A phenomenal appetite for runs

MATTHEW HAYDEN'S rise and rise as the best current Test batsman in the world began a long way from the glitz and glamour of the international arena.His twin centuries in the first Test against England in Brisbane merely highlighted how far this strong, bold man has come since he was given the opportunity to cement a place in the Australian side.

REUTERS

Despite a prolific record for Queensland Hayden was a bit-part player on the Australian scene until chosen as a replacement for Greg Blewett for the start of the 2000-2001 season against the West Indies.

After modest returns he exploded in India with 549 runs at 109.8 and from the beginning of last season Hayden has been extraordinary - averaging better than 79 in 13 Tests with eight centuries.

It is this golden vein of constant runs which has prompted Steve Waugh to claim that Bradman could not have batted any better.

''I've been a big fan of his for a long time," Waugh said of Hayden. "He's an outstanding player. He's as good a batsman as I have seen."

Hayden, 31, was most delighted that he could achieve the rare feat of twin hundreds in front of his home crowd, who have supported him so strongly when he spent most of the past decade on the outer.

''What more icing can you have on a cake" he wondered with a smile. Hayden hails from the small farming town of Kingaroy, 220 km north west of Brisbane, where his long climb to Test cricket started when he faced up to his brother Gary in the backyard. He might well have been nicknamed Hard Luck Hayden given his bumpy ride on the road to fame and fortune.

Hayden learned very early never to take anything for granted playing cricket. He was left out of many junior representative teams because he was branded a slogger and was rejected by the Australian Cricket Academy when told over the phone, ''we are really just after future first-class players".

He was one of 21 players sent to Adelaide to try out for the Australian under-19 side, but one of four who missed selection.

''The setbacks have got to have been good for me," Hayden said. "Out of all the hardships, the best thing that has happened is Justin (Langer) and I have been through a very similar school. We have formed a friendship which an opening partnership needs to be rock solid. You need to understand where you have come from and where you want to go."

When Hayden surged on to the first-class scene for Queensland in his boom summer of 1991-92, he was strong, willing, focused and dependable, but, by his own admission, no model of technical perfection.

He knew in his own heart he was a wooden player of spin bowling and was modest off his pads, and was big enough to accept he was a long way from the polished product he wanted to be.

''I was as green as grass when I started. I had a passion for scoring runs. That kept me in play in a lot of ways. I had to develop my game. A few things were glaringly obvious," he said. ''I had to work on spin and playing on slower wickets. (South Australian off-spinner) Tim May tied me down for sessions. I was fine at the 'Gabba, but I struggled at other venues.

''Early on I felt as if I wasn't going to get out against spin, but I didn't feel as if that was the way I wanted to play it." Several years ago, when he heard Australia was sending a fleet of young batsmen and spin bowlers to India for a swat session under spin greats Bishen Bedi and Srinivas Venkat, Hayden almost got down on his hands and knees and pleaded to go.

''I begged (selection chairman) Trevor Hohns. I said, 'If there is an opportunity to do it, please, please, I want to be the one'. If you believe in fate that was a great move because I did learn a tremendous amount."

The appointment of Steve Waugh as national captain was a boon for Hayden for it gave him the strong ally that fringe players need. Waugh predicted that Hayden would double his Test average, and since that time it has bounded from 26.94 to 53.70.

''Tugga has had a huge influence on me," Hayden said during his breakthrough series in India last year. I don't think I would be here now if it wasn't for Stephen. He has always had a very strong belief in my ability and has always backed me." Hayden has an unusual collection of mentors, for some have been devil's advocates as well, such as former Australian coach Bob Simpson, Hayden's coach on the 1993 Ashes tour and the man who taught him three different versions of his now-famous sweep shot.

''I had never met anyone who could criticise my game as much as I could," Hayden said.

''I always thought I was going to be my harshest critic. He was very honest and at times very cutting, but I appreciated that in hindsight. I was never good enough for him. You would never hear me grizzle now about the sorts of things he had to say.

''He was a hard marker. In some ways, I think that got the best out of people. I think anyone who reaches the top is a really competitive animal. In some ways it was always like that; I am sure he did it intentionally." Rod Marsh, who was initially a hard marker of Hayden, also dropped a line that struck a long-lasting chord.

''He said, 'You have got to get the ball on the full if you are playing spin.' That was an amazing concept because I had thought you had to get there on the half-volley. He said, 'If you are desperately hungry to get to the ball on the full, it will turn into a half-volley anyway if you get done'."

Apart from other influences such as elder brother Gary and Australian coach John Buchanan, Hayden also learnt much from Allan Border, often simply by noting his professionalism in the nets.

''It always amazed me how you never saw him pound the ball in the nets. He would drop it at his feet, yet he occasionally hit the very first ball in the middle over the top. It was a baffling sort of strategy, but I reckon that's the way to go."

Long before he joined the Australian selection panel in Feb. '98, Border had a theory: give Hayden a decent run in Test cricket and he will repay you with decent results.

There's no doubt Border was a factor in getting Hayden an extended crack at Test cricket. His support was not unconditional. But it was like a push start to a car with battery problems: once Hayden clicked into gear, he was away.

Border had watched Hayden closely during the closing years of his inter-state career and liked his game. He liked the way Hayden developed a new shot each summer to stay one step ahead of bowlers, particularly the short-armed pull used to shore up a weak spot in his game, leg-side play. He was also mildly offended when people said Hayden had a suspect technique, saying people said the same of him before he made his Test debut in 1977-78.

When Hayden made his first-class debut for Queensland a decade ago, his life was a tunnel with him on one side and cricket on the other. Little else mattered. But life experiences have seen him expand his boundaries. His life was so cricketcentric he loved planning meetings. Now they drive him nuts.

He gets as much enjoyment out of cooking a special meal, reeling in a giant flathead, surfing a giant swell or tasting a new wine as he does hitting a boundary. From laughing at a group of men in India who laugh hysterically every morning as part of therapy to be happy, Hayden has tried to throw himself into life and feels he is a more rounded man.

''I was very introverted when I first started," he said. I think you had to be in the system with Queensland as well. It was a system which was very self-absorbing. The culture was very different. I was sick of that, so I wanted to break free of that mould.

''I wanted to try and contribute in other ways. That can be as simple as stopping on the side of the road or sitting on the bus and saying, 'That's a nice sunset', a conversation where everyone would say 'Haydos is rattling on with a pile of rubbish'. ''But the very fact that it is said brings something to the side. Justin does the same thing. It's just trying to step outside the cricket environment, which can be really intense."