Transcript: Couch Talk with Matthew Hayden

Couch Talk 183 (Play)

Guest:  Matthew Hayden

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ)– Hello and welcome to Couch talk. The guest today is former Australian opening batsman, Matthew Hayden. He talks in detail about his pre-match visualisation routines, his very successful partnership with Justin Langer and how he learnt to be a better player of spin bowling among other things.

Welcome to the show, Matt!

Matthew Hayden (MH)– Thanks, Subash, thanks mate!

SJ– It is absolutely my pleasure having you on.

You were known for your visualization routines on the eve of a Test match, where you would sit on the pitch on one end and visualize opposition bowlers. I want to learn more about it. First off, when did it become a part of your preparation routine and who was instrumental in you adopting it?

MH– It was something that has been with me for my whole career, in particular my professional career. My brother, who was my coach, 5 years my elder – Gary – he studied human movements, at Queensland University here in Brisbane. We used to train together pretty much everyday and we’d train for so long that at the end of a training session, we’d physically almost collapse down on the ground. Often times, the closest and most peaceful environment to the nets – and certainly the greenest environment – was the center strip of any ground around Brisbane. So, we’d collapse down in a heap and go through or talk through a little bit about what we went through in the session, like a debrief on the session and a briefing on what we are looking to do in the next session which would inevitably be the next day or the next morning. 

It started from there, and when Gary no longer toured with me, [I continued] the process of gathering my thoughts sitting down in an environment which was very comfortable to me and going through the kind of expectations I had in store for me in the week’s period of the Test or the One-Dayers, getting used to the conditions, understanding where the breeze was coming from, what sighting and background of bowler’s arms were gonna look like – eliminating all those details which are critical elements of the process of batting so that there were no surprises on the day, and just going through how I felt at that time. There were various confronting emotional things that I needed to deal with – like touring a country like India, understanding what the environment was presenting to me and how I was managing it. It would be an hour of conversation really because there would be so many things that would go through my mind in such a short period of time. In the middle, I would let it all go and I would be completely relaxed, looking down at the wicket, loving the environment of being outside and being in a physical state of mind where I would be so at peace with my conditions. It was a wonderful time of my life. One of the things that I miss the most about cricket and batting in particular is that meditation of cricket, that involvement of myself – mind, body and spirit – in to delivering that one specific process, which is to execute a cricket shot. It is a beautiful feeling, it is very hard to replicate, as a civilian not playing sport – to get that sense of real belonging and feeling how you are progressing through the day is what I loved and miss.

SJ– When you do that, you talked about the background and the breeze and the general construction, the ambiance, the atmosphere – are you also visualizing opposition bowlers and identify areas of scoring easily and get on sharp? Are you visualizing balls being played, like a golfer hitting a shot?

MH– Of course, Subash. For example, I might be sitting on the wicket right now and see Zaheer Khan coming in to bowl from around the wicket, and try to deviate through a swinging delivery with a new ball and have me trapped in front. Visualizing what that looks like and seeing how I process that in my head before that event happens so that there are no surprises. It might be that he was trying to bowl a slower bouncer with two people back – I am just working through the scenarios and understanding how I was going to win on each of those occasions and how I can master and control my own destiny. I would go through that. i might be there for 10 minutes and feel confident that I don’t need any more, or I might be there for two hours. In fact, it was almost always a tradition where everyone would go to the ground and have a throw-down or nets before the day of the game. My nets was completed in my head, just be sitting down and going through those various scenarios. It might be Courtney Walsh or Curtly Ambrose coming across the left hander from around the wicket, understanding the batting zones where I would feel comfortable leaving the ball and lining with the stumps and almost visualizing like how HawkEyes does. That was something I can see in my mind before that technology even came in. Those were interesting times.

SJ– For example, you are in a purple patch when your mind is free of any thoughts and you are just reacting to the ball and cricket happens quite instinctively. At times you go through rough patches. I just want to compare those two things. On the day before a Test match you are slightly under pressure, the runs are not coming; or you are scoring by the bucket loads. How does the visualization change from one to the other?

MH– First, there is always pressure whether you are in top notch nick or not, in the game of cricket. Whether you like it or not, you have to give way that it is very much a ball by ball event. Some of my best innings have been all innings that were less than 50 balls in duration because of the conditions. You won’t get the glory of 50 or 100 or 150 or 200 but you will get the inner peace of knowing that you committed to what the process was on the day and you were part of the process and you were living out that process. 

But, good form and bad form is a little bit like driving a vehicle. When you are in good form, you drive from A to B in two hours which feels like two minutes because you are in the flow, you have your stereo pumped up, you are comfortable with the seating arrangements, the climate within the car, you have got some banter in the car if you have some traveling guests etc. You’re just in a feeling of flow. Bad form is like the same trip but now you’re being tailgated by a police officer. Everything that was very unconscious where time was just flying and there was no thought process involved in anything particular. Now, you suddenly become aware of pretty much everything in your conscience. Am I too close to my fellow drivers? Am I indicating correctly? Is my speed limit correct? It is all of those thought processes, which if you were to relate to batting would be – “Am I watching the ball? Is my body position excellent? Am I moving according to the conditions? Have I got the right strategy for playing certain deliveries? All those things become very conscious, and it seems that the meticulous details and clunkiness or awkwardness of being tailgated, when you are not in the flow, all those things become more relevant to your case. Inevitably you get out in the process, you are stuck in the mindset of analysis by paralysis.

SJ– You have played in more than 100 Tests and scored runs everywhere. Let me give examples, and you tell what you would have done in those actual scenarios. For example, you are playing against (Muttiah) Muralitharan in Sri Lanka. Your main goal is to combat Murali, but you still have to get past the seamers first. In the second scenario, you are on a fast pitch like ‘Gabba or WACA or Kingsmead, against South Africa, on a seamer oriented attack. How does your preparation change in these two scenarios?

MH– There is significant difference, albeit subtle. The basis behind batting, no matter where you are or what level you are playing, whether it is backyard cricket or club cricket or first class or international cricket, your mind does not know any difference other than it tries to have ultimate control over its various stages of processing. What I mean by that is that, for example when I face a seam attack like South Africa in conditions like they were once at Melbourne for a Boxing Day Test match where it was very damp. There had been a drought in Melbourne but the conditions almost miraculously changed. The play was delayed and Australia had lost the toss and were sent in to bat on a green wicket. Any preparation that we had thought leading into that Test was pretty much out of the door because you had to commit to a lot of different processes – watching the ball, good body movement, good body language, great strategy. 

I wasn’t interested in how many runs I made in the first session, maybe in the second session. I was prepared to weather the storm, bat for time, pick off any mistakes that may come my way. It is too much to plan for on any one given strategy. You have to change accordingly. It is in change where athletes master their environment. Working now in a business environment like I am, it is very hard to get human resources to change its thinking. It does what it does well, it loves its structure, it locks into a structure and tries to deliver on that structure. In sporting environment, you might have one structure that may completely change overnight. Yet, you are the same person. It is the same when I travel to Sri Lanka, where Muralitharan is running in and bowling and he is playing on the opposite conditions to what you have grown up as a kid. Suddenly, you have to alter what you have thought about within a short period of time to get the police officer out of your rear vision mirror and ultimately for you the police officer. So, the hunted becomes the hunter. That was very much in my overall kind-of psychology of trying to execute the base process of batting so that I was on the front foot rather than being on the back foot and reacting to conditions.

SJ– I want to switch gears and talk a bit about your batting partnership with Justin Langer. 

Initially, you had some partnerships with Michael Slater, Mark Taylor, etc. it was in the last Test of 2001 Ashes where you began your phenomenal partnership with Langer. You had written in your book about JL and I quote, “We were united in our passion by work ethic, but diametrically opposed in other areas.” Could you expand on the similarities and where you were different?

MH– Certainly, where we were different is… for starters, he was vertically challenged. Just joking! He was a very different batsman to me. Technically, even though we grew up in extremely similar circumstances – fast bouncy wickets at the ‘Gabba and the WACA. How we handled those was polar opposites. He was very much let the ball come on to the bat and hit through cover, cover-point and third man. I was much more up at the ball and was very opposite in terms of what coaching dynamics were when we were amateur youth cricketers growing up, which was to come back and across at the ball. I always challenged that thinking because of my height, where I can come forward and across to the ball, which is kind of more of a power position as opposed to letting and reacting off the wicket. Neither are incorrect in the approach, both have their place – that is just pointing out the differences in our techniques. Whenever anyone was saying lefties can’t come together, I was always disagreeing with that. If you look, (Adam) Gilchrist and Hayden’s scoring zones were almost exact opposite. Langer and Hayden’s scoring zones are exact opposite. Sure, we can play all the shots, if you are going to play long enough on any given day, you are going to have a wagon-wheel that looks like it has got silk threads all throughout the 360 degree. The predominant areas of our scoring are opposite. As I said he likes it around third man, cover-point and covers. I was mid-off, around the other side of the ground.

It gave us a natural synergy from batting technique point of view. But, it wasn’t really the glue to our relationship. The glue was without any question the ingredients in our values and our cultural elements, our love for the game, our commitment to the game, our commitment to get to the Baggy Green side which was forged through many years of very hard work and lots of performance. And also, just challenging the culture in terms of fitness and being really in an environment where we wanted to be the absolute best professionals that we can be which came through that commitment to hard work. We had a great love of the outdoors and food, our families and we put enormous emphasis on relationship, celebration of key milestones. There was so much to the relationship, Subash, that it was just the perfect storm in terms of competitive combination of two individuals.

SJ– That’s fantastic!

For a long time, the theory was that the openers would see off the new ball and allow the middle order to flourish. The Aussie team that you and JL were part of, had phenomenal batsmen all the way through. But you and JL were equally aggressive as the middle order, if not more. Was there a specific moment in time where there was a change in philosophy, or was it something that you grew up with in Shield Cricket and just brought it to the international game?

MH– It is a really interesting perception, and I say that because perception is reality. In the Australian dressing room, the opening batsmen had a special title,”Buff removers”, where they remove the shine off the ball and do the job of the engine room of the side. The 1, 2 and 3 were called the engine room. From 4 down, they were all called the “interior decorators”. The engine room set up the innings and did all the hard work. They didn’t have all the bells and whistles, but like the power train of the Mahindra car, you know that it was going to be solid because it has got a sheer volume and weight to drive itself; it is moving the whole vehicle forward. The interior decorators come in and add the cruise control and the lovely interior designs, the beautiful panels that you see in front of the eyes and the visual effects. Both are very important.

As we started our youth cricket – we were both focused on driving the train, and I have got to add Ricky Ponting into here too. The drive train did the work. It saw off conditions, it might be seamy, or dry, or we saw off till lunch – it took pride in holding the engine room together as long it possibly could, and it allowed what was pretty and finished and capable of driving a great result for the team, and that is bringing to life the middle order for Australia and give them opportunities to flourish. 

There was a real strong KPIs and all that for us, but when we started really comfortable with being in the side either in the state side or in the national team – we came together in 2001. We were both comfortable in our game, in ourselves and in each other. That allowed for this natural expansion of play. Justin would often outscore me to 50. And where I started coming into my own was through those middle stages where I would up my scoring rate and risk against spin and medium pacers. I would start to have a different gear. There are times when he played more on the ball than I did because of his approach of going back and across meant that he was in line more than me and he loved to play through covers. Majority of the bowlers we face were right armers, which would go across the left hand batsman. It would mean that I would leave a lot more balls. It was a perfect combination – he would get the scoring going quickly early, and from there I would take it on and the game would keep moving forward accordingly.

It was a very interesting partnership when you look from an analysis point of view. It was stuff that we didn’t do when playing, but now thinking about it sitting back, it is interesting.

SJ– I want to talk about another topic. Australia have been a part of so many epic series in the apst 20 years. You have been a part of a few of those. Major ones of them being 2005 Ashes, and the 2001 India series. I want to talk about the Indian series. A lot of people want to talk about VVS Laxman’s output and Harbhajan Singh’s output. But, you scored more than 500 runs averaging over 100. Ricky Ponting, an all time great batsman, couldn’t buy a run in that series whereas, you were piling on. From that series, you averaged 58, and before that you averaged 24. What went into the series and how did it transform you as a player?

MH– It was definitely a watermark series for me  from an international cricket point of view. You can cut stats anyway you want, I am not a stats driven person, what was ringing in my ears was that after 7 Test matches I averaged 21. I know that for a fact because Glenn McGrath would come up to me and tell me “Mate, you are not that good, I think I have just about pipped you on the aggregate of runs”, which was salt in to my wounds. But, I guess that West Indies series before that Indian summer, and I scored some really significant runs that broke the camel’s back in a lot of ways in terms of arriving at Test match cricket. I got run out a few times in that series, but I’d made some massive progression. There was an overarching theme that it doesn’t matter where I was playing, I was going to arrive at a series at some point, and India just so happened to be in the unlucky zone. 

Technically, I had been working very hard behind the scenes for a decade on my ability to score against turning bowlers and on turning tracks. There were years of planning that went into that, right back to 1993 when coach Bob Simpson had planted a seed about sweeping, as did Allan Border on rotating strike. There was a seed that came through there, that was grown during my experience at County cricket especially at Northants in 1998/99, when I was captain of Northants. I had two quality spinners in Alec Brown and Graeme Swann, and Monty Panesar as well – they were kids. Our wicket was a turning track, that was our edge. That track suited the team, and suited me as a side benefit of that – I was able to hone and develop my technique through those two years of County cricket which wasn’t that far away from the 2001 series where I was destined to arrive.

More than anything, this story has got a very deep and rich history. It started way back in 1995/96 when I was begging the Australian selectors to take me away to the MRF Pace Academy where they were holding a spin bowling clinic with (Srinivas) Venkat(araghavan) and Bishen Bedi and I didn’t get picked in it and I wanted to know why. I was an emerging player and I wanted to go. I was putting my case forward and said that I was going to be the person with the character who is going to drive a good result for you in India. That vision was very much in my mind. I will never forget walking off the Chennai field and turning to one of my colleagues, Matthew Elliott, who was an opening batsman and played a bit more for Australia at that time, his nickname was Herbie, and telling him, “Herbie, I am going to get a Test match 100 here one day.” And he was looking at me thinking, “What has this got anything to do with it, we are not even close to Test match cricket!” Speaking of that statement, and how it proved to be incorrect actually – I got a Test match 200 there!

I look back at my very fond memories of playing for (Chennai Super Kings) CSK and the importance that stadium had to me personally, for my growth and development, and to see the lovely different genres of cricket come to the stage and be a part of the inaugural series of (Indian Premier League) IPL, and even commentating at the ground and having a really close connection with the people in Chennai. Sometimes things are just meant to be, arent they? You just got to give in to the higher forces and say, “You know what, this is forever, and I don’t understand it. But, so be it.”

SJ– I was going to bring up that talk about MRF Pace Foundation holding a spin clinic. I read somewhere about you taking part and Bishen Bedi and Venkataraghavan being there. What were the aspects that you were trying to absorb about facing spin bowling that you would implement later on?

MH– Interestingly, I can’t remember picking up the bat more than 2 or 3 times in that 6 or 7 day trip. But what I saw all that, next to the two very talented spin bowlers, and very different Indian spin bowlers as well; and understand what flight meant, strategically. Trying to understand what a spin bowler in his mindset tries to achieve by putting rotation on the ball and setting a certain field-set. Those lessons don’t get taught, because all I could look back and see was three slips and two gullies on fast bouncy conditions. I didn’t understand the overall strategy of what spin bowling would achieve both technically or from a strategic point of view. Those were invaluable lessons. The bowlmanship as well – if that’s a word – the ability for a crafty person of Bishen Bedi’s [calibre], whose mind is as sharp as a tack, his thought process of tossing the ball in the air… When you really boil it down, there is really no threat, there is no imminent physical threat compared to Shoaib Akhtar bowling 160 kmph thunderbolts where you are physically challenged, and you have real possibility of getting dangerously hurt; as opposed to someone who is bowling high 80s and early 90s, you take that any day of the week. The whole difference between the mental anxiety and the concern of being hurt as opposed to spin bowling – it is the mental fear. It is the fear of failure, of stepping out and being stumped. Bridging the gap between those two was an important part of that trip. Only through risking getting stumped, the ball is only going at 90k, that you start to confront your own fears in your own space and you start to develop and learn strategies accordingly.

I can’t express to you in words how important that time was. It was an important introduction to India in a way which I have never seen. Look, I am doing this interview sitting in my backyard and I have got a pizza oven and I’ve got a herb garden, the only thing that I can see is a crow on the trees. There is not one person in sight or sound of me here. And yet, coming to Chepauk Stadium, we have got workers, crowds in and around, the market, shops, streets, and the beach front location. It is polar opposites to what I was used to. It was a great introduction to the heart of India as well.

SJ– I want to ask you one last thing. You were an opening batsman in a fast bowler’s body, a very intimidating presence. We talked the mental aspects of it. About the physical aspects – did you try to manifest that along lines of what Steve Waugh would say “mental disintegration”? Did you try to use that to your advantage to intimidate the bowler?

MH– The short answer is “Yes”. The long side of it is that it was a very natural thing for me because it had already been developed before I arrived at international cricket. I went home to Kingaroy, my hometown, just over this week and saw my parents who live on an 800-odd acre property. On that property, we actually live on the side of a volcano, red basalt soil – deeply rich soil. And it’s extremely hilly. While cricket was a part of it, there was a cricket wicket that my brother and I would roll every afternoon and mow and there was a net on the 10 acre house block we had. Other than that, the sports that I would love was hunting high over these mountains. I would climb those mountains every day of my life. Physically, I was very capable. I love to swim and it’s not a stress on my body. I developed my body in a way by exploring all these different sports. When I came to the high performances arena, I was kind of a one-off in a lot of ways. I was as much an iron man as much I was a cricketer. Having surfed, fished, hunted, having all these sporting diverse landscape that it was just a natural thing. 

In fact, the very first time I saw Justin Langer, way back in early 1991, he was in the middle and he came up to me and thought that I was the groundsman. He asked me, “What is this going to play like, mate? What is the conditions like generally?” and I thought, “I am a player! You have to find that out for yourself, champ.” I don’t think I said anything truthfully, actually. What happened was, I said that it looked very good and we had a bit of a chat. To his surprise, he didn’t realize that I was actually fielding bat-pad to him next day when he was opening the batting for WA. I said to him, “You thought I was the groundsman yesterday, didn’t you?” He said, “Yes!” My physique was already developed.

I mentioned before that my brother Gary studied human movements at Queensland University. So there was a time of high performance in every sport, not just in cricket. Queensland was the epicenter in terms of Australian development of players and playing groups – football and other codes – for high performance. The studies were cutting edge coming out of the Queensland University high performance culture, with words like VA2Max- which no athlete has ever heard about, but all of a sudden there was a KPI connected to all your physical attributes, in which I was already 15-20 years ahead of the pack because my brother was studying what that was looking like. There are a number of things that you look back in your career that was the perfect storm that had me evolve to a state where I was ready to play.

SJ– Alright! On that note, Matt, thank you so much for this enlightening chat! It was an absolute pleasure talking to you.

MH– Thank you, Subash!