Matthew Hayden November 27, 2008

'Winning is in the fabric of our culture'

Australia's long-serving opener reflects on the qualities that has made his team the force it is

What defines Australian cricket? Among other things, it is the fierce desire to win; to get there into the thick of things and give it both barrels. Matthew Hayden should know, as a boy from the bush made good who has now served his side with distinction for 99 Tests. In this interview during the recent series in India he dwells on his country's play-hard-but-fair ethic, the symbols it holds dear, the importance of history, and why he'll have a beer during a Test but not ten.

"As long as players are competing, there is competitive tension, which is why we are actually there. I don't want to walk into a Test match thinking 'Where is everyone? Where is the competition?'" © Getty Images

Let's begin with a popular conception: Why are Australians so competitive?
We are a very, very multicultural, multi-lingual country, where there is a struggle in terms of competition. So to make a name for yourself, to excel at something, you have to work very hard. I feel the competitive streak comes from the different cultures that make us the side we are.

I remember once when I was 11, the first time I walked out everyone crowded around my bat. The opposition, mostly grown men, gave me no quarter at all. I knew I had to beat them, and I did beat them. I had to learn to compete.

Right from a young age we are outside all the time. Kids are always encouraged to do lots of activities outside through various government and school programmes to be able to grow into strong adults. So straightaway that is a huge advantage. Look at the NCA in Bangalore. It has been around for a while now, but we've had such facilities for 20 years. You only have to look at the Olympics, where such a small nation like ours is competing so well with the superpowers.

Were you taught from a young age that you are in it to win it always?
Within anything there is competitiveness to our culture. There is a perception that Australian people will win at all costs. That is true. We are very strong believers in winning, but winning ethically. Fairness in sport, sportsmanship, the ability to work hard but also to appreciate other people's success, is something that is spoken about a lot. It is the fabric of Australian culture.

In terms of cultural traits, Australians are supposed to be able to take things in their stride, to move on easily. How accurate is that?
When Warnie [Shane Warne] tested positive on the eve of the 2003 World Cup - and he was one of the greats - we just moved on. Now that many legends have retired we have moved on. You are right. What is very much in our culture is the get-in-and-get-it-done attitude. When you are a long away from anywhere else, your culture teaches you to fix it and get on.

You grew up in Kingaroy, in the bush. Did you have to make sacrifices to get to where you are today?
There was no coverage of cricket as the television rights were with Channel 9, which was not available in the bush. So a lot of my knowledge of the game came from listening to the radio, usually while driving or on the tractor. We have a strong and proud country cricket culture, so it is not long before a boy from the bush starts getting picked for the region, starts playing for the state competitions and then national competitions. I was no different to that.

But yes, there was a lot of sacrifice. Because of the size of our country, there was a lot of tripping around for my parents - some of the state tournaments were 20-plus-hour-drives away. That's a long way. Even in the local games we would drive four hours ahead of the game in the morning to go play and drive back.

"I remember once when I was 11, I walked out and everyone crowded around my bat. The opposition, mostly grown men, gave me no quarter at all. I knew I had to beat them, and I did beat them. I had to learn to compete"

My mum and dad were fantastic. They were, and still are, incredibly supportive of my cricket. Mum was a full-time teacher, dad was on the farm. So they made enormous sacrifices. I give them enormous credit. Their two sons were competitive and talented in most sports, so they were always busy. It is coming back to haunt me now with my own kids!

Is it true your dad laid a pitch in the backyard?
I was probably two years old when he did that. Our house was about ten acres, so we had a big backyard for a cricket field. My father levelled the surface and enclosed it in a mesh, just like a normal net in any cricketing park. Then we tended it, painted it, mowed it, rolled it with our farm equipment. It was a pretty good surface.

Allan Border was one of your first captains at Queensland. It was a tough time to try getting into the team, and he was known as a tough captain. How hard were those times?
I met AB for the first time in 1988. I was never scared of him as there was never an aura about him or the other big cricketers. Growing up in the bush I missed a lot of the hype of what that they had achieved, who they were... Also, I was used to being around men, so I was not intimidated by him.

AB was very good, very keen to talk about the game. Yes, he was a very hard-nut cricketer - he set high standards for himself. But that has been the case with all our captains.

You played most of your international career under three captains: Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh, and now Ricky Ponting. Can you describe the legacy of each?
They all are very hard cricketers. They expect a lot from themselves, and, therefore the standards get raised and the expectations get raised automatically. There is no dogging them. You have to work hard to be in this culture.

Even in Bangalore against India recently, on the final day it would've been easy to call the game off, but Rick said he wanted to play. Australian captains always think to win, no matter what the scenario is. You are not out of a competition as long there is time remaining in the game.

A lot of people talk about the Sydney Test against India being controversial, but it was one of the best Tests I have played. Australia believed that they could win that match right to the last over and they did. An amazing victory. That's what the captain demanded of the team.

But do you think anything was compromised to achieve the victory?
I don't think so. Not in my opinion.

You didn't see anything as being unfair?
The only thing that was unfair is that India perhaps could have drawn the game. They didn't. They lost. If India had won that game, would there have been any noise made?

It was a remarkable Test win. One side had belief till the very end that they were going to win the game.

Hayden leads his team-mates during their 2001 visit to Gallipoli © Getty Images

Was there a case of being blinded by the idea of winning at all costs?
That is a throwaway cliché that really says, 'Look, you are top dog.' You win anyway, so you might as well put a tag on it: 'you win at all costs.' You show me the evidence of that. The evidence that I have seen is that it is the side that actually thinks it is going to win that does. That has been the difference in this Australian team: we have believed together that we are going to win. And we do, most times.

How important is aggression to Australian success?
To me aggression is of two types. There is real aggression and then there is pretence. You have to look into someone's eyes to see if there is any real aggression. When I look into Rahul Dravid's eyes I know that though he might not be outwardly aggressive, he is inwardly aggressive: he wants to hit the ball, he wants to seek out opportunities. He has got fire in his belly. A lot of the aggression that you see now, like staring and chatting, is all guff. That is just a waste of time.

Aggression is how you actually play the game. It is about tenacity and helps in your longevity. Those things don't lie over a long period of time. Again, have a look at Dravid - over a long period of time he has been able to maintain an incredible record. I mean, you think he is gone and the next minute he is back making a hundred.

The only thing that can actually harm me is the cricket ball. That's where I want to be aggressive at.

Let's talk about sledging. Do you do it?
It is gamesmanship. What it is actually doing is making someone uncomfortable and affecting their mindset. The concept of sledging has become a overused cliché, something the media loves to use as a demon-like thing.

Yes, it has always been there. As long as men or women are competing together there is competitive tension, which is why we are actually there. I want to see that. I want to feel that. I don't want to walk into a Test match thinking 'Where is everyone? Where is the competition?'

Everyone talks in the game of cricket, but when Australians talk, they talk at each other, to get each other going. It is not always me versus you, but it could get to that. And that's fine as long as it is within the laws of the game.

Last year, the editor of Wisden pointed out there was a danger of things snowballing into something physical.
We have already seen it happening - between Sreesanth and Harbhajan during the IPL. That is physical, ain't it? There is a line. It is not physical; cricket is not a contact sport. It is bat versus ball and the mindgames that go around it.

What is your definition of Australianism?
Uncompromising, very hardworking, fantastic mateship, belief in one another, incredible pride for the country, and being very balanced. There is a good balance in our competitive matches because you see something and enjoy it for what it is and you're never afraid to say 'Well done.'

You have been in cricket for close to two decades. What are the changes you have noticed in that time?
There have been good changes. One of the great changes in particular is the way batting sides approach the game. Their willingness to take risks, to score three-four runs an over, is a big change. It is just greater entertainment. That, definitely, is the biggest change.

I have been swept up in that as well. I like the freedom of having a chance and taking a risk and developing opportunities to score freely. That is what I would go and watch a game of cricket for. Not to sit there and watch the likes of Geoff Boycott, who would bore me out of my brains. I don't see that as fun or entertaining. The game has moved ahead a lot in a good direction. Twenty20 cricket is something that has been a good development for entertainment in cricket.

But there are some negative points, too. Sadly it was disgraceful to not see a full house in the Bangalore Test. Maybe the writing is on the wall for Test cricket if you can't get crowds to what is arguably the iconic series of the cricketing quarter. In Australia Test cricket is still popular because of our success. Success breeds success and the crowds want to be entertained. And playing Test cricket in front of full house is so much fun.

How much does the history of Australian cricket matter to you?
It is significant part of our success. That's why the Southern Cross is so important. From a historical point of view, there is a very proud culture around the baggy green. What has been really significant is the passing down of information and way of doing things from various seniors to their mates. But you have to create your own culture. The youngsters ought to learn but not get smothered with the blood of yesteryears.

"I like the freedom of having a chance and taking a risk and developing opportunities to score freely. That is what I would go and watch a game of cricket for. Not to sit there and watch the likes of Geoff Boycott, who would bore me out of my brains"

What does the baggy green mean to you?
I've got a brand new one at the moment because my original one, 94 Tests old, got stolen from the dressing room in Adelaide. It is the No.1 iconic thing in our sporting culture. If you ask any athlete what he would like to wear, it will be the baggy green. Cricket is the national sport. Even the business community respects the baggy green because its values are the core values behind any successful business.

At ANZAC Cove in Gallipoli you scaled a hill to get an inkling of how hard it would have been to climb it with 42 kilos of gear, as many of the soldiers did. Why did you do that?
You don't have to be religious to believe in what happened there. The actual site, where the battle was fought, remains traditional. Nothing has been built it on it. It is a very sacred place. I just wanted to get a sense of what the 18-year-old brave men felt when they climbed it under fire. I got an overwhelming feeling of the spirit.

There was a lot of conflict within me just doing that. I knew there was no way I would be doing something like that now - advancing towards something knowing I was going to die. There is a little place there called the Neck, where the ANZACS walked straight into firing guns. Seven thousand men killed right there. I just wouldn't do that.

But you will understand from that the significance of where our culture comes from. You asked me the importance of history in our culture. The ANZAC spirit is still one of the most celebrated things in Australia. Globally we are respected for our fierce tenacity and warrior-like attitude and willingness to sacrifice for our country. It defines who we are.

Has the image of the beer-swigging Aussie cricketer who turns up and plays hard the next day endured?
What do you reckon?

We all enjoy celebrating. What has changed now is, we have taken it to a new level in terms of dotting the i's and crossing the t's professionally. Part of the reason is that we are playing every other day. The yesteryear people, me included, played a lot of cricket, but not to the same extent. The demands on today's athlete is to be excellent at what you do. That means you can't compromise on your fitness and your ability to recover. But we still enjoy in our own ways. I will have a beer during a Test match but I won't have ten.

Which has been your proudest moment personally?
I don't know. It is other people's moments that I really savour. For example Symmo [Andrew Symonds] getting a hundred on Boxing Day against England, Huss' [Mike Hussey] first Test hundred. Those were happy moments, and I was a part of creating them - like settling Huss down and ensuring Symmo got through. It was using my experience to create an environment where they could achieve the success.

The IPL has become an important event in the cricket calendar. There are many Australians who will increasingly be touring India more. Do you think somewhere down the line they may have to compromise their game to suit local conditions?
No. It is great that athletes can showcase their skills. That is good for the game. We have got an opportunity to become better people because we understand more about the world. I see no negative in that. It will not undermine our actual game because there is always competitive tension. Like, I really enjoy playing with MS Dhoni, but you won't see us hugging on the field. In other ways it will mellow and take away the anxieties and the misconceptions about the Australian cricket team. You will actually see why those Australian are up there in their own team. You see a Mike Hussey and a Matthew Hayden turning out for Chennai Super Kings with a great ethic, trying really hard to win the game - it is a huge bonus.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo