Hayden: fate has caught up, please go

January 2, 2009

For the last eight years, Matthew Hayden has ridden his luck to play cricket for Australia. The times have suited him because of the large number of mediocre medium-pacers in the game.

It was the right time for a flat-track bully to prosper.

Test cricket has never seen an abundance of top-notch pacemen as it saw in the 20 years from 1974 to 1993 - Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Geoff Lawson, Merv Hughes, Craig McDermott, Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Colin Croft, Malcolm Marshall, Wayne Daniels, Courtney Walsh, Curtley Ambrose, Patrick Patterson, Imran Khan, Sarfraz Nawaz, Waqar Younis, Wasim Akram, Richard Hadlee, Bob Willis, Allan Donald and Fanie de Villiers.

The pitches were different in those years - the pacemen always had a fair chance. There were few flat tracks. Countries did not doctor pitches to change their essential character - for example, Australia was more or less resigned to losing to the West Indies in Perth, the fastest pitch in the world.

In his early days, it was evident that Hayden was acutely uncomfortable against genuine pace bowlers who could swing the ball. Donald and de Villiers made him look like an amateur in 1994, the year he made his debut. They ensured that he would be dropped.

In 1996-97, he was picked again to play against the West Indies but Curtley Ambrose and Courtney Walsh were there to resurrect his nightmares. He had more difficulty negotiating Ambrose - in the one Test when the lanky Antiguan was absent due to injury, Hayden scored a century. An indication of how poorly Hayden fares against good pace is the fact that in 1996-97 both Walsh and Ambrose were nothing like the force they had been five years earlier; both were near the end of their careers.

Yet Hayden found it extremely difficult to cope with the pair, same as he had with de Villiers and Donald. The selectors dropped him again.

Hayden's answer to the problem was to bulk himself up, stand a foot outside the crease and try to hit every ball to kingdom come. He never bothered to try and improve his technique, to find out how he could leave the ball when it needed to be left.

When he was picked again in 2000, the stage was different. Pitches were being made more innocuous to ensure that big scores were made - after all, people come to watch batsmen, don't they? The quality of fast bowling had declined and the only good pace bowlers in the international game were on the same side as Hayden.

Additionally the boundaries had been pulled in to ensure bigger scores. Mediocre teams like Bangladesh had been granted Test status. And the ICC was now insisting that Australia had to play third-rate teams like Zimbabwe.

Hayden had learned from his years in county cricket - lots and lots of mediocre medium-pacers had their offerings hammered over the mid-wicket boundary. When he encountered the same kind of pie-fest in Test cricket, he applied the same remedy.

And, for the most part, it worked. He has managed to accumulate runs and when you make 380 against a team like Zimbabwe it raises your average quite a bit.

I once saw Sunil Gavaskar make 96 against Pakistan when India was chasing a victory target of 221. This was in Bangalore in 1987; Gavaskar's innings was amazing because he was batting on a pitch where the ball was turning square; puffs of dust had been flying out from the surface since day one.

He was up against Tauseef Ahmed and Iqbal Qasim and made the runs out of 204 as India lost to its arch-rival in a low-scoring game.

Hayden has never played an innings like that. The one time when he was required to bat for the team, in the final Test of the 2005 Ashes series, he was an embarrassment, making a hundred over three days and accepting bad light as an excuse to leave the field more than once. This, when Australia had to win to retain the Ashes.

One can contrast Hayden's first innings effort with that of his partner, Justin Langer, a man who had immensely more skill. Langer's 105 took 146 balls while Hayden consumed 303 for his 138. And Hayden hung around for 416 minutes while Langer took just 233.

But Hayden could do no better - he was fighting to keep his place in the team, having made a highest score of 38 in the series to that point. Andrew Flintoff, Simon Jones, Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard were swinging the ball all over the place and Hayden was thoroughly exposed.

Former England offspinner Vic Marks recently observed that a long innings would show whether a batsman was in form or not - he cited the example of Mike Gatting's last century at Adelaide in 1995, a terrible effort. Gatting was sensible enough to quit after that.

But the Australian selectors spared Hayden after his 2005 showing. That one innings of 138 should have shown them exactly what his weakness was. There were plenty of good replacements around but the selectors chose to turn a blind eye. The fact that Ricky Ponting is his mate has certainly helped.

In 2008, Hayden was found out again. He had an injury break from the game and when he got back he found that two Indians had emerged as genuine swingers of the ball. Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma made life very difficult for him when Australia toured India in October. Later, back in Australia, South Africans Makhaya Ntini and Dale Steyn have shown him up.

At 37, Hayden's reflexes have slowed; his modus operandi of planting a foot down the wicket and swinging wildly no longer works. He has no clue as to what ball he should leave and what he should play. Like the Boxing Day sales, with him it has always been a case of "everything has to go."

He was once a good slip fielder but he appears to have lost the ability to hang on to the ball anymore. Age has caught up with him. He was never that good as a batsman, now he is terrible. The longer he stays at the crease, the more evident it becomes that he is a man who should retire.

There are plenty of good opening batsmen in Australia who are waiting for a chance. Hayden should count himself lucky to have had such a fortunate career and quit immediately instead of hanging on.