January 18, 2009

Hayden among the savages

Where did Australia's belligerent opener rank among others of similar vintage and style?


Hayden's true ability is somewhere between his hesitant start and incredible peak © PA Photos
 

Now that Matthew Hayden has retired, only Ricky Ponting and Brett Lee remain from the record-breaking Australian side that won an incredible 16 Test victories in a row under Steve Waugh's captaincy.

Hayden will be sorely missed. It's no coincidence that he was either injured or struggling for form in all of Australia's five recent Test losses. His dual ability to both intimidate the opposition and inflate his team-mates is a rare quality and it won't be easily replaced. There are two questions that arise following his departure: how good was Hayden, and who will replace him?

The eulogies for the belligerent opener include a ranking among the ICC top ten Test batsmen and many comments similar to Ponting's statement, "Look through the history books of the game and try and see if there has ever been a better opening batsman."

It's pointless arguing the merits of batsmen from different eras, but comparing those of similar vintage and style has some value. In Hayden's case two come to mind: Michael Slater of Australia and Virender Sehwag of India.

It should be recalled that Hayden rarely played in the highly successful Australian side from the mid-to late nineties because Slater was regularly dominating opposition fast bowling. The pair made their first tour to England in 1993, where Slater won the battle to be Mark Taylor's opening partner. Slater's position at the top of the order was never seriously challenged from then, until he began to encounter health problems. That was a big plus in Slater's favour.

Statistically speaking, if you drop the matches against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh (neither of whom should be playing Test cricket) there's little between Hayden and Slater. Staying in (balls faced per innings) and scoring runs quickly are two important aspects of batting and Slater is just ahead in both categories if you use a strike-rate-by-era comparison.

The other big decider is that Slater encountered superior pace bowling - bowlers of the highest calibre in Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Allan Donald, Fanie de Villiers and Darren Gough at or near their peak, and flayed them on occasions.

Against those same bowlers Hayden had some of his worst moments, albeit early in his Test career. When he returned to the Australian side the standard of fast bowling had dropped off considerably. And Hayden's dip in form against the good attacks of England 2005 and more recently India and the current South African side was a reminder of his early-career struggles.

There's no doubt Hayden worked hard to improve his batting and he enjoyed a golden period following his mammoth scoring in India 2001. His true ability is somewhere between his hesitant start and incredible peak, though his worth to a successful side has been far greater.

In the Tests where Hayden and Sehwag were opposed, their records are almost identical. Sehwag has the better average score (aggregate divided by innings) and run-rate, while Hayden averaged slightly more balls faced per innings. Overall there's little between the bowlers they faced, with Australia's being superior in those early exchanges, while lately India has had the better balanced attack. There's no doubt both play a big part in their team's success.

Hayden against Slater and Sehwag
Player M Inns NO Runs HS Ave Ave Score BF BF/I RR Era RR RR/ Era RR 100s IPC 50s
Hayden 15 29 2 1339 136 49.59 46.17 2036 70.21 3.95 3.37 1.17 4 7.25 6
Sehwag 14 28 1 1400 195 51.85 50.00 1890 67.50 4.44 3.14 1.42 3 9.33 6
                               
Hayden 96 174 13 7768 203 48.25 44.64 13156 75.61 3.54 3.40 1.04 27 6.44 26
Slater 73 129 6 5308 219 43.15 41.15 9942 77.07 3.20 2.96 1.08 14 9.21 21

BF - Balls faced, RR - Run-rate, IPC - Innings per century. Innings against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh have been excluded. Hayden-Sehwag comparison is for series in which they have played against each other


Now, who will replace Hayden?

There are primarily three candidates under consideration - Phil Jaques, Phil Hughes and Chris Rogers; all left-handers but none with the imposing aura of Hayden.

However, there is another option. He's also left-handed and has the potential to dominate opposition bowlers. David Warner, the pocket dynamo from New South Wales has yet to play a first-class game, but in Twenty20 cricket he has displayed the potential to victimise international bowlers.

The selectors have now elevated him to the one-day side, but they also need to find out if he has the same effect on opponents in the longer version of the game. This means Warner should open for NSW in Sheffield Shield cricket, but they already have two openers. Also, both Jaques and Hughes are pushing their claims for a Test berth.

This creates a dilemma for the NSW selectors, but it's worth the aggravation to discover whether Warner really is a dynamic opener in all forms of the game. The selectors need to find out quickly so that Warner can be included in the England touring party if he succeeds in Shield cricket.

Hayden could intimidate bowlers with his skill, belligerent attitude and bulky frame. Warner doesn't have the build of Hayden, but as both Slater and Sehwag showed, it's not size that matters - it's packing a punch at the top of the order that really counts.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator for Channel 9, and a columnist

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