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Waugh’s Faith Rewarded

Feature Article by Robert Drane

They were the Unthinkables. Sure, they had “qualities”, but qualities leave the scorers cold. Hadn’t they proved failures at Test level? The unrelenting determination of Steve Waugh and the selectors to persist with Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer was not considered to be the act of prescience it is today. It was a curiosity; an irritation, especially to anyone outside of QLD or WA. What were they waiting for? Some miraculous transformation?

They got two. First Langer, then Hayden, traversed the inner sphere of change. Then they got a third, when every obstacle in front of this implausible pair fell over, and they found themselves an opening combination. That in itself is a book of stories. The affairs of men twist the course of events in ways that no man ever intends. Wasted talent, brain explosions, the abdication of a captain/opener. Blewitt – he did just that. The troubled prodigies, Slater and Elliott, each sank into a deep funk. Taylor abdicated, to become enshrined in memory and memorabilia.

Individually, Hayden and Langer seemed, at various times, destined for acting duties only. As a combination? Cricket’s wiseass epigrammatists with their pithy proverbs about high elbows, batting first, followings-on, field placings, night watchmen, running on misfields and getting side-on would have found them a risible notion: “A left hander and…a left hander? How same! A most impermanent of pairings, wouldn’t you say?” Half a year later, they posted their fourth double century partnership to equal a record Greenidge and Haynes took 148 innings and twelve years to set. So significant was their achievement that we easily forget there are two other century stands in there for good measure.

Necessity: the mother of reinvention. The press pounce on the falterings of older sportsmen. But Waugh’s team continue to bore through a century and a quarter’s sediment to the mother lode of new cricketing truths. Never mind their average age: S. Waugh’s team has kept itself youthful not through mindless replacement, but renewal. Most of the team had experienced wilderness, and are hungry and determined now, resolved never to go back to honeyed locusts and sackcloth. So many appetites, unmatched anywhere else in world cricket. So many talents, twitchy after the velleities of brushing the lips of success, gorge themselves on runs and wickets. Most have suffered public humiliation, or exile, or unwarranted and deserved criticism, and all have re -written their own story and, in doing so, cricket’s book of wisdom. Steve: waning all-rounder to one of history’s premier batsman and the best-performed captain we’ve seen. Rick: fightable small man to wise warrior. Warney: roly-poly roisterer to svelte statesman. Martyn: precocious upstart to bastion of the middle order. Gilly – well, he’s had the dream run he’s deserved. But he’s proved conclusively that the keeping gauntlets need not hinder one’s grip on the bat.

If the West Indies achieved success by dragging Test cricket a decade backwards with their tactics, then Waugh’s team was the negative image of success. They dragged the game back in the other direction, and just in time for the game. Up close, they have that same awesome aura of the Windies at their best.

Still, for a short time, the press were sharpening new cutlery: there was too much pressure on our talent -packed middle order. The Waughs and Gilly needed respite. What ever happened to the opening stand? Something would have to give. The wheel was turning. Then Hayden and Langer, thrown together, two against history. Uncanny prescience, it turns out. History will never be the same. Even Waugh couldn’t have foreseen the twists and turns in this tale of his co-creation.

It’s not possible to underestimate what happened when they came together at the Oval in 2001, these two men who’d proved their independence and fighting spirit as individuals. But only a certain insight and maturity, a potent mix of experience, belief, desire, care, curiosity and – dare we say it? – love (okay, mateship!), could go into making them as interdependent as they’ve become.

They share not only left-handedness. They share Christianity. But as with their cricket, they occupy opposing ends of the same spectrum. Hayden has the rock-solid certainty that comes with being born and bred Catholic. “Religion’s a private thing for me, but I can say it’s why I’m enjoying my cricket.” Langer has all the evangelistic enthusiasm of a man who came to his Baptist belief by choice, later in life. As a batting pair, too, they come together as an oxymoron: charismatic fundamentalists. In maturity, they’ve come unto cricket as children. Their opening stands seem less like partnerships than opening gambols.

Labels you don’t need: Tennis has  “choker.” Golf: cheat. “Hears footsteps” is Australian Rules’ most evil curse. Under “H” in cricket’s compendium of flat-track bullies, Hayden came before Hick and Hookes. Behemoth of the benign track. Plunderer of the popgun attack. Looter of the lesser levels. It doesn’t matter that the perception is unfair in all cases.

He’d had his chances. Our memories? We really needed him in that Melbourne Test in ’96. Ambrose, Walsh, Bishop. They were starting to get some fearsome momentum up. Ahead 2-0 with three Tests to play, we had to seal the series before they roared back. The Windies had a slender first innings lead and, with them batting last, we needed a big score. Hayden shouldered arms to Ambrose, of all people, and watched his off stump cartwheel. A slaughter ensued, as one after another of our batsmen went over the top to be picked off by unplayable balls on a fracturing pitch. It took a long time for our anger to subside. He was The Selection Blunder. A scratchy six-hour century in Adelaide – the one we really, really had to win – gained him little sympathy.

When he bobbed up again in March 2000 against New Zealand, we could hardly believe it. Had Blewett been that bad, in a team that had won nine straight? With that understated assurance, Waugh announced Hayden would be better this time around: “He needs a bloke at the other end to feed off and I don’t think that happened last time.” He was talking – not disparagingly - about Hayden’s partner at the top of the order, his own predecessor as captain, Mark Taylor. It was an inauspicious revival. What had three years in the backwoods done for the Kingaroy boy? Nothing much, it seemed, judging from the one Test he played that series. Next summer, he had five Tests against the West Indies, and 236 runs at 29.50 vindicated the cynics. Would he ever escape gravity, or would he crash and burn?

He had his own doubts. “You get crazy thoughts like ‘who’s watching?’ and ‘what are my peers thinking?’ It’s a difficult barrier, but it’s all codswallop really. Now it’s all about batting like I know I can.” He can say that now. The murmurings then were loud enough to hear. The crazed pitches, the insane heat, the brain-baffling legerdemain of India’s twirling dervishes would sort him out. Instead he made a decision: this arduous tour would see his resurrection. He would answer the call of his captain for a series win on their own dry dungheap.

Left out of Australia’s one-day squad, he took his bat to Allan Border Field, got the curator to roll him a flat turner and approached anyone who could spin a ball any way. As the foreboding sub-continent awaited with yet another unheralded destroyer in a turban, he added the sweep to his catalogue. Stepping, slipping inside and countering any sneak punch became habit, then indelible nerve memory.

He came back a hero in a team that lost heroically. 549 runs in six innings. But he disappointed again in England in 2001, despite edifying stints there as a player at Hampshire and captain of Northants, where he opened his mind to the needs of a team and expanded his batting repertoire. It was as though the formula required one final dose of humility. “My thoughts coming off the tour of India were to dominate the series. I did the hard work in every Test and just as I developed momentum I got out.” Nonetheless, by the end of that season, he passed Simpson’s Aussie record for most Test runs in a year. Along the way, his mate Langer joined him at the top of the order.

Our doubts have shrunk in proportion to his gargantuan achievement. The pundits no longer write of a certain pre-meditated inflexibility, or that exaggerated flourish as he left sometimes unleavable balls outside off, or that irrevocable plonk of the front foot down the pitch. That same decisiveness seems no longer leaden. Now he steps back like a matador to deliver a mortal thrust. He opens now not with trepidation, but with a muscular savagery not seen since Greenidge, the cyclonic Barbadian, at his best. A big, belligerent blacksmith of a batsman who doesn’t weather a storm, but meets it with double the force. The perfect antidote to the monstering quick. A thoughtful batsman who picks off the tricky tweaker with carefully selected tools. In those private hours at Allan Border Field, he may have cracked the riddle of the Sphinx. After all, his horizontal blade has been untroubled by any trundler since and more batsmen are beginning to imitate the tactic.

Horizontal or vertical; back or forth; balance, rhythm and shot selection act in harmony. Power and timing put the icing on the cake. To arrive at such simple, compelling concert takes work. He controls his game, therefore bowlers.

He must believe in momentum, because he often uses the word. He attributes his success now to “momentum from one series to another.” And to greater concentration. And to being in a great side. With that insight about “feeding off” others, Steve Waugh proved that he understands him well. He’s far from your typical self -absorbed, fiercely independent opener. He needs these guys. He looked thoughtful before this reverential offering: “It’s…a fantastic honour, playing for Australia. You just know you’ve got a lot of talent behind you, and you can relax and play your game. Whatever result comes, we’re incredibly successful as a team. We work very hard together, and try to learn as we go. It’s a great honour.”

He comes into this Ashes contest off a series against a Pakistan team full of batting tyros, but whose attack was world class. In the tyrannical heat of Sharjah and Colombo, against an Akhtar who occasionally flared to fiery speed, he got 246 runs in three Tests at 61.5, including a gruelling century, a war of attrition, in the second Test.

Only he knew just how eager he was to begin this Ashes series with “momentum”. “You’ve got to realise that I’m playing in front of a bunch of supporters who backed me for a decade.” Such motivation was menacing music to English ears. He seamlessly continued his form in the first Ashes Test, grinding the Poms with a punishing197 and 103 – exactly 300 runs in a Test and more records for his collection.

The one-dimensional man has morphed. He’s the Man For All Seasons.

Justin Langer is S. Waugh’s natural heir, spiritually anyway. Before he disappeared for four years, he was remembered for his gutsy half-century against the furious Windies at Adelaide in 1992 – the famous smallest-winning-margin-in-history. Waugh saw the kindred spirit: the focused fighter with a global perspective. In

1988-9, he himself defied those very bowlers with a 90 in Brisbane when all around him almost literally lost their heads. But it was four years before Langer’s resurrection, against the same foe.

His paradoxes took us a while to reconcile. This solid-as-a-rock-will-o’-the wisp. This grafter and poker – who scores his runs as an opener at 3.76 an over! This opining batsman, eclectic yet single-minded. Insatiable student of Buddhism, economics, human movement. Bibliophile and black belt karateka. Small, watchful and beetle-browed, like the Steppenwolf he seeks new and unexplored territories. The success guru of the Aussie team distils his wisdom in motivational phrases and poems left around the dressing room. No-one even entertained the idea when he replaced the angry, disillusioned Slater, who averaged 42.83 in 74 Tests, that he would also be more than a substitute for the fast-scoring cavalier. Like Waugh, he is neither artist nor drudge, but artisan. He doesn’t need the right conditions to flourish: he creates them.

If Hayden is fearless, Langer is courageous. A collection of dented helmets are the badges of his courage. Christian soldier with the heart for a fight. A strapping state fast bowler, frustrated by this runt’s unshakeable presence at the crease, asked him out the back after play. His heart dropped like a busted crankshaft when his offer was accepted with cheerful alacrity: “I’d like that!” Rahul Dravid, disgusted by a dropped catch when Langer was on 53 (on his way to 223), tried to cut him back with sarcasm: “You should buy a lottery ticket” he spat. It was met with King James version prophecy: “Surely we will win the lottery on the third day.”

The first metamorphosis began that day at Bellerive amidst the rancours of cold winds and Younis, Akram, Akhtar and Saqlain. It was a fourth innings target difficult just by virtue of its figures: 369 in the 4th innings – on a worsening strip. But that attack – and five wickets already squandered for a paltry return of 126 - made it just about the most difficult in history. When he and Gilchrist walked out on the last day, he only had to say “you never know…” once, for he strode out to the wicket with the can-do man, and electrified him.

He was down then, and almost out, batting for his future. But his confidence had been nourished by his captain, who kept assuring him that, no matter what the press said, he wanted him in his side. After every delivery, he had something to say, first to the bowlers, then to Gilchrist. He got 127. That “victory for the ages” as he called it saved his place. Four months and four centuries later, he was his captain’s latest choice as “world’s best batsman.” That season, he got 1003 runs in 13 Tests. At last we had the first drop we’d been dreaming of since Boonie. With the otherworldly resolve of the opener and a dash of panache to keep the scoreboard animated, he turned every crisis into a pulsating conflict. Like his captain, he could be fascinatingly ugly; unembarrassed by his blemishes and unafraid to examine himself in the mirrors held up by a critical press.

But in India when Hayden burgeoned, he bungled, making low scores with high strike rates, as though experimenting with a new persona . He was dropped, seemingly for the last time. On the 2001 Ashes tour, his mate Martyn had been elevated to the side ahead of him in Birmingham, and Langer fully realised how tenuous was his hold on any position in the side. There seemed nowhere to go. This was an impasse only one of God’s miracles could get him around. Martyn made hay with a wonderful century.

Then that fateful night before the fifth Test at The Oval, when Steve Waugh called Slats into his room to give him the news: he wouldn’t be playing. For one night, the elevation of Justin Langer seemed a specious way of keeping a favoured apostle in the side. He’d become that most ephemeral of cricketing creatures: the makeshift opener.  At the end of the next day, Matthew Hayden had that partner he could “feed off”.

It was the last piece of the puzzle, so obvious in retrospect, as this team’s numbers suddenly jumped into sequence. Martyn stayed and Langer was back. Shunned, then exalted, then shelved, he’d been reconstituted. His 102 shouldn’t have surprised. On a few notable occasions as number three, he took block soon after the start of the innings and handled the new ball with authority. His retirement, hurt, shouldn’t have surprised, either. He gets hit so often no matter where he is on the field that he’s even been permanently removed from the bat-pad position. “A couple of hits have been pretty traumatic.” he says. “But hopefully my reflexes at the crease are pretty good. The more you ask me about it, the more nervous I’m getting!” I know our pluckiest cricketer is kidding.

He’s been battered, never bowed.

Five Tests later, the phrase “Langer and Hayden” evoked dread. They’d joyously plundered the best England, New Zealand and South Africa had to offer. As though they’d been acquainted from birth, they understood each other implicitly. More platitudes-to-live-by were consigned to disuse: take the shine off the ball. Stay in. Score with care. Lay foundations. Protect your team mates; they have no idea of the new ball’s vagaries. Rather it was the uncomplicated spirit of George Hedley which prevailed, who said, “I cannot accept that an opening batsman should not be a shot-player. The new ball goes to the fence much easier.”

When he scored 123 off 121 balls at Bellerive, against the Kiwis in 2001-2, racing to 50 while Hayden was still on one, it was our first “what the…?” experience of the man who’d also been stereotyped: “never to dominate an attack.”

So quickly has this pair established itself as one of the greats, it would be fair to assume it’s all downhill from here. That seems okay with them. Their security doesn’t depend on the might of their individual parts, but their ability to operate as a sum. Hayden is now officially the world’s number one batsman, but believes he wouldn’t be there if not for Langer. “Our partnership has taken my own game to a different level, because we love batting together; we love being successful together. We thrive on each other’s company out in the middle. It’s been the most successful period in both our careers, let’s face it.” Independently of their partnership, it’s true that their batting has been outstanding. Langer has scored a fifty and a hundred without Hayden close by, and given his team numerous fast starts. Hayden has gone on to get four hundreds and three fifties after his mate has departed. Their averages since they’ve come together have greatly exceeded their career averages (Hayden: 2236 runs 104.47. Career: 58.8. Langer: 1113 runs at 53.70. Career: 43.11)

To neither, though, does “success” mean “runs”, because their equation includes more than cricket. Their mutual fascination with the world beyond enriches their understanding at the wicket and their relationships with colleagues and fans. Hayden became renowned during the Indian tour for arising before his team mates to take in the daybreak rituals of the locals.

On the 1999 West Indies tour, with his captain Langer visited Trenchtown - a part of Kingston so malevolent that, in 1997, it had killed 900 of its own in a street war. They left to the adulation of a thousand locals, sporting Trenchtown T-shirts. A miserable and fretful Matthew Elliott chose to stay in his room, sealing his fate.

Compare them with opening combinations of the past. Did you ever see Greenidge and Haynes against spin? By the time they’d seen off the pace bowlers, they’d done all their damage. By the time Langer and Hayden do the same, they’re only just beginning. Three figures on the board only seem to famish their craving. Their teamwork against spin is beautifully thought out. Against South African offie Claude Henderson, they displayed the variety two southpaws can bring. Henderson delivered around the wicket and across to Hayden, who did most of his scoring on leg, sweeping resolutely, employing his newly-acquired quick step inside the line. Henderson held that line to Langer, and saw ball after ball rattle the off-side pickets. Their series-saving partnership of 102 in the second innings at Johannesburg early this year came mainly at the expense of the sometimes-baffling Paul Adams. 36 came off his first five overs.

In making comparisons, we shouldn’t underestimate the bowling they’ve faced. Before their stultifying attacks on Pollock, Kallis, Donald and Ntini here, those bowlers were considered the equal of the Australians, especially on our own pitches. Ominous noises accompanied each leg of the series. This was to be a legitimate world championship. Little noise has been made since. Their fate was established when Hayden and Langer got 80 on the first morning in Adelaide. Then 202 in Melbourne; 219 in Sydney. On the first day of the third Test in Sydney, Pollock and Donald, sharp and full of revenge, got the ball to seam extravagantly. 219 runs later, they were still looking at Hayden and Langer.

Charismatic and fundamentalist. Their strength is that of other great openers: selection, determination, simplicity and technique. But they continue to write the Amplified version. They’ve been a study in the art of partnership batting. New or old, a loose ball is still a chance for maximum runs. This brings immediate pressure to do what few can: bowl tight and fast from the outset. When tightness comes, they rotate the strike. Either way, the scoreboard never rests, and this forces the harried opposition to make hasty decisions. So decisive are they these days that even a shunned stroke sends out a strong message that there is design behind every decision. You can see them appropriate the power a fielding side usually has over two isolated batsmen, celebrating each little victory along the way, even when the rest of us remain unsure as to the nature of that little victory. Langer was overjoyed at Hayden’s 136 against New Zealand at the Gabba (he got 104). “It was a highlight of my career, seeing Haydos get a century here in Brisbane. I know how long he’s been waiting for it.”

The cavalcade of great openers features some of cricket’s most unusual and independent characters: Hutton, Hobbs, Sutcliffe, Gavaskar, Lawry, Fredericks, Ponsford, Boycott. Even the great combinations were not necessarily great team players. Rather, they’re cricket’s pioneers. The Boers of the game, under siege from the malicious attacks of mercurial, ferocious adversaries. Hayden and Langer have no such grimness about them. In one of sport’s most fearsome occupations, their antidote to fear is fun. Against blazing pace they love their role as Australia’s firewall.

It’s not the light of their revelation, but its darkness, that fascinates our press. Only a venial competitiveness keeps them this side of idolatry. Langer’s been known to give bowlers plenty, sometimes unceasingly, and has demonstrated reluctance to leave the crease after the fatal finger has gone up. Hayden, the affable antagonist , has served many a batsman with pungent observations about their prospects, garnished with obscenities, as though he’d prefer to greet them togged up in Lincoln green rather than the traditional creams.

Much-lampooned for their mid-pitch embraces, Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer have had more to celebrate in a short time than any opening pair in history. During one monster partnership, mid-pitch, Langer told Hayden he felt like he was playing backyard cricket. Hayden pointed to the badge on his helmet and reminded him of the significance of their achievement. He had a point. No matter what else happens, they have, like their team, toppled tradition.

The custodians of that tradition, bless ‘em, point to longevity as the measure of greatness. They point out that Langer might already be faltering. Critics, those tin Tarquins in search of tall poppies, have been kept at bay only by their wild success. If one stumbles, their pens will gush retrospective wisdom about inflated averages and average opposition, as if any era would withstand such fastidious scrutiny. The fact is, Langer-Hayden has a compelling case for immortality. Even if they never scale those heights again, their flag is firmly planted at the summit. When they passed their 1000 runs together – which is when the metre of greatness is usually turned on – they were, by light years, the best-performed opening partnership in history, 25 ahead of Hobbs and Sutcliffe’s average; eleven and a half years ahead of Greenidge and Haynes’ record for double-ton stands; Their strike rate of 60 is light years ahead of any other combination that has passed the thousand-run mark. Any questions?

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