Matthew Wade‘s Edgbaston century, a sparkling collection of attacking shots with a sturdy enough defence to survive, was an innings played unashamedly on his own terms. It was also an innings that quite a lot of prominent judges in Australian cricket would not have allowed him the chance to play.
One of the curious things about the rash of changes in Australian cricket following the Newlands scandal was the return of a couple of very recent national selectors to commentary roles. Mark Waugh, via Fox Sports, and Darren Lehmann, via the same network and also Macquarie radio, have been very outspoken in close proximity to their former spots alongside Trevor Hohns and Greg Chappell – Lehmann succeeded as coach by Justin Langer, and Waugh not replaced.
Among the strongest opinions expressed, via these outlets and also social media, was Waugh’s that Matthew Wade’s time as a Test cricketer for Australia was over. Wade hadn’t made anywhere near enough runs for Australia in his most recent stint, the theory went, and he was too vulnerable to the moving ball. He should be considered for limited overs games, on the strength of his BBL displays for Hobart Hurricanes, but not the Test team.
You seriously think Matthew Wade is a test match no.4 or 5 at 31 yrs of age. Has had a very good season and should be in the frame for white ball cricket but not red ball cricket. Has played 22 tests with a batting average of 28.
— Mark Waugh (@juniorwaugh349) February 20, 2019
This view did not change even as Wade was regenerating himself as more of a specialist batsman than a utility gloveman, making technical and tactical changes in Tasmania through the help of the noted batting coach Jeff Vaughan, and also reassessing his personality and mentality through the prism of fatherhood and a growing maturity. Why there was such fixed opposition to Wade, with references made to him being too old at 31 to make a return, has been a source of curiosity.
But what is far less debatable is the fact that when Waugh and Lehmann were on the panel, they were part of a decision to choose Wade that had less to do with how the left-hander was performing at the time, and more to do with the state of panic in which Australian cricket then found itself. In November 2016, when the call was made to drop Peter Nevill and replace him with Wade, Australia had lost five Tests in a row, the selection chairman Rod Marsh had resigned, and the strong suggestion was that under a new captain in Steven Smith, Australia needed to be louder and more aggressive as a team, taking any means necessary to win.
Wade’s recall, having not played a Test since 2013, epitomised this attitude shift more than anything, but it rather ignored the fact that in terms of performance, he was in the midst of the worst batting slump of his career. In the preceding Sheffield Shield season, Wade had made 167 runs at 27.83 with a top score of 41 not out, and in the one in which he was recalled, he returned just 113 at 28.25. These two seasons remain the least productive of Wade’s first-class tenure since his very first all the way back in 2007-08.
So when Wade was thrust into the spotlight of Australian duty he was battling his own method and enthusiasm for the game, in the process of realising that a technique he had honed for years on the predictable MCG drop-in pitch was in need of augmentation if he was to be the high performing Test batsman that his talent always suggested he might be. Two centuries in his first international stint – against the West Indies in Dominica in 2012 and against Sri Lanka in Sydney in 2013 – both showed how good Wade could be, but they were displays he struggled to replicate in 2016 and 2017. Lehmann has, in recent times, conceded that Wade was not in a great frame of mind when chosen.
“In his last 10 Tests he did not have a great output but we played on some difficult wickets in the subcontinent,” Lehmann told News Corp last month. “The big thing is he now believes in himself. He is playing more shots. (Previously) he was probably too fearful of getting out. Now he has released the shackles and said ‘I am just going to play’. That is what happens when you get older. I remember Steve Waugh went for three or four years and did not want to get out but at the back-end of his career he played with more freedom.”
That’s not to say that Wade’s performances were completely without merit – 196 runs at 32.66 in four Tests in India were creditable in a series Australia battled right to the finish. But when he offered only slim pickings in Bangladesh later in the year, Wade was discarded and clearly marked, by some at least, as never to play again. It was a decision compounded by the ructions of the Newlands scandal, for there had been few Australians more likely to agitate opponents than Wade had been.
But it was in accepting that he might not get another chance to play for Australia that Wade found the clarity he needed, something he spoke about eloquently on the day the Ashes squad was named in Southampton. All those who have seen Wade batting up close in recent months, scoring century upon century, have invariably reached the conclusion that he had to be included in Australia’s best six batsmen for the Ashes, and he arguably sewed up a spot by making a century opposite Travis Head against the England Lions in Canterbury.
And it was in a similarly muscular, sure of himself vein that Wade played alongside Smith and Tim Paine on day four in Birmingham, clouting 17 boundaries and monstering anything that fell even remotely into his cover driving zone. On reflection, Wade was in no doubt that it had helped to be chosen when feeling sure of himself and his game.
“Weight of runs and time in the middle is everything for a batter so I certainly felt that my game was at a stage where I could perform at this level,” Wade said. “It’s as confident as I’ve been coming into a Test match for sure.
“That’s the way we want it to be in Australia, we want guys piling on a lot of runs at first-class level to get an opportunity to play Test cricket, and when you get that opportunity you try and take it. So I felt confident in my game coming in, I’m at the age now where I know my game better than I did back then and playing as a specialist batter makes a difference as well, it takes a lot of pressure off you, you can chill a little bit more in the field and you’re not concentrating for that long stretch of time like you do as a wicketkeeper. I’ve found that really good for my game.
“I’m confident in my game and if it doesn’t work like it did in the first innings I still feel that on my day I’m good enough to score runs and I’m not chasing my tail as much as what I did when I was a younger player. I back my game now. Yeah, you’ve got to tinker a little bit here and there, but I certainly don’t change too much.”
While Smith’s genius is beyond all dispute, there was far more conjecture to be had about the best players to keep him company and find runs in his slipstream. Perhaps the most telling description of Wade came not from a former selector, but a current one: Langer emphasised that Wade had done the time-honoured thing and simply made a truckload of runs, allied to a fighting countenance.
“I saw it during the summer, and we thought a real reward was being picked in the Australia A side because there was a lot of talk about Wadey and his form, and where he was batting and wicketkeeping,” Langer said in Southampton. “And he just keeps doing it. He’s got three hundreds on this tour already and I think he’s batted six or seven times. He’s doing everything that we’ve asked of Australian cricketers. He’s making runs, he’s making big runs, he’s knocking that hard and he’s got that look in his eye. Coming into a tough series like this, you like to see those sort of fighting instincts.”
England saw those instincts on day four at Edgbaston, and they did not have much of an answer.