For those crippled by short-term memory, which struggles to hold images of specific players or matches from a blur of relentless cricket, what might stand out most about Matthew Hayden is the Mongoose bat—a short, stumpy instrument that takes the ball further than a normal bat—he used in an Indian Premier League (IPL) match last season.
But that’s an aberration, in the sense that Hayden was not really a batsman who bludgeoned for pleasure like his opening partner Adam Gilchrist used to, even if Hayden’s rather imposing structure and fire-hose forearms indicate otherwise.
Standing My Ground: HarperCollins, 402 pages, Rs599
Hayden’s cricketing career was built brick by brick. He had to wait for some years after his debut to establish his place in the Australian side, airtight with the likes of the Waugh twins and others. He was not a natural hitter of the ball either, which meant he was not an automatic choice in the slam-bang version of the game. So if the Mongoose was an anomaly to the way Hayden really batted, the book pretty much stays true to the real person.
Standing My Ground comes three months after South African opener Herschelle Gibbs’ To the Point, but is less tabloid in its treatment of a cricketer’s life and journeys. It’s almost staid, pretty much like Hayden’s batting style, with insights into modern Australian cricket and sporting culture that satiates some curiosity about the world’s best team of the last two decades.
The natural question before anyone attempts this book is, do we care enough about Hayden to read his life story, which is neither remarkable nor unusual? It lacks the salacious delight, for those inclined to that kind of story, of Gibbs’ adventures; Haydos was not the exciting cricketer who filled up seats. But for cricket lovers interested in behind-the-scenes shenanigans, there are some interesting titbits of what made the Australian team special, the peculiar characteristics of players and some of Hayden himself.
For instance, we find out that Mark Waugh, a man of many strokes but few words, would utter just one profound sentence during team meetings and then doze for an hour; Damien Martyn hated the attention that came with being an international sportsman; Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey were obsessed with their bats (the latter carries a weighing scale on trips); and the superstitious Steve Waugh would, at the crease, catch a ladybird if he saw one and put it on his clothing for the rest of the innings.
My favourite is the one about Curtly Ambrose, who was spotted during a match in 2003 in the stands of Antigua. The reticent, retired Caribbean fast bowler agreed to answer just one question to a photographer: “How would you bowl today if you were still playing?”. The answer: “If I was still playing today, the game would have been over yesterday.”
Hayden’s humble beginnings, the influence of his family and brother, his initial years and struggle in cricket mark a slow beginning to the tome. It’s only when the opener makes it to the Test team and chronicles his travails there that the pace livens. His relationships with cricketers past and present, the camaraderie in the dressing room, the underlying politics inherent in every sport provide interesting insights. To use a cricketing term, the book has a meaty middle but weak edges.
While Standing My Ground tends to drag towards the end, certain moving moments, like the ones that deal with his relationship with long-time opening partner Justin Langer, buddy Andrew Symonds and Glenn McGrath’s late wife Jane—particularly in the account by Hayden’s wife Kellie—suggest a certain unknown humane side to the ruthless batting giant Hayden came across as, particularly on a 14-inch screen.
Hayden’s honest in his opinion of where cricket is headed and the significance of India and the IPL, which, coming from a proud Aussie, is unusually humble. “Australia cannot thrive without India, but India doesn’t need us to the same degree,” he puts it in a nutshell. He sticks his neck out to offer some sensible suggestions—the Hayden blueprint for the future of cricket—which hold out hope for his future as an administrator.
Standing My Ground is strictly for the passionate fan who has the kind of patience required to watch every over of a Test match.