'It's like coming home really'

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

His huge frame does not match his soft personality off the cricket field. Matthew Hayden is down to earth and leaves a big impression on those who meet him for the first time.

His tremendous feat at Perth has in no way changed his life. His approach to the game has remained the same. In fact, he admitted, the epic innings has only made him more determined as he looks forward to a long career.

"Frankly it doesn't put me under any pressure. It in fact reinforces the belief within me. So long I can keep scoring regularly and justify the faith reposed in me I'm happy. Nothing has changed for me. The game has remained the same even after that big innings,'' he explains.

"My motivation comes from within me. It's easy because I just love batting. It's something I've done since I was three years old,'' says the Aussie.

It will not be fair to compare him with the likes of Don Bradman, Garry Sobers and Brian Lara, but then Hayden has carved a niche for himself with his remarkable show with the bat. The knock of 380 means a lot to him. "The highlight of the 380 was that I enjoyed doing. The ups and downs of my career have taught me a lot.

The important thing about my game plan is that I should stick to it. I can't see why I can't enjoy scoring another one. It's not the 380 but the success that came with it that really excites me.''

Hayden has shown the distance a batsman can go in terms of scoring when in good form. From the time he travelled to India and slammed the bowlers with disdain, Hayden has only grown in stature. It is no secret that the bowlers do not enjoy bowling to him. His form, his ability to adapt, his skills and temperament have stood him in good stead against any attack. It is just not easy to breach his defence.

In contemporary cricket, no batsman has the kind of reach that Hayden commands. His big stride nullifies the hopes of bowler's flighting the ball and his strength allows him to belt the ball with power. At times fielders dread to put their hands to his shot.

Another unsettling aspect of Hayden's batting is his strategy to stand outside the crease. He stands outside even to fast bowlers, Shoaib Akhtar included, to meet the ball with authority.

"I've always liked hitting the ball hard,'' he puts it simply. All his career, he has not liked leaving the ball. It is meant to be hit has been his philosophy. And then his forte has been his adaptability to conditions. "One has to understand that the tempo is different in pitches all over. In India the grounds are not huge and the ball carries well. So one has to keep this factor in mind when batting in India. It's great for the batters.''

How does he approach a Test? "It's the ultimate'' he declares and adds "In Tests one has to try and navigate. There is a lot of space for you to explore and score because many players are in catching positions. In limited-over cricket, one has to take many risks. One has to compromise one's position in the middle. But Tests are very different. We concentrate on keeping the wickets in hand and provide a good launching pad for the rest."

Batting for Australia, in his opinion, is a great privilege. "When the opposition see a batsman like Adam Gilchrist walking in at number seven, you can understand what a privilege it is to play for Australia.''

So what role does he see for himself? "We're at a pretty exciting stage. The depth of Australian cricket is on display. There's no doubt about that when you start losing McGraths, Warnes, Lees, Gillespies to injuries, holes would appear in our side. But I'll back Australia because we have some very terrific young players coming in. I'm enjoying cricket with them and looking forward to see that they can show case.''

But Hayden sees a greater role for himself in the times to come no doubt. "I know I can get better. It's not the 100s we make but how we make those runs that matter. And how quickly we can score because it's all about getting Australia a nice foundation, and a nice start to capitalise on. From a personal point of view, I look at how I can get the innings off. I know I'm still learning but I know I can get better.''

What is his most favourite place? "Batting in the middle. That's where I like it most,'' says Hayden, who never misses a small session of meditation on either end of the wicket.

He loves to travel and learn about the culture of the local place. "That's why I like India. It's like coming home really. It's warm and I like that. I enjoy the playing conditions. I love batting here. I love the slowness of the wickets and love the challenges of the turning ball. I like the richness of the people and the richness of the culture.

The people of India are so hospitable. I like the local food and have tried to learn to cook too. I've enjoyed my walks behind the team hotels too where one can see some amazing things you don't get to see in Australia.''

Hayden speaks highly of his partners — Justin Langer in Tests and Adam Gilchrist in one-dayers. "Both are aggressive batsmen but entirely different players. With Gilchrist it's like watching a highlight package. That's the way he plays. He's very exciting to watch and I've enjoyed batting with him... just as I've enjoyed batting with Justin. With them it's always about moving forward. The high scoring rate helps the bowlers to go after the opposition and it also helps me concentrate on my scoring areas. We do set targets when batting together.''

What else holds his imagination. "I'm excited by the competitive environment but I would love to bat through 50 overs with Gilly and play the last ball in a one-day match.'' Bowlers watch out the next time you run into Hayden.