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