In a class of his own

PTI

In the first nine matches of the IPL Matthew Hayden made more runs than any other batsman. Although his advanced age, 37, was offered as one of the reasons for his struggles late last year and early this year — dimming eyesight, slowing reflexes, softening muscles! — it doesn’t seem to be hindering him these days. By S. Ram Mahesh.

Matthew Hayden was picking tomatoes with his daughter Grace in January this year when he knew his time as Australia’s opener was over. He had struggled with the bat after returning from injury, averaging under 24 in nine Tests, so the collective sigh from the bowling community wasn’t overlarge; a few bowlers did, however, publicly give thanks, grateful that shameful memories of past punishment would begin to fade with the disappearance from the scene of the man who had spawned them.

But when retiring from international cricket Hayden had promised to honour his contract with the Chennai Super Kings — well into the second season of the Indian Premier League (IPL), Hayden has ensured the memories will last forever; or till the end of the tournament, which apparently is very nearly the same thing.

Hayden’s reprisal of the muscular, bruising style of his pomp is incredible on two counts: the last the world saw of him, he was scratching for runs against South Africa, looking to hit his way out of trouble, but seldom succeeding; and, after retirement, he hadn’t batted competitively.

Sure, he had hit “a million balls” in practice. No surprise that. He obsesses over his batting practice — he once spent more than two hours trying to repair a bowling machine in Antigua, so he could have seconds. Skill-wise, he reckoned he was okay, but he hadn’t logged game-time, and that, as is widely known, is everything.

In the first nine matches, however, he made more runs than any other batsman. Although his advanced age, 37, was offered as one of the reasons for his struggles late last year and early this year — dimming eyesight, slowing reflexes, softening muscles! — it doesn’t seem to be hindering him these days. Another instance of the difficulties of establishing causality. While remarkable, Hayden’s success isn’t entirely unexpected. He has a history finding release in strife: although comfortably retired, the circumstances of his departure suggested that he hadn’t found closure, that there was, if not strife, something approaching it. He admitted as much, saying it was difficult watching Australia play because he still wanted to be involved.

K. PICHUMANI

The left-hander might justly have viewed the IPL’s second season with a bitter eye, for it was during its inaugural edition that his dream of extending his career to the 2009 Ashes began to unravel. The Achilles injury he picked up during a training session with the Super Kings kept him from filling his boots in the West Indies; although he returned, the injury and the time away appeared to cost him, for he managed only two half-centuries in 17 innings before deciding to retire.

But when Hayden turned up for the preparatory camp in Chennai, he was neither resentful nor out-of-shape. As he told Cricinfo, “I don’t look back on (the inaugural IPL) as a negative. If anything I found that it really reinvigorated me and revived my enthusiasm, because you could feel you were a part of taking cricket to another level. I’ve probably never been fitter.

I’ve done a stack of surfing in the last few months and, as ridiculous as it sounds, it’s probably the best kind of fitness work a batsman can do. It’s all about core strength, balance and stability.”

Each of which has been in evidence in South Africa: Hayden’s hitting technique resembles Babe Ruth’s, which even the stasis of still photography can’t contain. Ruth’s transfer of weight towards the ball was legendary. Although Hayden hits through the ball, as opposed to Ruth who uppercut it slightly, he does similarly with his lower body, his forward stride both lowering his centre of gravity and counterbalancing the bat take-back.

Hayden’s hand-speed isn’t as explosive as some of the cricket’s other heavy-hitters, but it doesn’t need to be, for the transfer of weight and the Queenslander’s muscle compensate. The two-step off the wrong foot is an extension of this method — it’s a measure of the sharpness of Hayden’s eye that he does it so well so often.

The one-handed pull off Sreesanth for six in the recent match between Chennai and Punjab, while differently done in terms of footwork, was an illustration of Hayden’s strength, his ability to harness pace and angle, and the wide range of his scoring zone. He might admit in private that the area behind point is a bit of a blind spot, but he has access to pretty much everywhere else.

Chennai has benefited greatly from having Hayden’s services through the tournament. Last year, he played a major part in the Super Kings winning its first four games, scoring 189 runs at 63, before leaving for the West Indies (from where he returned home without playing).

This season, he has kick-started the innings nearly every time, winning the opening battle, such a large part of the Twenty20 version. His presence moreover appears to have helped the young Indian batsmen.

S. Badrinath spoke last year of how much he had learnt just watching Hayden prepare. Suresh Raina has elevated his game spectacularly, and while it’s impossible to determine Hayden’s role in the process, there’s no doubting his influence. Hayden has already returned Chennai’s investment in him — and the business end, where Hayden has traditionally proved his worth, is yet to arrive.