Hard-hats off to rebuilt opener
On days such as these, it is easy to sympathise with Guyana's construction plight. A terminally morose cloud hung overhead from dawn till dusk, transforming the island of Antigua into a soggy sandbank, and with it many of the peripheral parts of an otherwise magnificent new Sir Vivian Richards stadium. The carpark became a quagmire, as did sections of the outfield and the grassy banks at midwicket. In conditions this inclement, it isn't easy to complete building projects on schedule.
So hard-hats off to Matthew Hayden, who produced - in the circumstances - one of the great one-day performances. We will not know just how great until Wednesday, when West Indies are given their belated right to reply, but this performance is already the highest score made by an Australian in the World Cup. On a sluggish pitch that offered plenty for the bowlers under perpetual cloud cover, he secured for his side a position of extreme authority.
"It's got to be one of his top innings," Australia's coach, John Buchanan, said. Buchanan spoke on his player's behalf because Hayden preferred not to tempt fate mid-match. "It's not just because of his score, but also because of the adjustment he made coming from St Kitts. The ground was significantly different, the wicket was significantly different and the bowling attack was significantly different. We were looking for a platform, and he gave us exactly that."
This was Hayden's ninth ODI century and his second in consecutive matches, but rarely can two different innings have been compiled in the space of four days. His 66-ball century against South Africa was, like Adam Gilchrist's Ashes onslaught at Perth, almost a throwback to the player he once was. It was a brash, bullying performance in which he treated the boundary much as he used to treat opposition swing bowlers. This, on the other hand, was an innings that displayed the wisdom of his 35 years.
"We've got a lot of experience in our batting, and we leave it to individual players to assess the conditions," Buchanan said. "They are good at telling each other what to do when they go out there, and they're good at sending information back. This is a new ground, and both sides were not exactly sure how it would play. In the end, it was pretty true but we made just about the most of those conditions that we could."
In the end it was true, though Hayden had no way of knowing that when his innings began. The ground's late completion date meant there had been time for just a handful of age-group and club matches to assess the newly-laid pitch, and when Gilchrist edged a nip-backer from Daren Powell in the fifth over, Hayden was still to get off the mark after 16 balls. After the carnage of St Kitts, this was a reversion to the conditions that seem to have been prevalent in all other parts of the Caribbean in this tournament.
Hayden's rebirth as an international cricketer has been remarkable. In one-day cricket, he was a busted flush by the end of the 2005 Ashes. His agonisingly determined century in the final game at The Oval preserved his Test place, but it seemed to confirm that he had misplaced the arrogance that had made him such a force. His technique, never the most flowing, had been counterbalanced by (as England's passnotes at Melbourne revealed last winter) his "ego".
He missed 28 consecutive ODIs after that series (and 34 out of 36) as Australia's selectors tinkered at the top of the order, with Phil Jaques, Simon Katich and Shane Watson all competing for the right to launch the World Cup campaign. None of them proved so effective or so permanent.
"The replacements did a reasonable job," Buchanan said, "but he has batted harder to get back into the side, and he's always believed he should be in the side. At the beginning of this tournament, he's made a statement about himself, to bat for long innings and to be reasonably flexible in his shot selection and shot range."
By the end of his innings, as the early conditions eased and the ball softened, there was only one range of shot that mattered, and that was long-range. Australia's final total of 322 for 6 was incredible in the circumstances, given how dank the weather had been all day, and how ponderous their opening gambit had been. But that is the virtue that Hayden now brings to his game. A spell on the sidelines and the dissemination of his old forthright technique has turned him into a far more rounded performer.
For all that, Australia haven't quite secured the points that, given Bangladesh and Ireland remain on their checklist, will propel them to the thresh-hold of the semi-finals. "It's fair to say we've had some big scores chased down recently," Buchanan said, referring to the consecutive 330-plus assignments New Zealand pulled off in February. "But it's nice to say that we've made the big scores. The game has changed around the world, and teams are finding it harder and harder to hold sides who are chasing."
With more overcast conditions predicted for the resumption, West Indies will need to show a similar blend of resolve and explosiveness if they hope to compete. Hayden's performance will take some trumping.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo