South African Dale Steyn (centre right) celebrates the wicket of Matthew Hayden (left) caught and bowled for four during the third day of their Test match against Australia at the WACA ground in Perth, Friday, Dec. 19, 2008. AAP Image/Tony McDonough

If Matthew Hayden does not announce his retirement after the current Test series against South Africa, the selectors will have to retire him from Test cricket themselves.

Two points are crucial in this analysis.

First, at age 37, Hayden is not going to improve as a Test batsman.

His recent record suggests that his batting has lost its dominance and authority, and despite the sympathetic response of journalists (who Hayden says he does not admire) that he’s had unlucky decisions and run-outs, his time at the top of the batting order is up.

Second, the next Test series is in South Africa next year, followed some months later by the Ashes series in England.

A partner for Simon Katich needs to be found in South Africa so that Australia goes into the Ashes series with an opening combination that has a certain familiarity with each other.

According to the cricket writers and commentators, the likely candidates to succeed Hayden are Shaun Marsh, Chris Rogers, Phil Jacques and Phillip Hughes.

North and Jacques, who are generally the most-named candidates by the cricket writers, are already in their 30s. Marsh is more of a one-day specialist. Hughes is only into his second year of first class cricket.

Interestingly, Peter Roebuck in an article on Saturday in the SMH on the end of Hayden, mentions Hughes and Hughes only as a possible replacement.

In my opinion, Roebuck is right to make this call.

It was Greg Chappell who made the case that, if possible, talented players should be picked before age 25 because after that, they tended to lose their natural confidence and exuberance. The comment was made in the context of the selection policy of recent years of picking players in their 30s, rather than youngsters.

The money that has come into cricket with the commercialied spread of the game, especially in India, has meant that even journeymen players are staying longer in cricket. The selectors, too, have had some success in bringing older players like Michael Hussey into the Test side, and re-selecting players who had been dropped previously, like Katich.

But the Australian way for more than 100 years, and an important factor in the success of the Australian Test sides, has been to take a punt on young and talented players, even if their first-class experience has been limited.

Class does not need years to identify itself. It is self-obvious in the case of Archie Jackson, Don Bradman, Neil Harvey, Norman O’Neill, Doug Walters, Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke.

And, in my view, in the case of Hughes.

I wandered down to the SCG late last year to see Hughes play his first first-class match for NSW. He batted for 40 minutes without scoring a run, but was unflustered.

Then he opened up and scored a tidy, nicely-compiled 50. I wrote this innings up on The Roar and predicted that the next great Australian batsman had arrived.

Nothing that Hughes has done, or not done, has suggested anything other than that this prediction still holds good. He scored a match-winning century in the Sheffield Shield final. This season, after a slow start, he has scored three centuries.

His first-class batting average is a shade over 50, remarkable for an opening batsman.

There is no doubt about the quality of Hughes’ play. He has the temperament, the appetite for runs and the tight technique to succeed at the highest levels of cricket, in the Test arena.

It’s now up to the selectors to have the foresight and courage to do the Australian thing and give a batting prodigy a chance to establish himself as the next long-term opener, a true successor of Hayden, who has been on averages the most successful of a golden line of great Australian opening batsmen.

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Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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