Despite being from Queensland, throughout the 1990s, I was always a much bigger fan of Michael Slater than Matthew Hayden.
From the 1993 Ashes tour onwards, Hayden always gave me the impression of being overawed playing at international level, whereas Slater seemed inspired.
Both were responsible for one of my finest cricketing memories as a spectator at the Gabba: Slater’s magnificent 176 to kick off the 1994-95 Ashes and Hayden’s unbeaten 201 for Queensland to chase down 361 on the final day against Victoria the following summer, an innings that also included 60-odd from Allan Border in his final season of first class cricket.
Despite also being a Mark Taylor fan, I also hoped that Hayden would come good eventually and that he and Slater would form an awesome opening combination in the post-Taylor era. As the ’90s wore on, this seemed more and more like a pipe dream until the early 2000 tour of New Zealand.
It was on that tour that I saw a change in his outward demeanour at the crease. He finally looked as though he believed he belonged on the highest stage. Technically, this was a one-day series, not the Test arena, but Hayden, batting first drop in place of the injured Ricky Ponting, made something like five half tons in the seven-match series.
He then gained a third shot at Test cricket when the selectors lost patience with Greg Blewett at the top of the order for the final dead rubber Test that series.
Over the following Australian summer (2000-01) against the West Indies, Hayden was solid without setting the world on fire, scoring a 40-odd and two half tons in the first three Tests of the five-Test series, all three Tests being won to secure the Frank Worrell Trophy.
Importantly, he shared a couple of century opening stands with Slater, so he had certainly done enough to justify his continued place in the team. But what he really needed at that point to cement his spot was a couple of centuries.
These came on the following tour of India in early 2001. Leading into that astonishing series on the sub-continent, Hayden had only one ton to his name after 13 Tests and his average would probably have been less than 30.
His first innings of the series, 119, came after being joined by Adam Gilchrist at a precariously placed 5-99, with the good work of the bowlers in India’s first innings looking like being squandered. The two shared a stand of 197 at better than a run a ball.
In the second Test he made 97 and 67, and then 203 out of the team total of 391 in the third Test. All three Tests were decided and none were dead rubbers. He had the rare distinction of over 500 runs in a three-Test series. Hayden faced a rampant Harbhajan Singh in all three Tests, who took 32 wickets in the series.
My purpose is not to provide a history lesson, or even chronological account of Hayden’s career, but rather to dissect his peaks and troughs and examine his claims to greatness as opposed to claims that he is overrated. This will focus mainly around the class of bowling he faced during his peaks.
In the 2001 Ashes series, he made only one half century, 68 in the final dead rubber at the Oval. However, he did share a 98-run opening stand with Slater to start the series, even if his own contribution was only 35.
This was the fourth time in 17 innings (not counting the Johannesburg Test of early 1994) together they had shared a stand of 98 or more, and the seventh time of more than 50.
Their average opening stand at this point, again discounting Johannesburg 1994, was 52, so although Hayden was yet to consistently dominate at Test level, his opening partnership with Slater was functioning well, and Hayden’s place in the team was presumably not in jeopardy at this point.
That final Test in 2001, he kicked off his new liaison with Justin Langer with a century stand, Hayden’s own share being the aforementioned 68. At the end of that series, he now had three tons in 21 Tests. I don’t know what his own average was at this point, but I would imagine still under 40 – maybe even well under.
A watershed run of 18 tons in his following 34 Tests pushed him towards greatness for the first time. When this run ended with twin centuries in Cairns against Sri Lanka in mid-2004, he now had 21 tons in 55 Tests, and his average was now above 50.
If we momentarily ignore that Test, as well as the first of that same two-Test series, together with the third and final Test of the previous series in Sri Lanka only a month or so earlier, Hayden had 19 tons from his first 52 Tests. Only Don Bradman and Steve Smith have bettered this. My view of stats is that they are often or sometimes relevant, but rarely, if ever, the be all and end all.
That aforementioned run of 18 tons in 34 Tests began before Ricky Ponting’s run of 11 in 21 began, and continued after Ponting’s had finished. Ponting’s went from early 2002 until the end of December 2003. During those 34 Tests, Hayden faced the following bowlers: Shane Bond, Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini, Waqar Younis, Shoiab Akhtar, Saqlain Mustaq, Danish Kaneria, Steve Harmison, Zaheer Khan, Anil Kumble and Muttiah Muralitharan – hardly no hopers, any of them.
During this aforementioned time frame, Australia won every series it played bar two, the first in this period, the 2001-02 home series against New Zealand, and we would have easily won this one too but for rain in Brisbane and Hobart. The second was against India in our home summer of 2003-04, and both Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne were missing that series when India had easily their greatest ever batting line-up.
In fact, only two of those centuries were in a non-won Test. One of those was a rain-ruined draw in Brisbane that Australia would otherwise have won. The only loss for Australia in which Hayden scored a ton in this period was in a dead rubber, and there were only two dead rubbers among those 18 tons.
Returning to the scene of his 2001 triumph, India, Hayden began a run of 16 Tests without a century. This was only broken by a ton in the final Test of the 2005 Ashes series, and Hayden had admittedly been as dismal as most of the other Aussie bats that series. Nonetheless, that Test was not a dead rubber, and would have been a decided Test but for persistent rain and bad light throughout Days 2-5. It was also one of only three tons for Australia that series, and one of only eight tons across both teams. Had Hayden not come good at the Oval, that would probably have been the end of his career.
That aforementioned Oval ton began a run of 23 Tests with nine tons that once again encompassed a Ricky Ponting purple patch of ten tons in 13 Tests, with Hayden’s once again beginning before Ponting’s and ending after it, with three tons in the three Tests he played against India in the home summer of 2007-08.
Of those nine tons, seven resulted in wins, none were lost, and only one was in a dead rubbers, and this was in one of the two draws. They were scored against attacks featuring Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini, Steve Harmison, Andy Flintoff, Matthew Hoggard, James Anderson, Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan and a young firebrand by the name of Ishant Sharma – again, hardly no hopers, any of them. He also scored two 90s in this period, both in Tests won, neither of them dead rubbers.
Hayden’s final nine Tests saw no centuries, but this is far from unusual for a great batsman – Viv Richards played ten Tests beyond his final ton. To his credit, Hayden realised sooner, rather than later, that he was getting over the hill and walked away. The defining moment for him in this respect was probably when he dropped a sitter in the dying moments of Australia’s consolation dead rubber win against South Africa in Sydney in 2009, in what turned out to be Hayden’s final Test. That drop nearly cost Australia that morale-saving win.
Hayden also made ten one-day tons for Australia, including three in the 2007 World Cup, which Australia won. He was our leading run scorer in that tournament. For a time, Hayden held the prestigious records for the highest individual scores by an Australian in both Test and one-day cricket, and not very many players at all have achieved this feat for their various countries.
His 380 was certainly scored against a rubbish attack, for sure, but it was also an attack no worse than the Pakistan attack that Garry Sobers achieved the record against 46 years earlier. Only five years a Test country by that point, that Pakistan attack would have been, at best, equivalent to the Bangladesh attack in the very early years of the 21st century.
The Zimbabwe attack was probably better than the New Zealand attack against whom Walter Hammond took the record in early 1933 – these are the kind of double standards that really grate me when down playing Hayden’s knock. At least Hayden’s knock was in a winning Test, and very few triple tons have been, let alone record scores. It was also not a dead rubber, like a large percentage of triple tons and records have been scored in.
Hayden has more Test centuries after the age of 30 than anyone else – in fact he scored more Test tons post 30 than most batsmen have made in their entire careers. All great openers have experienced troughs to balance out peak purple patches and Hayden is no exception.
Hayden also dominated the Sheffield Shield, at times in Bradman-like proportions, through most of the 1990s, during not only Australia’s strongest ever era, but also an era in which the regular Test stars still played a fair proportion of the Shield season.
Hayden wrote in his book Standing My Ground that in the early days of his career when he was constantly on the fringe of the Australian team, but never managing to nail numerous opportunities given, that then-coach Bob Simpson openly and regularly would tell Hayden that he was far from the finished product.
Hayden would accept this advice and try harder, again and again until he finally made it. By the turn of the new century and millennium, new Test captain Steve Waugh was going to the selectors and telling them uncompromisingly: ‘I want this man in my team!’