The riddle of Matthew Hayden – brute, bully and a true great

The Australian opener bows out with a record that speaks for itself, writes cricket correspondent Angus Fraser

And then there was one. The retirement of Matthew Hayden leaves the all-conquering Australian team of the past 15 years with just one player, Ricky Ponting, who could be described as a great of the game. Twenty-six months ago, while Australia were handing England the mother of all 5-0 Ashes thrashings, Ponting, the Australian captain, was surrounded by figures that deserved to be categorised in such a way. Ponting, 34, still has a few years left, enough to overtake Sachin Tendulkar and become the highest run scorer in Tests, but, as he tries to find a way of bucking Australia's fall from the pinnacle of world cricket, he must be feeling pretty lonely.

How he must yearn for the days when greats like Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Justin Langer and Hayden were under his control. Captaining then must have seemed easy. All he had to do was toss a coin, tell them when and where they were batting or bowling and then watch the opposition flounder.

Australia will find batsmen to score Hayden's runs but they are unlikely to find a player that had his presence. Hayden was the big, strong, imposing figure they sent out first to confront and bully the opposition. Australia has produced more refined opening batsmen than the Queenslander but it is questionable whether any have been better. Hayden's record – 8,625 runs at an average of 50.73 in 103 Tests and 6,133 runs at 43.80 in one-dayers – is outstanding. In Test cricket only five batsmen have scored more than his 30 hundreds and just eight have a better rate of converting fifties to tons.

"I have lived the dream and loved every minute of representing Australia and Queensland – there's zero regrets when it comes to my cricket performance," said Hayden. "I am retiring from cricket, but not from life. I'm humbled by my background and by the fact that I've got so much support. That's why I can feel so proud of what the team has achieved over the period of time I've contributed to it."

It is normally big, fast bowlers who like to bully, towering over a batsman so they could look down on him whenever they could. But no bowler wanted to get too close to the left-hander, who used to walk out to bat with his Australian shirt stretched tightly across his huge chest. England famously confronted him during a one-dayer at Edgbaston prior to the 2005 Ashes after Simon Jones rather recklessly threw the ball at him. England, with their "one in, all in" policy surrounded Hayden when he reacted angrily to Jones' throw, and it seemed to affect him. During the series his huge upper body and skinny-legged appearance earned him the nickname "Buzz Lightyear" from the England team. On several occasions he lost his wicket trying to impose himself on Matthew Hoggard.

In the past decade Australia's batsmen took Test cricket forward by trying to score at four runs per over, and Hayden was the force behind the legacy. He was a brute who constantly looked to get forward so that he could drive you powerfully down the ground or clip you over mid-wicket. Unless you were a proper fast bowler – 88mph plus – it was almost impossible to push him back. As a batsman Hayden did not possess great touch, but boy did he work at his game; a trait brought on by the amount of time it took him to establish himself in the Australian Test side. Hayden made his Test debut in 1994 but it was only during Australia's 2001 tour of India that he made himself a permanent member of the team.

Prior to the India tour Hayden spent weeks practising playing spin in Queensland where he would scuff up pitches and get as many local spinners as he could to bowl at him. Australia lost a memorable series 2-1 but Hayden had an outstanding tour, scoring 549 runs at an average of 109.8 in three remarkable Tests. Further great achievements followed. In front of his home Brisbane crowd he scored 197 and 103 in the first 2002-03 Ashes Test, the match in which Nasser Hussain famously invited Australia to bat.

He briefly held on to the highest individual score in Test cricket too, when he struck 380 against Zimbabwe in Perth. Brian Lara reclaimed the record when he scored 400 not out against England in Antigua.

As a person Hayden is something of a riddle. He loves fishing, hunting and cooking, and those that have shared a changing room with him have only had good things to say. But he could be a pig to play against. Hayden is a religious man, as could be seen when he crossed himself each time he scored a hundred, but he was one of the nastiest sledgers Australia has produced.

From the slips or at gully he would say horribly insulting things to batsmen. But then, having a beer at the close of play, he would be charming.

To many Englishmen the legend that surrounds the "Baggy Green" Australian cap has become a bit nauseating. But in an age when respect for anything and anybody is sadly diminishing it continues to serve a purpose, representing something of greater importance than any member of the team. Hayden has helped continue that legend. The eulogies offered by some players can appear empty but when McGrath speaks it is worth listening. When asked about Hayden he said: "It's been an absolute honour and privilege to play with him, and even more so to call him a mate. I'd have him in every team I played for."

Australia's departed

Born: 29 October, 1971, Queensland

Tests: 103 for Australia (1992-2009), 8,625 runs (high of 380 in October 2003) at an average of 50.73, 30 centuries

ODIs: 161, 6,133 runs, (high of 181) average of 43.80, 10 centuries

Hayden is the fifth high-profile retirement from the all-conquering Australian side of recent times.

Shane Warne, 1992-2007, 145 Tests, retired January 2007. Bowling average 25.41

Glenn McGrath, 1993-2007, 124 Tests, retired January 2007. Bowling average 21.64

Justin Langer, 1993-2007, 105 Tests, retired January 2007. Batting average 45.27

Adam Gilchrist, 1999-2008, 96 Tests, retired March 2008. Batting average 47.60

Hanging 10: Barbecues and beaches beckon retiree

The former Australian opener should find plenty to keep himself occupied in retirement:

Religion: Hayden has been a devout Catholic all his life. "Religion has been a tremendous reference point for me."

Cooking: A keen cook, Hayden prepared meals for his team-mates and has had two cookbooks published in Australia.

Surfing and sailing: A keen surfer and sailor whose boat capsized in 2000 while sailing in Queensland, he and two colleagues (including Australia international all-rounder Andrew Symonds) swam a kilometre to safety. It took them an hour to reach the shore, battling against the waves, currents and exhaustion.