“Religion has always been a tremendous reference point with me. When I’m in trouble it’s always something to think about. I ask myself what would Christ be doing in this situation?” So said the devout Catholic, Matthew Hayden, in an interview in 2004.
It is increasingly difficult to square the image of saintly Hayden with the batsman who represents Australia in the Test and one-day arena. The pious Christian and the potty-mouthed cricketer. No matter how hard you try, the two just don’t gel. The way his international opponents tell it, Hayden is about as godly as hell’s tearaway fast bowler, Beelzebub “The Demon” Mephistopheles. The way they tell it, the only time Hayden turns the other cheek is when he wants to ‘moon’ an opponent.
Now, he has called India’s off-spinner Harbhajan Singh – no angel himself – a “little obnoxious weed” and challenged the 19-year-old Indian fast bowler Ishant Sharma to a fight, comments which threaten to turn a simmering series into open conflagration. Astonishingly, he has escaped punishment.
The Queenslander’s modus operandi is well known. It was brutally exposed by then South African rookie batsman (now Proteas captain) Graeme Smith in an interview with Sports Illustrated magazine in May 2002. In abandoning the players’ unwritten code that whatever happens on the field, stays on the field, Smith revealed how Hayden had greeted him at the crease before his second Test innings in Cape Town earlier that year with a two-minute tirade.
Smith said Hayden had followed him to the crease and “stood on the crease for about two minutes telling me that I wasn’t f-cking good enough”.
Smith told the magazine: “You know, you’re not f-cking good enough,” he told me.
“How the f-ck are you going to handle Shane Warne when he’s bowling in the rough? What the f-ck are you going to do?”
“And I hadn’t even taken guard yet. He stood there right in my face, repeating it over and over. All I could manage was a shocked, nervous smile. I’d taken a bit of banter before but this was something else. Hayden had obviously been told that his job was to attack me.”
Smith said he was then subjected to more of the same from a ring of close-in fieldsmen — Justin Langer, Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Mark Waugh and Shane Warne – as part of Steve Waugh’s brilliantly subtle and statesmanlike “mental disintegration” plan. But that’s another issue.
The English cricketers tired a long time ago of Hayden’s bullyboy tactics. During Australia’s Ashes tour of 2001, they took to calling him Buzz Lightyear, the chesty, musclebound, but slightly dim, hero of the animated film, Toy Story.
When this column happened to bump into a high-ranking Cricket Australia official during the Spring Carnival races at Flemington last November, the discussion inevitably turned to the behaviour of the Australian team. When Hayden’s name was raised, the official shook his head ruefully, and rolled his eyes, as if to say: what’s to be done about this blockhead?
“When I’m in trouble it’s always something to think about. I ask myself what would Christ be doing in this situation?” Well, Matt, your reputation is in trouble now. And if you’re asking the Big Bloke upstairs his advice on what to do to redeem yourself, he might possibly tell you: Pull your head in, shut up and see if you can play cricket with a sense of dignity and good grace. Otherwise, the cricket world will remember you not as a man of piety, but an overbearing bully.