A groan of personal distress

I confess that when I heard that Matthew Hayden had scored 380 off the Zimbabwe attack in the first Test at Perth I gave a groan of disappointment.


A smiling Matthew Hayden striding out of the ground. He is the oldest of all the batsmen who have held the individual world record. — Pic. AFP-

I confess that when I heard that Matthew Hayden had scored 380 off the Zimbabwe attack in the first Test at Perth I gave a groan of disappointment.

No reflection on the ability of Hayden, as robust, and strong and aggressive an opening batsman as any of us have seen in the last few years.

It was purely a groan of personal distress. The news brought an end to my golden memories of the best moment I have witnessed during a long career watching 340 Tests and too many one-day internationals; the Chris Lewis bouncer Brian Lara hooked for four that established a new world record.

I have never doubted that Lewis, the England fast bowler, used the bouncer so that he might be part of an historic moment but we did not know until later that as Lara made contact he caught the leg stump with his foot and made the bail jump in its socket.

If the bail had fallen there would have been a dramatic end to an extraordinary knock. I call it the finest of all the Test record innings but now that Hayden has snatched the record away I can no longer claim Lara's 375 stands alone.

Hayden's innings cannot, for all those five precious extra runs, have been as great as Lara's although I cannot prove it with facts. Instead I must simply present the suggestion that Hayden's runs came from an inferior attack, just as Len Hutton's were made at the expense of a depleted Australian bowling line-up and Gary Sobers' 365 was made off an injury-struck Pakistan attack.

Zimbabwe have only Heath Streak, who carries the additional burden of captaining a weak side further destroyed by politics and the need to make a few runs in the lower middle order, of Test calibre.

In 1938 on an Oval featherbed Australia had the brilliant leg break bowler Bill O'Reilly and the erratic `Chuck' Fleetwood-Smith, a slow left-arm Chinaman and googly bowler; but no one else of any quality. The rest of the bowling was county class and Hutton had a none too difficult task in scoring his runs in 13 hours and 20 minutes.

Nothing so damning can be said about Lara's innings.

Just for a start, he went to the crease when two batsmen were out for 13 and he faced an attack which might on a good day have bowled out any side in the world.

Phil Tufnell for several years was the finest spin bowler in England. — Pic. REUTERS-

Lewis was, at his best, capable of bowling Mohammed Azharuddin between bat and pad up the hill at Lord's and taking six West Indies wickets in an innings. Sadly, he was not often at his best but he still captured 93 wickets at 37.53. The England selectors misused him as they have done other fine bowlers, notably Phil DeFreitas, Phil Tufnell and Gladstone Small.

For all his injuries Gus Fraser finished his career with 177 wickets at 27.32. His nagging pace was ideal for that low, slow Antigua pitch and he was the only one of the four to force Lara to edge a ball into the slips — there was no cast-iron chance in the whole of that innings — although that was not until he was within sight of Sobers' record when his mistake happened.

Typical Gus, a nice guy with the gift of the gab and a sense that bowlers never get justice. Can you believe it; he went down the pitch and delivered a speech. Accounts of his oration vary but it was along these lines: "I suppose it is not possible for me to call you a lucky so-and-so when you are 325 not out but frankly that was a lousy shot and if I had been as lucky as you I would have had you out at that moment."

Sledging it was not. Merv Hughes would have condensed the same thought into fewer than half a dozen words. But it remains memorable and gave us the first suggestion that Fraser might, 10 years down the track, be a considerable writer about the game.

He is now writing, appropriately, in The Independent and making almost as good a job of that as he did of containing Lara and co. at his best. All his own stuff too; no ghost-written tripe of which there is still too much clouding the horizon.

Andrew Caddick was the other pace bowler. He is still around, claiming he will return after injury and with 234 Test wickets to his name for 29.91.

Nowadays Tufnell is still hitting the headlines. He won some junk TV competition in a jungle and now appears on the television in some equally strange programme, in newspaper advertisements or on page three of a tabloid after (a) leaving or (b) returning to his latest girl friend.

The last time I saw him, wandering through the Press Box at Lord's, he looked as if a good sleep in a proper bed might improve his health by 98 per cent and as if he might be a stranger to the attentions of a decent hairdresser.

Of course, his hair is in the modern style and no more the worse for that. If a former smuggler, dope addict and compulsive wanderer can win one of the premier publishing competitions and pop stars dress as if they were off to the Tramps Ball there is no reason why Tufnell has to wear a jacket and tie. It just means he may never be asked to be president of MCC.

For several years he was the finest spin bowler in the land and frankly England could do with him, for all his 37 years and his bleary eyes, on the field in either Bangladesh or Sri Lanka this winter.

He had 121 Test wickets at 37.69 in his 59 Tests and in the late summer at the Oval against tired tour teams he was a match-winner. So Lara made his runs, after his side made a bad start, off four bowlers whose aggregate of Test wickets came to 625 on a slow pitch and a slow outfield.

Just as an aside to this great innings at the end the official scorers got into a state of confusion over a five-ball over. They insisted on putting in ball that had never been bowled to make their books balance and to preserve the impression of umpiring infallibility. It went against Lara's name. Don't ask why.

I was just one of the people who protested in the name of his justice to batsmen but the scorers were adamant. Never mind. It is not the only piece of history distorted by a fallacy and no doubt it will not be the last. Lara's innings surmounted such trivial happenings.

That is why I call it the finest of all the record innings but, even in my most biased moments, I have to acknowledge that nothing I have read about the Hayden innings detracts from his achievement.

He is also the oldest of all the batsmen who have held the world record. Don Bradman in 1934 was 26, Hutton was 22 in 1938, Sobers a babe of 21 in 1957 and Lara 26 in 1994. Hayden claims that a tough preparation, including Iron Man training on the beaches of his native Queensland, has enabled him to pull off a remarkable feat of stamina at 31. He has also opened the way for a new record holder to head for 400.

I have no doubt that there will be a new mark soon. Batsmen are more accomplished in the 21st century, with a wider variety of bats to choose from and a greater back-up from coaches and fitness gurus. Bowlers wake almost every day to find that the former captains who go on to rule the game have invented a new way of restricting their ability to take wickets.

Pitches are sometimes so friendly towards the batsmen of 2003 that it is a surprise they don't give him a cheery good morning and a handshake when he reaches the crease. And when a bowler achieves such feats as Shane Warne he is banned because, well, he tries to keep his figure in reasonable shape with a couple of pills. Coming from a family of stout yeomen I sympathise.

Cricket was made for batsmen like Bradman, Hutton, Sobers, Lara and Hayden. It has armed them with a huge bat, an infamous English lady murdered her boy friend with one recently, and given bowlers a puny ball. Unfair to bowlers I say even though all that punishment means they have finer characters than batsmen and make better allies.

Besides, did you ever hear of anyone attempting to murder his worst enemy with a five and a half ounce cricket ball? No? I thought not.