Visible or not, vibes-over-tactics Matthew Hayden has had a big impact on Pakistan's Class of 2022
Matthew Hayden is in the Pakistan set-up as a team mentor. It's a non-specific title, which gives him the freedom to weigh in on a more diverse set of topics than, say, a bowling coach or a batting consultant - which he was at last year's men's T20 World Cup - might have. Two days out from the final of the men's T20 World Cup 2022 at the MCG, Hayden would stretch that freedom almost to breaking point, propounding on issues as wide-ranging as the absence of a legspinner in India's semi-final lineup to Mohammad Rizwan and Babar Azam's "commitment to Islam".
There's a strong sense of vibes-over-tactics to the persona that Hayden brings to this Pakistan side, though that hardly comes as a surprise given it was PCB chair Ramiz Raja who brought him in this role. Raja, who is in Melbourne to attend the ICC Board meeting, took the catch that saw Pakistan win the 50-overs men's World Cup at the same venue thirty years ago. He had a chat with reporters, too, at the MCG, but it was Hayden who would steal the show. His gregarious personality, however, shouldn't detract from the sharpness of his cricketing brain, and, almost thinking aloud, Hayden found himself assessing the scale of the task Pakistan were up against in the final.
"You've got quality fast bowling versus quality batting. It's why you want to watch the game," Hayden said. "We've got four quicks - not just Shaheen [Shah Afridi] and Naseem [Shah] - who can create some sustainable damage inside 20 overs. One of the things that I think that India was really missing last night also in the spin-bowling department was a legspinning option, really a sixth-bowling option. This side has six genuine options and a seventh as well, you know, should Ifti [Iftikhar Ahmed] be required. The bases are covered.
"I think both sides actually have got very equal set-ups. So you look at the England set-up as well, they've got genuinely six bowling options and a handy option of having batting allrounders as well, with Moeen Ali and also [Adil] Rashid. So yeah, it's just even stevens. At the start of this tournament, I always thought that England was going to be a huge threat to this tournament. And here we are on the eve of a final."
If the last time Hayden faced a press pack is any indicator, his appearance before the final is particularly propitious for the side he now mentors. On Tuesday, he had launched into an impassioned defence of Babar ahead of Pakistan's semi-final against New Zealand, warning that a significant contribution from the Pakistan captain was just around the corner. In the semi-final, Babar - and his great mate Rizwan - were back near their irrepressible best, their 105-run stand coming in 12.4 overs, taking the game out of New Zealand's reach.
Analysis done, Hayden reached into his bag of feels. "The stats are amazing when you look at those two and their performances," he said. "And it just speaks volumes for not their on-field relationship, but you know, very much their off-field chemistry and relationship. Both [are] very good leaders under their own rights. Both men are highly geared towards nationalistic pride and their commitment to Islam as well. And I think both also just get cricket, they get each other, they get the game of cricket.
"They understand that it's going to have its lulls, but generally speaking, they've got each other's backs. Two is always better than one. That's why the great partnerships are recognised."
By this stage of the T20 World Cup last year, Pakistan had been eliminated in heart-breaking fashion at Australia's hands after looking like the form team in the group stages. This campaign has been more complicated, starting off with losses to India and Zimbabwe, before relying on an upset of South Africa at Netherlands' hands that allowed Pakistan to sneak through to the semi-finals, almost via the back door.
Hayden, always one to value character and courage over data points and graphs, took particular pleasure in the way Pakistan had "grown as a team".
"There's been quite a lot of positive energy and also mixed with some criticism," he said. "I think that's worthy of an international side. You can't come to a tournament like this and expect to have it your way entirely. Our last campaign was very smooth in the T20 World Cup. We won every game convincingly, a little bit like our semi-final performance [against New Zealand]. But that doesn't necessarily mean anything until you strike in the big games. We've enjoyed the successes and the failures both, and I think we're ready to play.
"I really like the struggle. I think it gives you an opportunity to be able to grow and reflect as a team. One of the greatest challenges for Pakistan in the last World Cup was their fielding efforts; this year and this time around, it's been really significant the way that they've stepped up. They're big physical grounds here: 80-metre square boundaries, 65 each way straight. It's key to have good athletic ability. For me, one key moment was Shadab's [Khan] run-out in the semi-final. You get one of those run-outs, suddenly you're in the game."
Hayden can sometimes come across as a man who's perpetually riffing in this role, hitting all the notes and waiting to see which ones strike a chord. There was an anachronistic line about how the Pakistan players might regale people with stories "around campfires in their villages" once their careers end. There were, of course, parallels drawn with Pakistan's 1992 World Cup campaign, which Hayden somewhat clumsily linked to Imran Khan - then captain - "celebrating democracy" in Pakistan.
Perhaps it's not a surprise, though, that at the most crucial moments, Hayden can find a way of rising to the occasion. After last year's gut-punch of a loss against Australia, Babar's address to his devastated charges in the dugout imploring unity went viral. Hayden, too, had a say, and kept it short, sweet and meaningful.
"I'm certainly very proud of you. There's been some extraordinary performances to get up for tonight," he had said, pointing towards Rizwan, who had played despite spending the previous night in hospital. "It takes great courage to be involved in a tournament like this. Great courage. Please, keep those heads up. The pain will be short term but remember what it takes to be the best. Some of the areas you need to work on individually and collectively will help you move forward. Gosh, I'm so proud of you."
It might sometimes be tempting to wonder, looking in from the outside, exactly what Hayden adds to this side, but judging by his relationship with the players, it doesn't appear to be a question the Pakistan players ask themselves too much. And if this Pakistan side he has forged an unlikely close bond with can string together one more game like the one against New Zealand, they might find their mentor's words about the short-term nature of sporting pain especially salient. --Cricinfo