Wednesday, January 21, 2009

As Hayden Walks Away.........

There are some images which never fade away, even in the torrential flow of time. Such images that are gripping seem to transcend time barriers and move along bringing in a surreal experience. The game of cricket has always left many such powerful images in me, and one such image is that of the giant frame of that Queenslander called Matthew Hayden. Gripped with the willow and dominating the bowling, Hayden just synchronized his game with utmost perfection. The gripping image of Hayden that remains etched in my mind is his imposing figure during the pulsating and rivetting series against India in 2001; that time, when Steve Waugh dreamt to conquer the 'final frontier'-that unfortunately did not work out. The Aussie were then on a roll, emerging as the world beaters, crushing all teams that came their way. But if a post-mortem of the series is carried out even today-irrespective of that mammoth innings of Laxman at Kolkata- on individual terms, I would term it as between the batting prowess of Hayden and bowling magic of Harbhajan. That 'once-in-a-generation' series saw my admiration grow for him with the passage of every test match. As Hayden walked away into the sunset of his glittering career with a lump in his throat last week, that gigantic image in my mind also fluttering in the wind.

As I tried to engross myself in the process of studying and finishing my final year Higher Secondary exams, to earn a place for my graduation, the Indo-Australian series provided the excuse to remain glued to the television. Thus, I tried to gulp down every bit of news and trivia in the build up to this series. Hence, when the curtains were eventually lifted for the landmark series, the pulls between the television and books rankled. However, I never once missed a ball of that series; in the end, I could fully immerse myself in the world of study and preparations, after Harbhajan effectively sliced the ball towards deep point and ran a double with Sameer Dighe to clinch the Gavaskar-Border trophy. Hayden had announced his arrival with authority in the first test at the Wankhede, as he partnered Adam Gilchrist in re-building the falling Aussie innings. Both scored centuries as Australia batted India out of the test match. Complemented by a strong bowling attack with likes of McGrath, Gillespie, Kasprowicz and Warne, the Aussies were home extending their record of consecutive test wins to 16. He carried on his exploits into the historic second test at the Eden Gardens by scoring fifties in both innings, when the Aussie juggernaut was finally stopped by a resilient Laxman and incisive Harbhajan. Even when the mighty Aussie batting line-up crumbled before a target of 384 set by the hosts on the final day, Hayden stood among the ruins with a fighting 67 before being trapped in the front by Sachin's leg spin.

But my best picture of Hayden is the 203 he scored in the concluding test of the series at the Chepauk in Chennai. Scored in the height of the blistering Indian summer amidst the hot and humid conditions that is prominent feature of this city, this double hundred ranks high for Hayden. It came at a time, whereby he continued his aggressive batting, despite the constant fall of wickets at the other end. After winning the toss for the third consecutive time, Steve Waugh sent his team to bat. Hayden, though initially deterred by the fall of two wickets, tried to stabilize things, with Mark Waugh. Slowly, the domination of batting also started. While Harbhajan was having a merry time with the ball scything through the Aussie tall order, Hayden kept one end up. Even though he lost Mark Waugh who perished on the score of 70 after mistiming a leg spinner from Bahatule to Badani at mid-off, Hayden upped the momentum. If it was not for Steve Waugh's hand that stopped a Harbhajan delivery that didn't spin-the captain was given out for handling the ball-the Aussies could have posed a much more higher score, riding on Hayden's knock. Coming from 320 balls and spending 474 minutes at the crease scoring 15 boundaries and 5 sixes, the Queenslander had led the team from the front. The tail did not wag for the Aussies, leading to their quick collapse before Harbhajan's antics. But what was more majestic about the innings of Hayden was the magic that lay within it. Those big arms bringing the willow down to meet the ball with passion made contests more intense. His authority was clamped down with force; toying with spinners through the employment of the powerful Sweep Shot was a feast to the eyes. His accurate head position,with the eyes coming straight to meet the ball was always a sight that turned new leaves for other batsmen around the world to play spin in the sub-continent tracks. Especially, for those batsmen who lack the magical wrists of the sub-continent, the sweep was a useful weapon. Hayden retained the command over the spinners and India, became one of his favourites preys. His test match statistics against India speak a magnificent tale-he scored 1888 runs from 18 tests at an average of 59 including 6 hundreds. As an Opener, he was involved in more than 20 hundred run partnerships with Langer. No doubt then that his captain, Ponting during his farewell media conference, called him "the greatest test opening batsman ever". Scoring over five hundred runs in that epic series, my analysis of the post-mortem became further accurate, as the two main protagonists of the series, Hayden and Harbhajan shared the Man of the Series award. Even though the final frontier could not be conquered then, Hayden had left his signature before he left the Indian shores after the series. He remained in the loop though later, as the Aussies achieved that dream under the able leadership of Gilchrist in 2004 at Nagpur. But as they say all good things must come to an end. The tracks in India-his favourite hunting ground-viewed his downfall in 2008. Replacing Harbhajan and his bag of tricks, was the exponential pace bowling of Zaheer and Ishant Sharma. The 'reverse swing' became more and more difficult to comprehend. Thus, Hayden's failures and the drying up of runs from his willow carried on in the home series against the Proteas; their den being conquered, the Aussies lost a home series after 16 years.

The super imposing image of Hayden once again flows into the mind from the WACA in 2003 when he went on to claim the world record for the highest individual score of 380, from Lara-which the prince from Trinidad reclaimed with a majestic 400 against the English at Antigua a few years later.In that test in Perth, he stamped his domination slogging the minnows all over the park. He ate his way into the bowling taking the ball to the cleaners. he scored his mammoth triple hundred scored after spending 622 minutes and facing 437 balls that was graced with 37 boundaries and 11 hits over the fence. Writing his name into the record books, Hayden's class was further strengthened through the knock.

As Hayden leaves, another image that may also disappear is his initial stance at the crease. As he walked in to take strike, he used to squat on the pitch with the bat prodding down. This was termed as his 'private talk with the pitch', a belief or practice for him. One would also miss his arrogance filled 'walk to hit the fast bowlers over the top'. Players with bigger frame and built like Hayden cannot miss the eye so easily. The images in the mind cannot be blurred that easily. Perhaps, it is only fitting that Hayden remains part of the Chennai Super Kings in the IPL, for his 'home away from home' without doubt would be the Chepauk arena. The cool sea breeze flowing from the close by Marina beach, continues to weave innumerable images of that valiant double hundred scored right in the middle of the hot and humid summer in Chennai.

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