Opening the innings is one of the toughest jobs in cricket. You walk into bat with the task of providing the team with a solid start and facing a fresh fast bowler - probably the quickest in the opposition line-up - who has a new ball in hand. In addition, you will have the least information about the conditions since you are going to bat before any of your team-mates. A certain degree of intimidation is evident.
However, the situation used to be vastly different when it was Matthew Hayden marking his guard. Standing 6 feet and 2 inches tall with a barreled chest, broad shoulders and pumping biceps, Hayden’s first sight was enough for him to turn over the pressure on the bowler. He would charge down the track against the quickest of bowlers as if he is about to hold them by their earlobe, twist it and bully them disdainfully. When the mood struck him, the bat in his hand looked like a mace while coming down in the arc of his backlift.
Akin to his physical stature, Hayden was quite vigorous mentally as well. Getting a debut at the age of 22, against England on this day in 1993, the southpaw was soon dropped within a year in 1994. Playing 13 ODIs during this period, Hayden could manage only two fifties and an average of 26. He was dropped in favor of Michael Slater. Post Slater, there was Mark Waugh, Greg Blewett, Michael di Venuto and Adam Gilchrist. Hayden was not tried for more than half a decade. In Test cricket, he had not represented Australia since March 1997. His Test numbers read a best of 125 which was his only hundred and an average of 21.8. A consistent performer in domestic circuit, comparisons were drawn between him and Graeme Hick for their inability to replicate their domestic success at the international level.
But Haydos waited for his chance and focussed on the only route possible for a comeback - scoring runs for Queensland. Eventually, he was recalled in the 2000-01 season. In the ODI setup, he batted out of position to stage his comeback. With Mark Waugh and Gilchrist well established as openers, Hayden batted in the middle-order scoring a few half-centuries to prove his worth at international level. Then came the breakthrough series in one of Australia’s sternest tests in 2001.
Hayden blossomed in what his skipper, Steve Waugh termed as the ‘Final Frontier’ for Australia. In a riveting series against India away, the left-hander struck 549 runs in three Tests, an Australian record for a three-Test series. He swept the ball with such authority, it was tough to imagine that this man was unassured of his spot in the side a couple of months ago.
That performance helped him to get his spot back as an ODI opener. His scores in the first three ODIs in the subsequent series in India read 99, 57 & 111 (maiden ODI ton). He was the highest run-scorer in both ODIs and Tests.
From there on, he was Australia’s undisputed opener in both ODI and Test cricket forming long-term partnerships with Adam Gilchrist and Justin Langer respectively.
In ODIs, specifically, Hayden and Gilchrist formed a brutal combo averaging 48.4 at the top. In Tests, Hayden scored at a strike rate of 60.9, the fourth highest strike-rate for an opener with a minimum of 2,500 runs which is an ample reflection of his strokeplay. But in ODIs, he curbed himself to be the perfect foil to Gilchrist’s madness.
While Gilchrist scored at a strike rate approaching 100 in the first 10 overs, Hayden subdued himself to play longer. Their contrasting styles to support each other is reflected quite magnificently in their numbers.
In the 2007 World Cup, where Gilchrist struggled to buy a run until the final, Hayden escalated his scoring rate in the first 10 overs to a strike-rate of 90.4. To add to it, he was never dismissed in that phase of the innings.
Two years prior to the World Cup, the Queensland-born Hayden was dropped from the ODI side after Australia's tour of England in 2005. Hayden had averaged 32.1 in 16 games that year before being dropped - mediocre by his standards but not poor by any measure. He was replaced by Simon Katich and Shane Watson and played only two more ODI games for Australia up until the beginning of the World Cup year in 2007. During this period, the belligerent opener missed the 2006 Champions Trophy and also the unforgettable 434 game against South Africa in Johannesburg. He was also dropped from Australia’s ODI side which whitewashed the ICC World XI side 3-0 in 2005.
Back in the side for the tri-series at home including England and New Zealand, Haydos had only two series in his hand to show there is still a World Cup left in him. The southpaw emerged with flying colors scoring 387 runs at an average of 43 and a highest score of 117. In the subsequent Chappell-Hadlee Trophy, he thumped his career best - 181*. At that point, he held the record for the highest individual score by an Australia batsman in both formats of the game having pummeled Zimbabwe for 380 four years ago in 2003. Any questions regarding his place in the side for the World Cup were answered in a pristine manner - once again marking his mental strength as a cricketer.
In the World Cup in Caribbean, he proved to be unstoppable. He hammered 659 runs, notching up the fastest World Cup century then (66 balls against South Africa), then registering the highest individual score in World Cups by an Australia batsman (158 against West Indies in the next game). At that time, he was only the second batsman to amass over 600 runs in a World Cup edition and stamped his authority on Australia’s third title victory in a row. He was, inarguably, the opener of ICC’s ODI team of the year.
Only 161 ODIs in a career span of 15 years does not reflect the numbers of a legend but Hayden, until his retirement in 2009 was always a champion.