Hayden reminisces the Final Frontier
The 2001 home Test series against Australia is considered to be the watershed moment for modern Indian cricket. The 2-1 victory is etched in the memories of cricket connoisseurs of this country in such a manner that roots of India’s ascent to the pinnacle of Test rankings in 2009 have been traced to it.
During that series, individuals too rose in stature – VVS Laxman and Harbhajan Singh will be celebrated for a long time just on the basis of that one series. However, perhaps, the strongest impact of the series was on a player from the losing team.
Matthew Hayden came to India knowing it was a make-or-break time for him as a Test batsman. He had come in with 536 runs in 13 Tests and left the country topping the run-getters chart of the three-match series with 549 runs at 109.80, including his first Test double-century. Hayden returned to this country in 2004 and 2008, and took his final run tally in India to 1027 in 11 Tests at an average of 51.35 – most by an Australian on Indian shores.
The burly former Australian opening batsman is part of the 2013 Border-Gavaskar Trophy, albeit in the capacity of a commentator. In a nostalgic chat with bcci.tv, Hayden relived the 2001 tour – his tour – and revealed how he transformed himself into one of the best players of spin bowling on the tricky Indian tracks. Hayden also told us how the shock defeat in 2001 fired up the Australian team to triumph in 2004.
The moment of truth
“There are moments in everyone’s career when you look back and think that it was a critical point in your career. For me it was the 2001 India series. I was either going to be accepted into the Australian cricket team as a permanent member or I was going to go back and play Shield cricket, county cricket and do all the things that I did in the lead up to the series.”
The Indian connection
“I’d visualised that tour back in 1995-96. I just felt a certain affinity with India and a certain feeling that I was going to score heavily here. I just had a very powerful connection with India and the moment I arrived here in 2001, I felt confident that this was going to be my tour. Starting from there, winning other series here, winning the IPL – India has been such a rich destination for me as a cricketer.”
A rendezvous with Indian spin masters
“In 1995-96 a small unit of Australian batsmen were selected to practice at the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai. During the same time, there was also a small spin-bowling camp that was going on under Bishen Singh Bedi and S Venkatraghavan. I wasn’t picked for that. I rang the chairman of selectors and said, ‘Look, if there’s any way I can go on this tour, please consider me for selection.’ As it turned out, Greg Blewett pulled out of the tour and I was called up.
That trip wasn’t about batting in India. I don’t even remember picking up my bat and having a net. I was more a witness to the subtleties of the strategy of spin – where those two gentlemen would set fields, what their bowling plans would be, how that will impact me as a batsman and how I can manipulate the field to score runs. It was more about understanding the captaincy moves and the mind of a spin bowler. It was then for me to take that information away and start to generate some scoring options, form an attacking game plan against spin and develop the ability to bat for a long period of time and sustain the pressure of spin bowling. It was an incredibly valuable experience, one that I really cherish and will never forget.”
“A lot of batsmen stand on the other side of spin and look to just play it down their feet and guide the ball through point or covers with soft hands. But the way I batted, when you say soft hands, it doesn’t mean anything to me whatsoever. In fact, if I decided to play with soft hands, my hands would get harder. For me it was all about using my height, reach and footwork – even for a big person I had quite nimble feet – and all the assets that I was given from the athletic point of view.”
And then he swept ‘em away
“I think the horizontal bat shot was something I took from Allan Border and Bob Simpson, who were instrumental in telling me, ‘You really need to have some scoring options. Have you thought about the sweep shot?’ They taught me the basics of it – keeping the head in line of the ball, hitting through the ball and also when not to hit it. The areas behind square are much safer options than the ones in front of square. You have to assess the conditions before pulling out that shot. There’s no point playing the sweep when the ball isn’t turning. You need the ball to turn a lot to create a doubt in the umpire’s mind when you miss it. Assessing the risk level was a good foundation to understand when to and when not to play it. The sweep is often a premeditated shot; you just know that it is on. That gets into your consciousness and you start to play accordingly.”
Taking on the Turbanator
“My battles with Harbhajan [Singh] started in a warm-up game. I didn’t want to give him any indication of my abilities. So, I had a very defensive game plan and I wanted to see if I could survive against him without revealing my arsenal. He came up to me and politely mentioned just how disappointed he was that a player of my credentials was even considered to play for Australia. I took all that on board and he actually dismissed me that day as well. I think off his second or third ball in the Test, I came down the wicket and hit him with ease over extra-cover and asked him, ‘How’s my ability now?’ I loved playing against Harbhajan and Anil [Kumble]. They’re highly competitive individuals and I love to compete – it’s my comfort zone, my dal in Indian cuisine, where I can play around and have fun.”
The technical adaptation
“I made a change in my stance and grip as well when batting in India. I opened the face of the bat a bit more – you tend to close the bat’s face in Australia because you don’t want anything angling across the bat and get caught out in the slips. But, even if the mind knows what to do, the body doesn’t obey sometimes because it is patterned to react in a certain way. When an Australian batsman comes to India, where you have to present your feet at the ball and give your bat the opportunity to get access to the ball – it is completely different to what you do in Australia, where you’re looking to cover your stumps by going to the off side and then you can leave the ball. That’s why it’s very important that in the initial days of your tour here, you review your basic technique and give it the allowance to adjust to the nuances of a particular venue. It’s not easy because under pressure you tend to go back to what you know.”
Individual ecstasy, collective agony
“As a team, we were really confident coming to India in 2001. We had an outstanding batting line-up, a fantastic bowling attack, a fine wicketkeeper – there were simply no chinks in our armour. We believed that that tour was made for us to win. It was our time. When we didn’t win that series it was incredibly disappointing and it took us a while to recover from it. It also made us very determined to come back three years later and win.”
“We reviewed what let us down in 2001 and found that our fast bowling unit was regimented to bowling the Australian lines and lengths. Hence we just kept on getting hurt on the off-side. So, when we came back in 2004, we strictly decided to bowl stump-to-stump with heavy on-side fields. Our bowlers absolutely executed everything for us. That series wasn’t as successful for me personally. On that tour, I felt more like a coach. I wasted a lot of my personal energy and absorbed the team’s needs. I was very proud to win that series (Australia won the 2004-05 series in India 2-1 under the captaincy of Adam Gilchrist).”