Preaching to the unconverted

Cover of Standing My Ground by Matthew Hayden Penguin Australia

"Was I a hypocrite?" Matthew Hayden has asked himself this question in retirement. "Maybe. But I am what I am: a man of contradictions. There's the real me, and then there's the person many people think I am."

The paradox has been well known throughout Hayden's career, particularly for supporters of teams other than Australia. A Catholic with a gentle demeanour off the field, Hayden buried his head in a pillow whenever he left on tour, breaking down at leaving his family. At the crease or from slips he was a brutal sledger, the loudest mouth in a collection of verbal experts.

He reconciled the God-fearer with the man-baiter by believing his faith was a personal affirmation, while ruffling the opposition was his role in the team. "Just as a good actor completely gives himself to a part, I went all the way," he writes, defending his behaviour by pointing to his clean on-field record. "I might not always have been proud of my actions, and I wasn't popular for them, but I recognised the importance of that part of my role, which helped my team become one of the most dominant of all time."

This all comes in the introduction of Standing My Ground, an autobiography that would be more appropriately titled Blowing in the Wind. Hayden deserves praise for not dodging the issues of sledging and intimidatory behaviour that helped define him globally, if not locally. In reality, Hayden chose to behave whichever way suited him.

He didn't get to know Brian Lara or Sachin Tendulkar on a personal level because "I couldn't afford to fraternise with them". But he did enjoy beers and good times with Andrew Flintoff, who wrote the book's foreword. Demystifying and befriending England's most devastating bowler during the 2005 Ashes was a clever, calculating move. Flintoff said their relationship changed the pair's dynamic, bringing a "respectful edge to the proceedings" in the middle.

There's a whole chapter on sledging but Hayden rarely goes into detail about what he said. His retorts are usually short and inoffensive like "We'll see", although he admits at times to muttering a few more expletives. Writing them down verbatim would probably be too embarrassing.

The funniest line comes from the Dutch wicketkeeper Jeroen Smits at the 2003 and 2007 World Cups. "We haven't flown halfway around the world to watch you," he told Hayden. "Get a single and get Gilly on strike because you are crap."

Hayden does outline how he started a three-over countdown of the number of balls he thought Shoaib Akhtar could deliver on a 50°C day in Sharjah in 2002. As Shoaib left the field after the predicted 18 deliveries, Hayden raised his arms like he was calling for new gloves. It was cover to allow him to shout "a massive send-off" to the bowler. Shoaib came back later in the first innings to hit Hayden, who was on his way to a century, on the helmet. "Our joust reached a new level of hostility," Hayden writes.

Yet for a guy who dished it out, he was precious at times when it came back. He went over to Andy Caddick at drinks on the opening day of the 2002-03 Ashes to say hello (politely and seriously, he insists). Caddick blew up and responded with some grumpy abuse, which an angry Hayden channelled into twin centuries.

But the biggest back-flip came when the sledger turned whistle-blower and reported an elderly woman for delivering "one of the fiercest tirades I've ever copped" as he walked back to the SCG dressing room. After he'd cooled down he spoke to her, got her membership number and told her the behaviour was unacceptable. "It's so disappointing at a ground I love and respect," he said without irony. For Hayden there were different rules for each side of the boundary.

The lady said she suffered from Tourette's syndrome, causing her to swear indiscriminately. It was an excuse Hayden never tried. He didn't need to. Despite his role and reputation, he was never reported because "I just covered my tracks well".

"Hayden often comes across as loathsome and a theme of international opponents is them hating him until getting to know him. Away from the sledging and arrogance he is likeable: flawed, hard-working, sensitive and generous. He was as much a contradiction as he was a hypocrite"

Off the field he had fiery arguments with Rod Marsh, who called him "weak" in 1994-95, and Geoff Boycott. While commentating during the 2009 Ashes, Boycott said Hayden and Shane Warne would not have succeeded on uncovered pitches. Hayden felt it was a reasonable assessment of himself but not of Warne, and launched a strong defence, leading to Boycott walking out. What wasn't mentioned was Hayden's line that Boycott's batting "emptied grounds".

Surprisingly, Hayden genuinely comes across as being very cuddly in parts of his life, and is often moved to tears when thinking about his family's support. The compartmentalising helped make him such a success. Those who supported him at Queensland in the 1990s, when he dominated at domestic level and stuttered during his handful of Test appearances, appreciate the toughness that drove him to the verge of greatness. It turned out that the runs couldn't come without the impenetrable veneer.

Hayden still remembers the sound of Curtly Ambrose hitting his off stump at the MCG in 1996-97 when he shouldered arms. The flashback still makes me shudder, so desperate was I to see him succeed. He writes of people mowing the lawn when he batted for Queensland, because they knew he'd still be in when they were finished. When he played his first seven Tests over six years they did the same thing, because they were too nervous to watch him bat.

"I felt like I was walking a tightrope every innings," he said of his early Australia appearances. "I was full of doubts about the present and the future." It's hard to believe that he transformed from being insecure in his 20s to almost indestructible in his 30s. Learning to embrace the pressure, rather than fighting it, slowly changed him, and by the time he went to India in 2001 he was finally established at Test level.

Robert Craddock was the ghost writer and he has edited Hayden's monologues crisply and added the type of descriptive analogies that sparkle in his copy in the Courier-Mail. Bob Simpson is described as having a fascinating mind: "At times it seemed to work like a steel trap; at others like a flapping tent." In the time between Kepler Wessels' playing days and his coaching of Chennai in the IPL, "scoring rates had gone from Driving Miss Daisy pace to Formula One".

The light touches ease some of the heavier going. However, there are major exchanges and events, particularly the downfall of his mate Andrew Symonds, that are seriously short of detail. That's strange for a man with as many words as Hayden. But he has opened up a lot more than his contemporaries, showing his warts. It is not hagiography.

Hayden often comes across as loathsome and a theme of international opponents is them hating him until getting to know him. Away from the sledging and arrogance he is likeable: flawed, hardworking, sensitive and generous. He was as much a contradiction as he was a hypocrite.

Standing My Ground
by Matthew Hayden
Penguin Australia
416pp, A$49.95