Demanding a pedestal

ROHIT BRIJNATH

Matthew Hayden basks in the glory of his world record 380. — Pic. HAMISH BLAIR/GETTY IMAGES-

A gum-chewing Gulliver from Queensland is possibly the best batsman in the world. Indians will not like this, and West Indians will contest such a claim strenuously. But then part of the splendour of sport is disagreement.

Compiling the highest score in Test cricket does not necessarily result in ownership of this crown. Hanif Mohammed, when he held the record, scarcely had pretensions of being the world's best. Conversely, Sachin Tendulkar, who has never come close to the record, is acknowledged master of his craft. Still, only batsmen of the highest class are capable of such accomplishments.

Lara and Tendulkar have for a decade and more ruled cricket with a stylish hand. The West Indian is a dazzler, an expressive artist impossible to contain when in the mood, producing innings that museums would pay a high price to own. Tendulkar is considered a shade superior, for he is as constant as the north star, a batsman of consistent authority, a player of correctness and conviction, flair and science.

Tendulkar has been at it for 106 Tests, Lara for 96, and their greatness is unquestioned as it has come over time. There is no evidence either to confirm their era has passed. But certainly Hayden has arrived to argue the point of whether only they deserve a pedestal.

Hayden has played fewer Tests, 45, moreover he has only blossomed lately, and whether this batting whirlwind will peter out or continue to blow bowlers away is yet to be seen. Nevertheless, this muscleman who probably eats steaks as a snack has issued compelling notice in recent times of a powerful appetite for runs.

Hayden may carry the charm of a fellow who lifts and delivers furniture for a living, but it is impossible not to be stirred by the menace with which he meets the ball. When he bats all sorts of illusions are cast: his bat looks both like a toothpick in his hand yet as wide as a bench. He always seems to be at the crease, yet he is not one to allow scoreboard operators to break for a beer. His style is bold, and brazen (his 380 contained 38 boundaries, 11 sixes), and it leaves captains uncertain where to set fields to him and downcast bowlers muttering about their averages.

As his captain, Steve Waugh put it: "When he gets hundreds, he scores them quickly and dominates the opposition and sets the tone for the rest of the innings. He sets up matches, which not a lot of players do. Sometimes you just watch him bat and you think `I can't believe anyone could bat any better than this'.''

Although statistics themselves would be inadmissible evidence in court (it does not rate opposition for starters, or the match situation), in his last 25 Tests Hayden has scored 2665 runs, at 74.02, with 12 hundreds and 7 fifties.

Tendulkar's last 25 Tests have brought 2249 runs at 57.66 with 7 hundreds and 9 fifties, while Lara has 2588 runs at 58.81 with 7 hundreds and 11 fifties. To add another illustrious name, Rahul Dravid, who makes a living falling short of centuries, has over that period scored 2111 runs, at 57.05, with six centuries and 10 fifties.

Like Lara and Tendulkar, but not Dravid, Hayden is a superior batsman in home conditions, and while his away averages against South Africa (32.75) and England (33.42) are at odds with his all-round average of 56.75, his performances in India (109.8 average) and West Indies (63.16) make up for it.

Last year, Waugh suggested that if Lara's 375 was to be topped, Hayden was the man. There is no need to award Waugh a crystal ball as reward, for not too many are surprised. This is a batsman who arrives briskly at the crease but is clearly loath to leave.

The saddest part of Hayden's 380, a stylish study in concentration, was that so few saw it. Oh, they saw him flay the last 20-30 runs, the single down the ground that took him past Brian Lara, the exultation that followed. But mostly it was an innings ignored, only the final verse of the soliloquy compelling.

It had nothing to do with Hayden, or his muscular gifts, it was more the irrelevance of the Test match itself. Zimbabwe versus Australia had all the excitement of a Mini Minor taking on a freight train. It made David and Goliath appear a more even contest. The crowds were sparse, and in offices the talk of cricket was thin. Summers of Australian cricket have lost their edge of tension: Steve Waugh's men no longer play to win, but to set standards.

Of course, Zimbabwe has its troubles, and mostly its team is peopled with fellows whose hearts beat more strongly than their skills. As if Robert Mugabe is not trouble enough, Murray Goodwin, a former Zimbabwean player, is claiming all sorts of quotas are at work. Whatever, it is hard just to fill 11 spots, and such disadvantages look even worse in the face of the marauding Australians. How good this is for cricket is anyone's guess. That Bangladesh is an even weaker side, yet pulled gleefully into the Test family, says little about the game's health.

Yet to assign an asterisk to Hayden's performance is to mock his masterpiece. Whatever the quality of opposition it was a stunning river of runs, a telling exercise in will and patience, an exhibition in sturdy batsmanship and a demonstration of powerful ambition. It is easy to forget that other nations and great batsmen have played Zimbabwe, and Bangladesh in recent times, and such a score has never even appeared likely.

Batsmen, if you needle them, are quick to lecture about how their art is unforgiving. Bowlers are allowed repeated mistakes, yet batsmen are punished severely for a single indiscretion. Whatever the opposition, batting is a test of concentration, an examination of character. Bad bowlers produce good balls occasionally, footwork can get lazy, the heat interrupts the thought process, arrogance comes in the way. That Hayden conquered all this, that he kept his eye and composure over 622 minutes, suddenly makes that 380 look, improbably, even larger than it is. Usually, most teams do not score that against Australia.

Challenging the legitimacy of this feat is insulting to more than Hayden. After all, if we were to query the quality of the opposition bowlers, the pitch, the state of the match, all manner of accomplishments would be under scrutiny. Sanath Jayasuriya's 340 came on a pitch that did not need a doctor to pronounce it dead, and Brian Lara's 375 was carved out against English bowlers of dubious merit.

The 380 is good for cricket, all records are, for they suggest a pushing of boundaries, a setting of new standards.

It is good, too, for Lara and Tendulkar, men who scarcely require to be challenged, will feel the heat of Hayden's innings, will not enjoy his long shadow across them.

It is not the 380 they will be after, but to silence the dispute over who the greatest batsman in cricket is. As for us, we might as well sit back and enjoy the ride.