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The Man Beneath the Muscle

14 January 2009.

Hayden was typecast as a batting bully, but he was subtler than that, and the same divergence showed in his character as well.

And so one of the last big guns has fallen silent. Only Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting remained from the team that pounded so many opponents into submission in the last 10 years. Hayden’s retirement will provoke relief among long-suffering bowlers, regret among his peers, and excitement among the new generation of Australian opening batsmen beginning to emerge as the old guard fades away.

Of course his departure was anticipated. He endured a bad trot this summer, a setback that made him vulnerable. To make matters worse, Australia lost two series, in India and at home to South Africa. Inevitably the voices urging change grew louder. Probably Hayden tried too hard to prove himself in those final weeks, blasting away but coming unstuck as feet and eyes, and sometimes luck, let him down.

Matthew Hayden

Hayden’s final innings in Test cricket. Matthew Hayden backing up as Makhaya Ntini bowls to Katich.
Photo © PJ R /

Eventually he went back to Brisbane and his family and played with his children and picked a few tomatoes and realised that for him it was over. He had spent enough time on the frontline, enough time on the road, had nothing left to prove and nothing else to do except beat a dignified retreat. And so, surrounded by his colleagues in the Australian team, he announced that it was over and wished all and sundry the best of luck. It was the right decision. All good things come to an end.

Of course Australia will miss him, or rather the best of him. Over the years he has been an imposing figure. If Helen of Troy’s face launched a thousand ships then Hayden’s broad bat started a hundred innings and scared dozens of bowlers. A formidable figure armed with a bludgeon and wearing a tough look, he repeatedly began the innings with an uncompromising onslaught. Always he marched to the crease with intent, chewing gum, swinging his arms, a pitiless look in his eye – an Australian opener to his bootstraps, arguably the best his country has produced. Not that Australia has been as efficient at finding opening batsmen as it has been with fast bowlers, legspinners, glovemen and middle-order daredevils.

If Hayden had doubts, he left them in the rooms. It was not in his nature to give opponents any room for comfort. For most of his distinguished contribution, he set the tone for a side determined to take command, to play the game on its own terms. He won as many battles of the new ball as did Glenn McGrath. Between them and their assistants, these players regularly grabbed the initiative, which Australian cricketers value and protect at all costs.

In some eyes Hayden became the epitome of the hard-nosed Aussie, a label he seemed happy to wear. Certainly he was the least liked of the Australian players, especially in England, where his domineering outlook was resented. Indians, too, came to regard him as a mixed blessing, a match-winner with the bat and yet an abrasive opponent capable of intemperate remarks – a man to turn a cricket field into a battlefield. Closer inspection usually softened attitudes, revealing a warmth hidden in the heat of combat. Opponents might have been cowered or angry, but among comrades the Queenslander commanded affection.

About the only regret in yesterday’s news was that Australians will not be able to give Hayden his deserved farewell. His contemporaries made a clean break, surprising observers with their announcements, playing a few more matches and then withdrawing gracefully. Large crowds stood to salute Shane Warne, McGrath and Justin Langer when they waved goodbye. Adam Gilchrist, too, had his lap of honour, as did Steve Waugh.

Hayden needed to be surrounded by believers, needed to feel he could express himself. Just because a man is big does not mean he is certain. Hayden had to fight his fears, among which failure and rejection sat high. In part that explains his swagger. He had to keep the world at bay

Hayden started later and wanted to last longer. Strong of mind and body, he hoped to play another Ashes series, to score a few more hundreds, to end in a blaze. It was not to be. From the start of this year’s campaign he looked out of sorts, a player past his time, searching for his path. It all happened so quickly, caught everyone unawares. In 2007-08 he was the powerhouse of the batting. A year later he seemed too old for the company he was keeping. Naturally he waited for another revival, but this time the root cause was mental not technical. His mind was telling him it was over. Perhaps he will not care that he ended with words not deeds, at a press conference, not with a final innings. He has never been a sentimental man and in any case his form has been lousy.

It has been an extraordinary contribution. Among his generation only Langer, his blue-collar workmate, so far surpassed expectations. Patronised in his early years, cast as a leaden-footed and slow-witted thumper of bad bowling, as an antipodean Graeme Hick perhaps (though Hick might have made it in Australia) Hayden became the most formidable opening batsman of his period.

His career had several false starts as he tried to adjust his game to meet the supposed requirements of Test cricket. A secretly sensitive man, he felt uncomfortable in the teams led by Mark Taylor and accordingly tried to make the right impression, pushing and poking around like a vagabond in a rubbish dump. Of course, it did not work. Every man has his voice, distance, pace and role. Not until Steve Waugh took charge did confidence return. Waugh believed in Hayden, believed in his passion, his commitment, his power, and so Hayden became himself. Ponting had faith in him, too, and retained it through his loss of form in the 2005 Ashes series. Both captains were well rewarded. Hayden needed to be surrounded by believers, needed to feel he could express himself. Just because a man is big does not mean he is certain. Gulliver was pinned down by little men with tiny strings. Hayden had to fight his fears, among which failure and rejection sat high. In part that explains his swagger. He had to keep the world at bay.

His breakthrough came on the 2001 tour of India. After experiencing mixed fortunes in his comeback series against West Indies, he was a marginal selection. Many thought the Indian tweakers would make him look like an elephant in dancing shoes. Before the series began, Hayden made the most critical decision of his career. Accepting that he lacked touch, realising that his footwork might appear cumbersome, knowing that it was make or break, he resolved to stop fretting and to attack. Nor had he come unprepared, A few months before, he had paid his own way to the subcontinent to work on his game against spin. He figured out a method founded upon hitting the ball against the spin and aiming at empty parts of the outfield. His strategy played to his own strengths and put pressure back on the bowlers.

It worked a treat. In a trice Hayden was carting the ball around India, repeatedly dispatching Harbhajan Singh over deep midwicket and treating the other bowlers with equal brutality. Hayden was the highest scorer in the series. It was a towering performance and led to the most fruitful period of his cricketing life.

And yet it was also confusing. Thereafter Hayden was constantly trying to find his true tempo, After India he was typecast as a batting bully, but in fact his game was subtler than it appeared. At his best he took his time, worked his way through the gears. By no means was he a Viv Richards, demanding immediate subjugation. Only in adversity did he strike out. His batting looked muscular but was in fact measured.

The same divergence emerged in his character. At once he was a redneck fisherman from the interior of a conservative state and the author of cookbooks; one minute he was snarling at opponents, the next he was crossing himself. In the same frame lived a fisherman and a pianist, a muscular powerhouse and a new father with children on his lap. Hayden was a thinker; it’s just that his conclusions about himself and his game confronted each other.

In some respects he created a character that could succeed, and never mind that opponents might not care for it. The years of struggle taught him to fend for himself

His batting was built around a withering drive past the bowler’s right hand. Sometimes he’d stand in front of the popping crease or else step down the pitch to play the shot, often with devastating effect. Bowlers reacted by dropping short, and their offerings were put away. Eventually captains began to block the shot by placing deep mid-offs and short covers to pounce on miscues. Hayden never quite overcame this tactic and tended to try to hit the ball too hard. In the 2005 Ashes series he lost the shot and his command, and the same happened this season as he lifted his head, or else allowed his bottom paw to take over. His strength became his weakness, and this time the lost ground could not be recovered. He was 37 and could not expect much grace from the selectors.

Hayden did not get much chance to prove himself against high pace, a style of bowling seen sporadically in the last 15 years. If that is to be held against him, then it must be held against every batsman of the era. For that matter, records ought to be divided between the pre- and post-helmet and pre- and post-covered pitches eras. The tendency to pick holes in his record is to be resisted. Like most batsmen his best years were between 28 and 35. Unlike most of his stature, these years roughly defined his Test career. In part that explains his impressive returns. Along the way he constructed hundreds in four successive Test matches and top-scored in a World Cup. But his true standing as an opener is best gauged by the period’s premier pace bowlers, among whom only Virender Sehwag creates as many sleepless nights.

And it finished as it began, with the left-hander searching for his game. Towards the end he was too anxious to assert himself. In India he broke his duck with a lofted straight drive, a risk repeated on home turf. Both belligerences spoke of a determination to convey confidence. Both indicated desperation and faltering desire. But Hayden was better than he knew. Certainly he was no mere smiter. In his pomp he batted with authority and massive certainty.

Langer was the hustler, often outpacing his buddy as he cracked boundaries through the covers. Hayden was a presence, a strong man taking his time to settle, building an innings, slowly cutting loose. Lack of self-knowledge held him back and eventually brought his downfall. In between he played a huge part in his country’s domination. Along the way he won World Cups and Ashes series, and helped Australia retain top position in the Test and ODI rankings. From anyone it’d be convincing; from a batsman disregarded in his formative years it is astonishing.

This article was written for ESPN cricinfo.
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