Matthew Wade’s poor dismissal cost Australia its ascendancy over India in third Test
Test cricket being a game that places a premium on players who swing the momentum of the contest, one who can take three quick wickets is a precious asset.
India’s fortune on the second day of the Sydney Test was that it found a new one. Australia’s downfall was that his name was Matthew Wade.
How to summarise the carnage wrought by Wade’s intemperance in the half-hour before lunch?
Australia’s number five had moved comfortably to 13 and Australia 3-232 on a wicket favouring the batsmen. At the other end, Steve Smith had reached 60, gradually rediscovering his jerky, hyperactive mojo.
Runs were coming at four an over and Australia’s first day of batting dominance for the summer loomed.
Then Wade began his ragged, premeditated foray down the track to Ravindra Jadeja, flung his bat wildly and sent the ball steepling towards the safe hands of Jasprit Bumrah at deep mid-on.
Why? No-one was quite sure.
The immediate implications for Australia were diabolical.
Needlessly exposed to the second new ball before lunch, Cameron Green laboured for 21 deliveries before Bumrah trapped him in front. On the other side of the break, Bumrah snuck one straight through the gate of Tim Paine.
In 12 dire overs, Australia lost 3-23, squandering the morning ascendancy of Smith and Marnus Labuschagne’s century partnership.
Later, India’s steady progress in reply only reinforced the view that Australia’s total of 338 was probably 75-100 below par.
Wade’s departure was not only an abject disappointment in and of itself — a companion piece to his cringe-worthy first-innings demise in Melbourne, where he admitted he’d been a slow learner at Test level — it exposed his ongoing selection as a temporary solution to a problem that no longer exists.
In the wake of the Cape Town disgrace, Wade’s tough-guy posture and veteran nous were reassuring in a team shorn of three of its top four batsmen.
In that patchwork eleven, he made two Ashes hundreds that won him many credits.
But he’s now a zombie presence, having passed 50 only once in the 12 innings since facing England. At 33, he can’t be said to represent the future.
But then who does? If we are to accept that Green requires patience and backing in the challenging all-rounder role, on a last-out, first-in basis, Travis Head leads the uninspiring field of eligible 20-somethings, ahead of Kurtis Patterson (a Test centurion with no recent form) and … erm … Nic Maddinson?
Truthfully, the national selectors missed a trick a long time ago.
Faced with the repeated failures of others in home Tests, they refused to grant a single chance to perhaps the most obvious candidate, Glenn Maxwell.
Was it the cheerful grin that shunted him below gun-slinging Wade? Is he forever pigeon-holed as a limited overs specialist?
Other than Smith, Maxwell is actually Australia’s most recent Test centurion against India. He is also a more impactful part-time bowler than either Wade or Head, and a more dynamic fielder than both combined.
Numbers can’t be generated to explain his many ancillary weapons, nor the uncertainty they create in opponents.
Put simply, Maxwell has been the victim of unevenly applied standards.
Since his last Test axing, for instance, he’s averaged considerably more runs in the Sheffield Shield than Marnus Labuschagne had when selected for the Sydney Test two summers ago.
Among the batsmen with inferior first-class records who have leapfrogged him since 2015 are the emblematic figures of various Australian debacles: Cameron Bancroft, Joe Burns, Mitchell Marsh, Aaron Finch and Marcus Harris. In Maxwell’s time, even Hilton Cartwright has played a home Test.
Anyway, for now there is only what Australia has.
Friday saw the resumption of Smith’s century-making brilliance, which came with a certain edge. All innings he violently hammered his bat into the crease as the bowler approached, apparently a reminder to grip the bat more tightly.
Whatever it was, it worked. It took a brilliant side-on throw from Ravindra Jadeja — also India’s most damaging bowler with four wickets — to finally remove him and end Australia’s innings.
Smith’s 131 from 226 deliveries, his 14th Test century on Australian soil, was brought up with an unusually aggressive celebration, which almost ended with a rolled ankle.
During a drinks break interview soon after, television viewers learned that it had meant a little extra to the former Australian captain. It was also just a little bit weird.
“I’m reading lots of things people are saying about my form, but I think there’s a difference between out of form and out of runs,” Smith said, his contorted face dripping with sweat, his words with condescension.
Given the failure of those around him and Australia’s suboptimal total, it was a smug, charmless interlude, revealing a player who is completely absorbed in his own world and, for all his phenomenal achievements, strangely insecure.
Australia needs to plug some holes in its batting line-up, certainly. The state of its leadership stocks might be the next major quandary.