able to count on bowlers who can consistently play to that. Ishant could do it this time, but he'll need to be on top of his game. In recent times, we have seen that Hayden IS key to Australian success. If he fails or is not in the side, the batting tends to struggle by comparison to when he is in the line-up. Roebuck's assessment seems fair enough to that extent.

  • Radomir on October 9, 2008, 1:31 GMT

    To the comment from Parth_Pala, and the comparing of this series to the ashes, I disagree that the difference between the two is that the Border-Gavaskar series is more anticipated. I think they are both equally anticipated and for different reasons but yes, there is a lot higher quality test cricket and a lot more pride in winning. I disagree with Roebuck in trying to pick out two players only that the series will be focused and the teams reliant on, in takes a team to win and I'm sure both players here would agree. As Matthew Hayden once said winning the Ashes 5-0 as a team was a lot better than his 380, in fact that didn't matter to him at the time. We'll see some great performances from these two but I'll be looking at the bigger contest at hand, the Border Gavaskar Trophy.

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