More than a year after he last wore green and gold, Matthew Hayden returns to the one-day arena on Monday, desperate to further his chances of clinching a place on the flight to the World Cup next March. Adam Gilchrist should take one of the opening slots, and Hayden is just one of many contenders for the other. In recent times, Australia have tried out the likes of Phil Jaques and Shane Watson at the top of the order, while Mark Cosgrove, the exciting new boy from South Australia, also enjoyed a stellar ING Cup season while playing as opener.
Hayden, though, is just happy to be back. "It's been a long time since I played one-day cricket for Australia," he said, talking to the media at the team hotel. "I'd like to think that performances in Test cricket have probably led me to this position. Like the selectors, I've got short-term and long-term goals. The short-term goal is obviously to play well in the next two games, and then have wonderful preparation up to the Ashes."
Though he can expect to get two or three games here, Hayden is not part of the squad for the Champions Trophy, despite averaging 40.10 from 119 games. But while admitting that he was disappointed to miss out on another Indian adventure, he said that his fate was indicative of the great strength in depth that Australia possess. "My career hasn't always been on an even keel," he said. "I've always had to fight hard for my position, and that's the great strength of this wonderful side, the fact that everyone puts themselves in a position every day to be the best cricketer they can be. Over, the years, I've done that. I've promised the selectors runs, in all forms of the game, right from club cricket.
"The reason Australian cricket is so strong is because blokes like me are sitting on the fringe after having played 120 games of one-day cricket, and still looking to play, still looking to train hard and perform every game. Now, if a senior player can be in that position, what's that saying to a junior player?"
Hayden would also have been reassured by the vote of confidence from Andrew Hilditch, chairman of the national selection panel. "The reason Matthew's here is because he's very much in the mix for our one-day thoughts," Hilditch said. "We've got the VB Series coming up, and the World Cup. Matthew doesn't have to prove himself. He's a great player."
The reason Australian cricket is so strong is because blokes like me are sitting on the fringe after having played 120 games of one-day cricket, and still looking to play, still looking to train hard and perform every game
The tremendous tussle for opening slots, he suggested, was in keeping with the flexibility that has been a hallmark of Australian sides in the recent past. "We have the ability as a batting line-up to bat players anywhere in the order," he said. "Michael [Hussey] is an opener. Ricky [Ponting] can bat anywhere he wants. Marto's [Damien Martyn] the same. So's Simmo [Andrew Symonds]."
He was also full of praise for his Queensland team-mate, Shane Watson, who flayed the Indian attack for 79 from just 74 balls when promoted to open yesterday. "Shane's done some remarkable things with his game in the off-season," he said. "He's more or less transformed the way he stands at the crease, and I think that's going to give him a huge advantage. He's obviously physically exceptional. He should be on Manpower [an Australia male review], not on a cricket field," he laughed. "He's a great example of a young cricketer who works really hard, has discipline, and looks to improve at every opportunity. I thought he batted beautifully yesterday."
And after Shane Warne's alleged remarks about John Buchanan caused quite a stir in the run-up to the India game, it was fairly evident that the squad had decided to close ranks on the matter. When asked about his views on the situation, Hayden was content to say: "I haven't read the transcripts, and we all know that the English press love to beat a story up. Till I get to the bottom of what the comments were, I don't think there's any direct problem between Shane and John."
The Australian team management may have arrived here with the aim of trying out some new talent, and with one eye on fine-tuning strategies before the Champions Trophy, but for Hayden, the coming week is a huge one. Fail here, and his one-day career might just be over. But if he can intimidate the bowlers and bludgeon some big runs, the Caribbean dream will remain alive.