Neil Harvey has never been anything but forthright, and his opinions have often rankled. Following his call for Matthew Hayden to leave international cricket during the Third Test, a minor frenzy has broken out among cricket fans. Hayden has now retired, but his place in cricket history will remain debated for a while yet, as will Harvey’s, as the latter is unlikely to remain quiet and thereby fade from the recentist attention of modern fans.
Hayden’s supporters, or possibly Harvey’s detractors, have robustly pointed to the raw statistics to support to defend the Queensland opener. Hayden has a superior average, more centuries and more runs, they point out, to defend Hayden’s position in the team, or to decry Harvey’s record and position to criticise Hayden’s service for Australia.
For the record, Harvey scored 6149 runs with 21 centuries at an average of 48.41 in 79 Tests. Hayden has scored 8645 runs at 50.73, with 30 centuries from 103 matches. The easiest argument to debunk is simply the accumulation record. It is unbelievable how many people compare players in such a way, when by such reasoning, Bradman would be inferior to Sourav Ganguly. Harvey played Tests for Australia for 15 years, such was the scheduling of Tests in those days, with tours of England typically including more than 30 first-class matches. If Harvey had played in the modern era, he would have ended with at least twice as many Tests and statistics.
But averages and accumulation records are not a definitive guide to performance. In the past fifty years, the pitch conditions have changed, as has the equipment, and the standard of the bowling has ebbed and flowed.
On raw averages, and based on their form in 2008, it would not be surprising if both Gautam Gambhir or Virender Sehwag will pass Sunil Gavaskar’s average in the near future. No cricket scholar would rate either of the Delhi pair ahead of Gavaskar, but on cricket forums across the world, many have already declared Hayden and Sehwag to be all-time great openers, unable to comprehend the past eras of cricket, or simply reading the averages.
Hayden’s teammates have been quick to trumpet him as one of Australia’s best openers, and Ricky Ponting even went as far as to suggest that he was the greatest opener the world has ever seen. Such gushes of praise from teammates are nothing but expected, but the opinions of outsiders have nevertheless been surprising.
In Harvey’s time, Australia only played against five other nations: England, South Africa, the West Indies, India and Pakistan. Aside from his first two Tests against India, Harvey only played the Asian teams on the subcontinent, as the Australian Board of Control would not invite them to tour. Thus Harvey was unable to capitalise on the typically weak performances of Asian teams outside the subcontinent in the way that contemporary players have been able to. Harvey was also denied the opportunity to plunder New Zealand.
After an innings win over New Zealand in the inaugural Test in early 1946, Australia refused to play a trans-Tasman Test for three decades, on grounds of Kiwi ineptitude. Australia toured several times, often sending a second XI, while the Test team were overseas, such as in 1949-50 and 1959-60.
Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka were not Test playing nations at the time. Hayden plundered 380 against Zimbabwe, but Harvey had no chance to do so. Excluding his performances against the two minnows, Hayden’s average drops to 48.8.
Secondly, one has to compare players against his contemporaries, as they were the ones who had to compete under equal conditions, with the no ball, lbw laws and pitches all having changed markedly. Aside from Bradman, Harvey’s figures are superior to all Australian in the 30 years after the Second World War. In the 1950s, batting averages fell markedly as England discovered the likes of Tyson and Trueman to target opposition batsmen in the vein of Lindwall and Miller with hostile fast bowling. The West Indies soon followed suit with Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith. On some English grounds in 1948, the home batsmen had to face Miller and Lindwall with no sightscreen, something that is unimaginable today.
In the last decade, batting averages have inexorably risen with the advent of roped boundaries, more powerful bats and a decline in the potency of fast bowling. A higher proportion of batsmen average over 50 than ever before, with many teams having two or three such players, whereas in the 1950s, the equivalent average would be around 40. Compared to their contemporaries, the averages indicate that Harvey was far more effective. Of those who predominantly played from 1945-60, only nine averaged beyond 45, and Harvey was the sixth of these. Of those players who were mainly active from 1995 onwards, Hayden has the 12th highest average from approximately 25 men who averaged in excess of 45.
Another facet in which cricketers of yesteryear were challenged on the wider variety of surfaces. The vast amount of modern pitches are flat and placid for batting. Hayden did not have to deal with rain-affected wickets, nor matting pitches as Harvey had to.
In Dacca in 1959-60, Harvey (pictured) made 96 while seven partners fell for 48 against Pakistan. The surface was a mat laid out on a bumpy surface on rough ground with pebbles on it. Three years earlier he made 69 on an uncovered Calcutta pitch against India’s spinners after it had been flooded by monsoons. In 1956, confronted by doctored dry pitches, where a breeze would blow up a plume of dust, Harvey made 69 in 270 minutes of defiance at Headingley, as Australia were rolled for 140 in five hours by Jim Laker and Tony Lock. On a rain-affected surface in Durban in 1949-50, Harvey made an unbeaten 151 in a run-chase, holding off Hugh Tayfield to secure a Test victory. In Sydney in 1954-55, he made an unbeaten 92 on a spiteful green pitch as Frank Tyson and Brian Statham shot Australia out for 184.
Modern batsmen have not had to contend with such surfaces. The much-maligned Mumbai surface of 2004 was nothing like the matting of Dacca or the dustbowls of England in 1956. Yet the batsmen, accustomed to flat pitches, were unable to last half the match and roundly condemned the surface. But such surfaces and worse occurred regularly in Harvey’s time.
When pressured by quality bowling, Hayden has often not batted in a sensible manner. Accustomed to walking down the pitch against mediocre pacemen with the security blanket of a helmet, he tried the same against Ishant Sharma in the ODIs in Australia, and again in the Mohali Test, attempting to blindly batter the bowlers out of the attack. And those surfaces were largely flat. What would he have done if he had not helmet and had to face Tyson, Trueman, Statham or Hall at their peak? In his earlier stint in 1996-97, Hayden struggled against Allan Donald and Curtly Ambrose, even with a helmet on covered pitches. He made hay in the 21st century once the West Indies quicks, Donald, Akram and Waqar had all departed, and then struggled against England in 2005. Yet nobody would place Flintoff and Jones anywhere but below Tyson and Trueman, regarded as some of the greatest English pacemen of all time. Harvey faced them, with no helmet, on uncovered pitches. The English teams of the 1950s are widely regarded as their strongest since the Second World War, far more formidable than in the last 20 years. Harvey was one of the most cavalier batsmen of his time, yet he was also able to grind away on minefields when Australia collapsed around him, something that Hayden has not done.
Only the first third of Harvey’s Test career was played when Australia dominant, whereas Hayden had the benefit of being in a dominant squad for the vast majority of his career, apart from his stints in the 1990s. Harvey found himself at the crease when the opposition were on a roll much more often. As we all know, momentum is extremely important in cricket and the importance of batting or bowling well in pairs.
Neither player bowled to any meaningful extent, so on to their fielding. Harvey was acclaimed as the "finest outfielder in the world" by Wisden. Harvey honed his skills by playing baseball, and he was named in the [honorary] Australian team. On the cricket field, he patrolled the covers and ran out many players with an accurate and fast throw. At the time of his retirement, he also held the Australian record for the most Test catches by a non-wicket-keeper. Formerly a gully and bat pad fielder, Hayden now fields in the slips. Although a fine fielder, Hayden is nowhere near the proficiency and reliability of other leading contemporary Australian slippers, such as Mark Waugh or Mark Taylor, who not only took difficult catches with ease, but rarely missed. Nor does he possess the agility and throwing accuracy of someone like AB de Villiers.
To say that Hayden was a greater player, let alone vastly superior to Harvey, as many modern cricket followers would assert, is a rather dubious call. Harvey was much more effective and versatile with both bat and ball.
YellowMonkey is not Neil Harvey. He is actually less than a third of Harvey's age.