Australia roused themselves from a two-month hiatus to play a Test series at home in October, in a nation preoccupied with the rugby World Cup, and against one of the world's lowliest Test nations. It had all the makings of an unremarkable, predictable series. But Zimbabwe's first Test tour of Australia, one-sided as it was, was better than that. It was better because of Matthew Hayden.
Hayden cast a muscular shadow over the series. His Test-record 380 at Perth defined and elevated a contest that would otherwise have been lost among the more common pursuits of early Australian spring. The great shame was that only 8,062 people were at the WACA on October 10 - Hayden's day - to witness the 31-year-old Queenslander calmly yet powerfully etch his own number into cricket history, eating up milestones owned by such revered Australian figures as Mark Taylor and Sir Donald Bradman (334), and the West Indian Brian Lara (375), as he went. Not bad for a man repeatedly ignored as a young batsman.
Rejected by Australian cricket's grooming school, the Academy, rejected by those who selected an Under-19 team to tour England, Hayden reflected later on the countless hours spent on Queensland beaches plotting a path back into the Australian team after his attempts to bed down a position over a six-year period yielded only eight Tests.
The series was made better, too, by Zimbabwe's refusal to crawl away and cower after being on the end of an innings of such greatness. Heath Streak's squad - sadly depleted by the retirements of Andy Flower, Henry Olonga and Guy Whittall, and diminished by a finger injury to Grant Flower - arrived determined to leave the politics of their troubled nation behind.
But their former Test batsman Murray Goodwin ensured a degree of background tension by claiming the Zimbabwe Cricket Union had a quota system under which non-white cricketers were being promoted to the national team for reasons other than merit.
Zimbabwe lost by an innings and 175 runs at Perth and by nine wickets at Sydney, but the extent of the defeats did not accurately reflect their accomplishments. In Perth they pushed the match into a fifth day, an inconvenience with which Australia had grown unfamiliar. Ray Price, in particular, provided a delightful subplot to the series. Price, the nephew of the golfer, Nick Price, rose to international cricket after overcoming meningitis and partial deafness as a child, and revealed himself as a left-arm spinner of great heart and skill with six for 121 in the Second Test. Stuart Carlisle scored his maiden Test hundred in the same match, while Mark Vermeulen, Trevor Gripper and Sean Ervine emerged as cricketers of talent, poise and potential.
The other centuries were scored by Hayden, again (this time at Sydney), Adam Gilchrist (whose 84-ball hundred in Perth was swallowed up by Hayden's mountainous achievement) and Ricky Ponting, with a sublime 169 at the SCG. By then, the scheduling and limited preparation had taken its toll, with several Australians nursing injuries. The public's reaction to the unseasonable Test series was tepid, with an aggregate crowd of 18,363 over four days at the SCG and 24,051 over five days at the WACA a week earlier. Hayden deserved much better.
Match reports for
Rockingham-Mandurah Invitational XI v Zimbabweans at Baldivis, Sep 28-30, 2003
Cricket Australia Chairman's XI v Zimbabweans at Perth (Lilac Hill), Oct 1, 2003
Western Australia v Zimbabweans at Perth, Oct 3-5, 2003
Australia A v Zimbabweans at Perth, Jan 1, 2004
Western Australia v Zimbabweans at Perth, Jan 4, 2004
Australia A v Zimbabweans at Adelaide, Jan 7, 2004