Melbourne: Cricketer of the Year Matthew Hayden and teammate Ricky Ponting have gone into bat for their beleaguered captain Steve Waugh, saying the scrutiny of the Australian skipper is unwarranted.
Waugh, 36, has struggled for form this domestic summer, prompting speculation he might be near the end of his long and illustrious career. The captain's uneasy relationship with the Australian media has only increased the tension. The skipper lost his cool during the last press conference of the season after frequent questions about team selections - an area in which he now has little input after the Australian Cricket Board (ACB) decided to remove Waugh and his deputy Adam Gilchrist from the selection panel for overseas tours. Hayden singled out Waugh for praise when he accepted the Allan Border Medal for Australia's top cricketer on Monday night. On Tuesday the Queenslander followed up his tribute, saying Waugh had been under unjustified pressure during the summer, particularly when Australia was undefeated in the Tests and narrowly missed the One- day finals against South Africa and New Zealand. Asked if Waugh had copped unfair criticism, Hayden said, "Well, in my opinion he has, because he is a gentleman that I just truly honour and respect as a cricketer and as a person. "It's not really for me to say what the media has and hasn't done to Stephen over the last little bit, but I think he's a tremendous cricketer and I'm sure that he'll be out there fighting his guts out in South Africa." Australia leaves for South Africa this week for a three-Test series against Shaun Pollock's team. Hayden said Waugh had been a 'quiet supporter' of his for years. "Cricket's a tough game, professional sport is a tough game," he said. "There's a lot of highs and lots of lows and I guess you really need those people in your corner and Stephen has been one of those people for me." On the night of the presentation, Hayden said, "I find Stephen a tremendously inspirational character. Stephen has been going through a reasonably tough trot over the last few weeks, but I hear on the grapevine he calls someone like (new national squad member) Shane Watson and says 'mate, can't wait until you're in the side'. "To someone like Shane Watson, that means the world, that means the earth - I think that's Australian, that's the way we want to be, we want to say 'good on you' when you do well. I'm saying good on Stephen, because I think he's a fantastic leader." Ponting, named on Monday as Australia's Limited Overs cricketer of the year, said it was up to the team to ease the pressure on Waugh by performing to expectations. "It's always a tough position, I suppose, when you're the captain of a side that not performing as well as they should be," he said, referring to Australia's failure to make the tri-series One-day finals. "We were world champions at the time and New Zealand was beating us nearly every week, so it's a hard position to be in. I think he's handled it pretty well. There's not much you can do about it, you've just got to really put that behind you and hopefully our performances over the next couple of weeks will help him out in the media and he'll start getting some positive press again."
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