`I can't quite believe it'

Matthew Hayden's record-breaking innings was the ultimate triumph by a bold man who has cut the figure of a Greek God at the crease but was considered by experts who followed his early development as too ungainly and heavy-footed to make a Test cricketer, writes MALCOLM CONN.

As word spread around the world that Matthew Hayden had claimed the greatest score in 126 years of Test history, Brian Lara rang from Jamaica to consummate the usurping of his title.

"His sentiments were pretty simple — `great things happen to good cricketers'," Hayden said after his seemingly endless 380 against Zimbabwe in Perth, which overcame Lara's nine-year-old record of 375.

"He really enjoys the way we play the game so he's pleased to see it go to the Australian side.''

Rejected by the Australian cricket academy in his youth, Hayden was driven by an iron will and a refusal to accept failure.

His record-breaking innings was the ultimate triumph by a bold man who has cut the figure of a Greek God at the crease but was considered by experts who followed his early development as too ungainly and heavy-footed to make a Test cricketer.

He was often overlooked for junior representative sides and had four attempts over six years to establishing himself in the national team.

"I spent so many years on the beach wondering how I was ever going to get back into the Australian cricket team,'' Hayden recalled.

Now almost 32, he has put the seal on an unchallengeable reputation as the best batsman in the world today. Over almost 10 and a half hours at the WACA Ground he was supreme.

"What can I say, I'm delighted. I can't quite believe it to be honest,'' Hayden had said immediately after his innings before returning to the field at slip in a performance which saw him spend every minute of the Test on the field. That was all the more remarkable given the ongoing problems Hayden has with his back and the constant treatment he requires to keep playing at the top level.

"I was in a bit of trouble leading into the Test but it was probably a good thing. I've found with injuries your concentration tends to step up a notch,'' he said.

This was no lucky assault but a carefully planned and premeditated attack.

Hayden played cautiously and with great discipline to be 76 not out at tea on the first day in perfect batting conditions.

It was not until he reached his century in a little over five hours that Hayden unleashed, racing from 100 to 150 in just 32 balls with five fours and three sixes. It set the tone for the remainder of his innings. He hit an Australian record of 11 sixes, failing by just one to equal the world record of 12 in an innings clubbed by Wasim Akram during his unbeaten 257 against Zimbabwe.

Hayden also hit 38 fours during an innings which lasted 10 hours and 22 minutes and consumed 437 balls.

As the unseasonably warm West Australian sun gathered strength Hayden made the rare decision to discard his helmet even while the pace bowlers were operating.

Wearing a cap so many Australian greats have donned down the years while batting made Hayden's innings appear more timeless, a fitting symbol for a performance which will rank him forever amongst the immortals.

"I'm just thrilled that I was wearing the baggy green when the record was broken,'' he said, explaining how he felt uncomfortable but undaunted passing Don Bradman's legendary 334.

"I was never haunted by Bradman's record because I'm sure he would have an enormous amount of respect for anyone who came close to any of his records,'' said Hayden.

"I'm sure the 12 guys who are wearing the baggy green now are as proud as what the Don would have been in his day.''

Hayden's life may have changed forever after that extra-ordinary innings but his game changed two and a half years ago when he went to extraordinary lengths to prepare for Australia's most recent tour of India.

He requested a turning pitch be specially prepared at Queensland's Allan Border Field and batted for hours against spinners — dedication that reaped amazing rewards.

Never having averaged more than 35 in a Test series, Hayden blazed 549 runs, scored a century and a double century, averaged almost 110, and has been a vital part of the world's best team ever since.

None of this was lost on chairman of selectors Trevor Hohns as he sat high in the stands like an admiring father watching Hayden carve out an unmatchable piece of history.

"He deserves everything he gets,'' Hohns said. "He worked so hard when he was out of the team and now it's paid off.

"His record is amazing, his thirst for runs incredible. I'd have to say he's the best batsman in the world at the moment.''

Also watching was Mark Taylor from the commentary box as his Australian record 334 not out disappeared beneath another effortless drive to long off.

Taylor, who later went into the dressing rooms to congratulate Hayden, dismissed suggestions that the modesty of Zimbabwe's attack should in anyway diminish Hayden's achievements.

"Watching him bat on the first day he took his time and knuckled down.

"Even though the attack wasn't great you still have to bat for a long time and face a lot of balls and not make mistakes.''

Taylor said that in the end the battle is not so much with the opposition as with yourself.

"I felt the same way batting on the second day of that Peshawar Test,'' he said.

"You know you've got the bowling at your mercy, they're not worrying you.

"You know the only person who is going to get you out is yourself playing a shot you're going to regret later in the day.

"Matthew knew that from late on the first day and he hasn't made many mistakes.''

Nor does Taylor regret declaring overnight on the second day of that Test in Pakistan when he too could have marched further into history.

"As I said at the time, you don't play the game for records and I'm sure Matthew would feel the same way,'' said Taylor.

"If they come along sure, they're part of the game.

"You go along to try and give your side a chance to win a Test.''

Mobbed by his teammates as he and forgotten century maker Adam Gilchrist came off for tea on the second day with Hayden unbeaten on 376, his biggest hug came from his opening partner and now great mate Justin Langer.

"I couldn't be more delighted to see Matt achieve such an outstanding feat. It's truly inspirational and a symbol of that this Australian team is trying to achieve,'' said Langer, one of a number of teammates to immediately offer tributes.

Gilchrist was also at the other end when Steve Waugh scored his inspirational, career-saving century in Sydney early this year.

"I've been fortunate enough to have been involved in two pieces of history recently,'' Gilchrist said.

"First Stephen Waugh's innings in Sydney this year and now Matthew Hayden's record-breaking knock.

"It's was simply amazing, a just reward for his perseverance.''

One-day captain Ricky Ponting was one of the players who had a bit-part cameo at the other end as Hayden began his long march on the first day.

Damien Martyn breezed to an effortless 50 while Hayden was digging in but the diminutive right-hander also failed to capitalise.

"I'm just so proud of him. It's one of those moments where you'll always remember where you were,'' Martyn said.