December 25, 2008

How good is Haydos?

Matthew Hayden has played the muscular biffer, pillaging mostly average attacks with great success. Is he among the greatest openers, as his figures seem to indicate?

Hayden is better than just about every other opener in history - on paper © AFP

Far out in Kingaroy, Queensland's peanut-growing heartland, Gary Hayden used to rehearse leaving the ball. His young brother Matthew, to Gary's consternation, would almost never let a ball go unhammered, and he has done a lot of hammering and not much leaving ever since. The result is a batting average as bulging as his sun-browned forearms. Bigger than Victor Trumper, Bill Ponsford, Arthur Morris, Hanif Mohammad, Bob Simpson, Bill Lawry, Geoff Boycott, Sunil Gavaskar, Gordon Greenidge, Graham Gooch, Desmond Haynes. Bigger than nearly every opening batsman in history's daydreams. Bigger than 50. Fifty-one-point-three-four. It is a good average.

"Poor Matthew Hayden looked as comfortable as a white man on an unescorted tour of a black township." So wrote Age sage Peter McFarline, gazing down on the slingshots and slitherers of Allan Donald and Fanie de Villiers, when Hayden played Test cricket for the first time. And it is McFarline's words, rather than 51.34, that sum up the man's batting right now, as he fronts up for the 102nd time, and for what any dark day soon could be the last time.

Nearly three years skipped by after that hostile beginning at Johannesburg's Bullring. At last Hayden surfaced once more. Bill Lawry, in his second Test, had scraped out 130 at Lord's, battered black and blue on a pitch not merely green but sporting an unmistakable ridge at the Nursery End. Hayden, in his, got clobbered on the elbow and stuttered to 5. Fifth ball of the second innings, a Curtly Ambrose straight one, pitched on off stump and deviated not a centimetre. Instead of hammering it, Hayden yanked his bat up high and left it.

The MCG laughed, and he was discarded soon after, for three more years. He returned not as Hayden, but Haydos. Feet a yard out of the crease, battleaxe at the ready, bottom sticking out, chest puffed up, a mound of muscle between breastbone and neck, covering his stumps like a sightscreen on tree trunks… With a pinch more imagination, team-mates might have nicknamed him Haydox.

Hundreds piled up, against Indians, New Zealanders, South Africans. When he got to 100, he'd draw a cross in the air, then shoot for 200. Someone from the formerly critical press pack asked him what had changed. Hayden's first thought, as Greg Baum has observed, was to reply: "Only your mind."

For how long he thought it, and whether he went close to actually saying it, no one knows. But the thought was, on reflection, a touch too hubristic. For one significant change, seldom remarked on, was that Hayden's earliest tormentors - Donald and de Villiers; Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Ian Bishop - had all conked out. Shaun Pollock's zippiest days were behind him, Chris Cairns' too. The few lethal quicks still in circulation were playing on the same side as Hayden.

More hundreds poured forth, against Pakistanis, Poms, West Indians, Zimbabweans - Zimbabweans especially. Haydox was unrammable. All those hours under the sun made his skin glow almost orange; when he took off his helmet, sweaty tufts of hair spiking out in every direction, it was as if Queensland's own Giant Pineapple was bestriding the crease. No critic now thought to query what had changed. But Hayden himself remembered his three seasons of county cricket, not long ago, when bowlers kept ducking balls into his pads and he kept slugging them through midwicket. Was that what had changed - had he converted a weakness into a strength? Or was it that Test bowlers were now bowling like county bowlers?

Nineteen Test hundreds was his career's haystack coming up to the 2005 Ashes tour. A couple against India, in 2001, twinkled brightest, two fits of sweeping so majestic as to put Cinderella out of business. Another, his Boxing Day 102 against England, made hearts beat faster under blue singlets. When Craig White bowled to Hayden, spectators beyond the long-on fence jumped for their lives, twice. He was elegantly violent that day. None of these hundreds passed the classic test of greatness: a bewitching pace attack, a tricky pitch, a team in trouble. But that was surely to do with circumstances, not Hayden, and something an Ashes tour would surely rectify.

He returned not as Hayden, but Haydos. Feet a yard out of the crease, battleaxe at the ready, bottom sticking out, chest puffed up, a mound of muscle between breastbone and neck, covering his stumps like a sightscreen on tree trunks

England had Steve Harmison, Andrew Flintoff, Simon Jones and Matthew Hoggard, and for four Tests Hayden had the horrors. In the fifth Test he played an innings most curious. He edged and groped and miscued and scratched at imaginary scuff marks and edged some more. Australia needed desperately to win. But Hayden went off twice for bad light and was outscored by Justin Langer and draped 138 runs over three murk-affected days. And when the Test was over, the Ashes lost, the selectors let him stay in the team.

The hundreds resumed, at the same rate as before, built on the same method too: one giant step forward, then one brutal swing. He made half the textbook look obsolete. Back-foot play? Why bother, mate? The bowlers once more had a happy malleability about them. The trends of the time seemed to suit him: helmets, dead pitches, few quicks, fewer swingers. The old West Indian awesome foursome was by now a clueless threesome. Dillons, Drakeses, Collinses, Lawsons, Blignauts, Ervines, Mahwires, Agarkars, Nehras and Zoysas abounded. Hayden hundreds abounded, as well.

And then, three months ago, he encountered a bowler named Zaheer. Another named Ishant. Then Southee and Steyn and Ntini. And when critics now ask him what has changed in three months, it is possible he still thinks: "Only your mind."

He never did play an innings like Bill Lawry's at the Battle of the Ridge in 1961. When we think of audacious openers, we picture Gavaskar perplexing irate West Indians under his skull cap and sunhat, Gooch clipping bouncers off his moustache, Hanif swaying and blocking for 16 hours while most others quailed, Trumper whistling up centuries before lunch on uncovered English mudheaps.

It is safer perhaps not to put Hayden a rung above them. Safer simply to note that he has given us rich entertainment and hit many hundreds. To entertain and make hundreds in hard situations against great fast bowlers, you need to see those bowlers off sometimes. You need to know when to hammer, when to leave. Or else you get peanuts.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Keith on December 28, 2008, 21:10 GMT

    Despite not being an Australian fan, I have followed Matthew Hayden's career right from the start - quite literally, actually. I was one of the few hundred who saw Hayden's Sheffield Shield debut at the Gabba in 1991, where he scored a century, playing like he'd been doing it from birth. Taking opposition into account is certainly an understandable thing to do when weighing up a player's quality, but surely a man who is averaging more than 50 in 100+ Tests must be seen as great? He never faced Australian bowling, no, but Viv Richard never faced the fearsome West Indian bowlers of the seventies and eighties either. Does that mean Richards was not a great? Try telling that to all the bowlers who were pulverised by him. Maybe, at times, I rely too much on statistics, but I remain convinced that they don't lie in this case. Matthew Hayden is Australia's greatest ever opener, and one of the greatest of all.

  • nicholas on December 28, 2008, 14:31 GMT

    Agree with the author in one significant respect. Hayden made his name bullying poor attacks. His 375 was made on a flat perth track against zimbarbwe, which was hardly his fault. At the beginning of his career and later in 2005 onwards he was found out. I watched 2005 ashes and it was almost embarrassing he was still playing at the oval such was the mess england had made of his technique. Indeed had Jones been fit, his career might have finished in 2005, such was the fortunate nature of that painful hundred. So, yes he was a good cricketer but he benefit from flat tracks and a magnificent bowling unit in his side. He's not in the greats - they played at their best in adversity.

  • Damon on December 28, 2008, 10:33 GMT

    Not a very convincing piece Christian It is easy to look back over the career of any great player and highlight his failures and belittle his achievements to come up with an argument to suggest that he is overated. Not so easy to score 30 test any era! The FACT is that Hayden has performed very well as an opener against most attacks in most conditions over the past seven years and deserves to be regarded as one of the best openers of the modern era.

  • Ruschil on December 28, 2008, 9:27 GMT

    Hayden has scored runs in all formats against all opposition at all venues, save in England. His burly frame, brusque (mis)demeanour on the field, batting position & style, in every aspect epitomised the manner of Australia's dominance under Waugh & Ponting.

    That said, the epithet "great" does not sit comfortably on his rather broad shoulders. While I did not see Gavaskar bat, neither Greenidge nor Haynes, I would be loathe to include Hayden in the pantheon of cricketing legends. He will walk into the Test 11 of the 2000s, but thats about it. He is where Graeme Smith seems to be heading. Very Very Good, but always on the brink of batting immortality.

  • Roger on December 27, 2008, 17:49 GMT

    The big blunder for me is Ryan's attempt of using the idea of context with a statistical analysis of Hayden, and using Bill Lawry at his example of the other end of the spectrum. If we apply the use of context to Mr Lawry, then why not look at the tail end of his career where he was an abject failure in both his talent as an opening batsman and as a captain (he was sacked). It's been convincingly argued here that comparing Hayden or any cricketer with past players and conditions is folly. He has made many excellent performances with the bat over a long period of time against the best players of his generation so that alone makes him a great. How can you belittle him if he averages 250 against Zimbabwe? Who else has? Against the team with greatest wicket taker in history he averages 51. "Hayden concentrated way too hard on breaking it (the record)" Don't kid yourself if you think Lara was batting for anything else in the two dead rubbers he made both records in. cont'd ...

  • babai on December 27, 2008, 16:13 GMT

    well let us accept one fact.. hayden is and was always a tema man..not like Lara or Dravid ,as sometimes u feel like they r only playing for records..hats off to him..

  • Gilbert on December 27, 2008, 13:29 GMT

    Com'on, Christian Ryan. I am an Australian and will never agree with what you say. Don't prop Hayden as the best because like you, he is Australian. As an Australian I do not back Australia because of their bad sportsmanship and boorish behaviour. How can you put that redneck ahead of Gavaskar and those tremendous West India openers, Hayes and Greenridge. Currently Gambhir and Sehwag are the best. At 38, Hayden has got the batsman's menopause and should retire.

  • Rajesh on December 27, 2008, 10:45 GMT

    Anyone who says Sunny Gavaskar's runs are not as worthy as they seem to be or that it has come against weak attacks were either too young then to have watched Sunny or they are just insane ! Records do not always tell the tale, as in the case of Viv Richards who averaged just above 50 but in my opinion one of the best ever. But in Sunny's case his records reveal more than they hide................. And, by the way the debate here is about Hayden & surely he is among the best. Everyone is entitled to their opinion & so am I..... It's my personal point of view that Sunny has been the best !!

  • anton on December 27, 2008, 10:09 GMT

    Lot of people say Hayden did not face McGrath and Warne, but, in fact, he has an excellent record against both when he played against them a lot in the early to mid 1990s in domestic cricket. His initial foray into test cricket was beset by nerves, like quite few other players are when they first step into international cricket.

    Kallis' first 7-8 matches garnered him only 150-odd runs. I bet my life Hayden would have taken Ambrose, Bishop and others to the cleaners like he took so many bowlers from 2001.

  • Sandip on December 27, 2008, 9:12 GMT

    For God's sake,stop comparing players from the past era to the modern ones.We can't compare at all.Comparing the lazy and boring Gavaskar and Boycott to dashing openers doesn't do any justice to the article. Every player hits a lean patch and Hayden is just going through this and if one has followed carefully he has been a victim of some awful decisions and few run-outs.Dismissing his achievement as something below average and achieved against below par attacks shows how unprepared the writer has been.Critics thrive on these kinda statements and articles .However,this article is a total biased one -underprepared,non-commendable and crap.

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