Matthew Hayden and Graeme Smith had vastly contrasting styles when it came to the task of scoring runs.
However, the one similarity between the duo—apart from that they were both left-handed—is that they were extremely successful during their long international careers.
Hayden's first seven Tests for Australia were spread across a three-year period; it wasn’t until 2000 that he finally became a regular at the top of their batting order.
Smith, though, quickly became a key player for South Africa. After making his debut against Australia batting at three in the order, it was not long until he was promoted to open the innings for his country.
So, the question is: Who was the better opener?
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Having scored heavily in first-class cricket—including stints in England with Hampshire and Northamptonshire—Hayden had to patiently wait to become a permanent fixture in Australia’s team.
The Queenslander went on to form a prolific opening partnership with fellow left-hander Justin Langer. The little and large combination plundered 5,655 runs in 113 innings, making them the second most successful pairing in Test history.
He also formed a devastating opening partnership in one-day cricket with wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist, and the pair were integral as Australia lifted the World Cup twice (in 2003 and then again in 2007).
Hayden featured in a total of 161 one-dayers, hitting 10 centuries. He finished with a personal best of 181 not out and was named ODI player of the year in 2007.
At 6’2”, and with a bulking upper body more akin to a rugby forward, Hayden was an ominous sight at the crease. His sheer strength allowed him to dominate opposing bowlers, almost bully them at times.
He had a liking for big booming drives through the off-side, particularly straight down the ground, though he was just as adept at putting away anything dug in short.
While more comfortable against pace bowling, Hayden would counter spinners with the combination of sweeps and straight hits. He scored 549 runs in a three-Test series in India in 2001.
As is often the case with left-handers, Hayden could be an lbw candidate to the ball swinging back in, particularly as he could plant his front foot down the pitch.
Career highlight: 380 vs. Zimbabwe
Hayden set a new world record in 2003 when he made 380 against Zimbabwe in Perth. He faced just 437 balls for his runs, hitting 11 sixes and 38 fours.
His efforts saw him claim the milestone from Brian Lara, albeit not for too long. Just seven months later the West Indian took the record back, becoming the first man to reach 400 in Test cricket.
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It is astonishing to think that Smith captained his country in 108 of his 117 Test appearances.
Handed the job after South Africa’s early World Cup exit on home soil, the batsman took charge of his first match at the tender age of 22 years and 82 days.
Under his leadership the Proteas would go on to reach the top of the ICC Test rankings—he finished his reign having won 53 Tests; a record for a Test captain.
His career as a batsman was just as impressive. Smith scored 27 centuries and passed 200 on five occasions, including twice in as many matches against England.
While perhaps not the most aesthetically pleasing player to watch, the Johannesburg-born left-hander was mighty effective up front against the new ball.
Opponents always felt that Smith was vulnerable to the ball swinging back into his pads. The fact his bat came down at an angle—with the face often pointing inwards—led to a few issues, but it also allowed him to plunder runs on the leg-side.
Some may have doubted his technique, but no one could question Smith’s fighting spirit. He would never back down from any challenge and loved to get himself in a battle against an opening bowler.
Smith and Neil McKenzie to put on a world record opening stand of 415 against Bangladesh, while on three occasions he combined with previous partner Herschelle Gibbs to put on 300 or more for the first wicket.
Career highlight: 277 vs. England
Having been introduced by home captain Nasser Hussain as “Greg Smith”, Graeme Smith proceeded to make sure no one in England would forget his name with a brilliant double century at Edgbaston in 2003.
He found the boundary 35 times in an innings of importance for not only his team at the start of the series but also for himself on his first major tour since taking over from Shaun Pollock as skipper.
It is a tough call to split two of the great openers of the modern era.
Both had the capability of making big scores, albeit in contrasting fashion. Both had the ability to drive opponents to distraction, almost becoming impossible to bowl to at times.
Smith’s success is particularly impressive considering he also had the weight of captaincy placed on his shoulders so early in his international career.
However, if the choice has to be based on batting skills alone, Hayden just gets the nod.
The Australian must have been a seriously tough opponent for any bowler. Pitch it up too far and expect to watch a drive rush back past you. Drop too short and you would be put away on either side of the wicket.
The one thing that can be agreed on is that both players have proven tough to replace since retiring from the international arena.
Winner: Matthew Hayden