'Twenty20 gives you your life'
Matthew Hayden has said he has been able to impose himself as a batsman in the IPL because he has retired from international cricket. "The only reason that I'm playing the way I'm playing now is because I have retired. I have been able to let go of the fact that I don't want to play international cricket," Hayden told Cricinfo.
Ridiculous as it may sound, it was only a week before the IPL that Hayden first hit a cricket ball since he retired. However, like his former baggy-green mates Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Adam Gilchrist, who post-retirement have managed to summon the same powers in the IPL that allowed them to dominate international contests for more than a decade, Hayden too has easily slipped back into his natural role of dominating the opposition with ease. The Queenslander, who opens the batting for the Chennai Super Kings, has been the proud wearer of the orange cap (for most runs) for virtually the entire length of the tournament.
Free of the peripatetic lifestyle of an international cricketer, Hayden says he is now able to completely enjoy his batting. Cricketers rarely acknowledge the pressures of their choc-a-bloc schedules, at least not during their playing days. Hayden says he now finds himself mentally in a space where he is relaxed, where he can walk in with the knowledge that he has nothing to lose and can just play with freedom.
"A relaxed mind is a focused mind," Hayden said. "When you are caught in the cricket tours programme, which is just never-ending, and you are slipping into various formats of the game, it takes away a lot of mental energy. And so in certain scenarios it is difficult to call for the mental energy required in that moment, like it is more difficult to drive a car when you are fatigued.
"I know that I've only got a very short time playing cricket in this particular period, so I've got all my mind, skills and fitness towards the IPL. This is not the case with most other international players, who know they will leave this tournament and head straight to the Twenty20 World Cup, and then another international series, then the domestic cricket next summer - it is just never-ending cricket."
Having been part of various Australian teams for more than a decade, Hayden now says the constant moving around blunts cricketers' progress. "I don't think that brings the best out of the athlete. What brings the best out of the athlete is focus, energy and time to commit to something without being burnt out," he said.
Much the same point was recently made by India coach Gary Kirsten, who is wary about the mental fatigue his players are likely to be under when they travel to England immediately after the IPL to defend the World Twenty20 crown.
So was it mental exhaustion that forced Hayden to quit the game finally this January, though he started the year in the firm belief that he would be opening in the Ashes in England? "More the circumstance," Hayden said was what affected his performance.
Ironically, his steady slide began in the last IPL, where he picked up an Achilles injury before leaving the tournament after four games for the West Indies Test series. He failed to play a single game on that tour and returned home to recuperate. The comeback did not work out quite as expected: his average dropped to 23.93 in his last nine Tests, including the Sydney match that turned out to be his last.
"The series in India [2008-09], especially the first two Tests, was the worst, I reckon, of my Test career," Hayden said. "Straightaway I was on the back foot, even if the final couple of games were reasonable for me." He did not agree with the assessment of the critics who thought he was past it, though. "When you average 50 and all of a sudden you average 30 then suddenly questions are asked about your ability and performance, which is absolutely rubbish because your skills and your mindset don't change much. You don't lose power, what you do lose is that absolute ability to play it off and that can sometimes lead to poor performances."
The dark clouds of those days no longer hang over Hayden's mind now. In South Africa he has been able to spend plenty of time out at sea, easily the best trick to get him performing. "During this tournament I've spent more time on the ocean than I've on a cricket field," he said.
"It does give me an edge, because in a tournament which is played over half a day and when you play every other day, there is a lot of time spent on thinking cricket. You need to have a balance in life. Twenty20 cricket actually gives you your life," Hayden said.
Hayden's form has rubbed off on Chennai, who have bounced back successfully after a few losses in the first half of season two and are once again favourites. Hayden has made over 400 runs this year, and managed to hold together the top order, stitching together valuable partnerships with Suresh Raina and MS Dhoni to set up formidable scores. Surprisingly, in what is known to be a batsman-dominated format, only Hayden has managed to consistently out-think bowling attacks so far in South Africa.
"The biggest key is not thinking about the game too much," Hayden said.
Is there any advice he would like to give batsmen? "As an opening batsman, in other forms of cricket you have to take enormous responsibility for setting up the innings. Sometimes that leads to you becoming conservative. In this form you don't want to be conservative at all: if I want to move down to hit the first ball, I just do that. That is the expectation."
It didn't come easy, though. Hayden said he had to practise long before he got it down right. "It is up to you the amount of risks you are willing to take. Your foundation needs to be solid. Your footwork, your head position, and your batswing are the three major components necessary to hit powerfully. This is something I've worked for a long time in one-day cricket and that is reason I could score consistently, and top-scored in both the World Cups in 2007 - ODI and the Twenty20."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo