It was funny how it took a few choice words from Matthew Hayden, one of modern cricket’s all-time greats, to briefly relight the fire this writer once felt for the game on a daily basis. Hayden may be safely ensconced in retirement now, but the vehemence with which he hit back at Jimmy Anderson’s claims that the Australian camp was divided during the 2006/7 Ashes revealed that none of the fire and brimstone that was behind his ascent to greatness in his playing days has left him now. In calling the comparatively cheeky youngster a “B-grade bowler who got his arse whipped by Australia that many times it’s not even funny”, Hayden sounded a war cry that lurched the past into the present, and reminded us what cricket was and what it is becoming.
Powerless now to affect the seismic changes gripping the game, his words nonetheless contained memories of an era when a great team played the game with such fervour, ingenuity and sporting integrity that they elevated cricket beyond its normally parochial boundaries to capture imaginations far and wide. By providing Australia a contest that was sadly lacking throughout much of the first decade of the 21st century, England teased their greatness out of them and provided us with duels that hit the heights of what cricket was capable of as a great sport. Anderson’s allegations concerned the aftermath of the Adelaide test match in the 2006/7 series, and who can forget the way Australia overturned implausibility to chase down a 200-plus total after tea on the fifth day of that test match? Who can forget the awe-inspiring manner in which Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden propounded the concept of playing T20 cricket – before it was invented – by dispatching successive sixes and fours in the much riskier venue of a Test match? The echo of Shane Warne’s guttural roar every time he took an English wicket to provide an absorbing contest with yet another twist still reverberates around me today. Say what you will about Australia, but in the coming together of a great generation of players with a frighteningly strong will to succeed, they elevated the game to heights from which it has fallen far and long today.
How would cricketers of such integrity as Matthew Hayden have dealt with the proliferation of formats, and subsequent diluting of players’ singular commitment to their national teams and to the Test format – which remains the only mode able to showcase the game in all its richness? How would they deal with the fractured state of cricket today, a sport whose divided community and constituents’ self-serving interests have resulted in it beginning to eat itself up rather than grow as it briefly did during those heroic Ashes contests? We can only imagine, but Hayden’s enduring competitiveness brought with it a warm reassurance that the qualities that make cricket a sport loved by so many – and which were so often on display by his team – have not yet vanished completely amidst the whirl of T20 leagues, dwindling commitments and encroaching corruption. His words were – perhaps unwittingly – a cry from the wild, a shot in the arm, that evoked memories which are not so easily forgotten no matter how despondent the current picture looks. Cricket remains a game of greatness underneath all the fluff that has recently descended on it – and one of its giants reminded us of just a fraction of that greatness by thankfully refusing to let bygones be bygones just because of an inconvenient retirement.