January 13, 2009

Doubts derailed local hero

After surviving a series of career-threatening slumps, Hayden had the energy and the ability, but not the desire


Matthew Hayden's last moments as a Test player came with his struggles in Sydney © PA Photos
 

Until the past year nothing could pause Matthew Hayden's immense self-belief and it was impossible to think it could shatter. Not with the false starts over the first six seasons of his Test career, when he decided to frame his baggy green behind glass. Not Rod Marsh telling him he only wanted future first-class players at the Academy. Not a bunch of critics picking over his rigid front-foot technique in the early days. Not an awful series during the Ashes defeat in 2005.

Only when he became unsure about where he was heading after picking up a long-term heel injury in 2008 did the doubts creep in. By then he was 36, could develop a solid argument to being Australia's greatest opener, and had the selectors' backing to push on to the Ashes. He went to the West Indies but left without playing a game, and his winter was spent in rehabilitation instead of relaxation. There was uncertainty over his return and when he did come back in India he was slower. His eyes had lost their sharpness, the dominator was mortal.

For a man who never wanted to lean backwards - reversing was not in his nature - the new state tormented his mind and stole his game. Expecting his form to return with any straight drive, Hayden waited through series against India, New Zealand and South Africa for the shot that regained his status. It never came. After 103 Tests and 30 hundreds, the third most by an Australian, he was finally finished. At the SCG Test, when he was appearing in a match he should not have been picked for, he was the dead opener limping.

Only a hundred could get him to South Africa, but he played on twice, first after spending almost three hours struggling over 31, and in the second innings he attempted a swish over midwicket on 39. Again the ball found his bat on the way to the stumps. Hayden had refused to outline his exit plan, but there were key signs his Test days would finish in Sydney.

His wife Kellie watched from the stands with rare intensity and stood to clap when the bails fell. As Hayden started to walk off he wiped his eyes, looked around the ground and briefly raised his bat. Ricky Ponting waited by the boundary until Hayden had jogged off. And then he was gone, returning briefly to drop a catch towards the conclusion of the tight victory. At the end of the match Andrew Hilditch, the chairman of selectors, sat next to Hayden and told him his limited-overs career was finished after 161 ODIs, two World Cup victories and nine Twenty20s. Six days later he bowed out in a corporate room at the Gabba, a ground which had become as familiar as his backyard.

In Australia Hayden will be missed for his powerful starts, imposing stature and the way he smothered opponents and set up the team's success. Generally when he struggled, Australia lost: England in 2005 and India and South Africa in 2008. He won't be mourned in the rest of the world. Opposition players, if they spoke like Australians, would call him an "ordinary bloke". Too mouthy, too arrogant, too contradictory and lacking humility. They were the characteristics that allowed him to develop into a modern on-field hero, first for Queenslanders, and then for Australians. Off the ground he was gentle, domesticated and adventurous.

 
 
In Australia Hayden will be missed for his powerful starts, imposing stature and the way he smothered opponents and set up the team's success. Generally when he struggled, Australia lost
 

With Hayden's departure only Ponting remains of the greats that ruled the world over more than a decade. Hayden holds an important place and will always remain a role model for those who don't succeed immediately. Around the time he came back into the side in 2000, Steve Waugh, the captain, said Hayden was a player who could average 50 in Tests. At the time it was the sort of statement that was shocking in the same way that end-of-the-world predictions cause laughs and then uncomfortable thoughts. Could he be right?

Hayden departs with an average of 50.73 runs and a mean reputation. No specialist Australian opener has scored as many runs as his 8625. Unlike Waugh, Hayden could not stay on past 37. A piece of him left in 2007 when Justin Langer retired and without his great friend life looked harder and less fun. He was a pensioned widower re-entering the game too soon.

It doesn't take much for an elite sportsman to become a very good one, translating to the difference between coping with new-ball spells and over-balancing against them. In India it was Zaheer Khan's wobbling deliveries that arrived too quickly, then to his horror Chris Martin knocked him over first ball in Brisbane. South Africa's group of complementary pacemen were too much, telling him another trip to England should be traded for time at the beach and behind the hotplate, instead of in the fire.

After surviving a series of career-threatening slumps, he had the energy and the ability, but not the desire. Hayden could no longer hold his stare. The blink told him it was over. He just had to convince himself he was sure.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo

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