posted on 2019-08-05 02:43:24
posted by Rohit Sankar
Image courtesy: Sydney Herald
Matthew Wade walked across the wicket and embraced Tim Paine, who lifted him up rather excitedly, before acknowledging the warm applause of the Edgbaston crowd upon reaching his third Test century. It wasn't an immensely passionate hug from Wade at least; more of a respectful embrace that enshrouds the dramatic history between two wicket-keeper batsmen who grew up playing cricket in the backyard together.
Paine and Wade were neighbours and backyard cricket mates in the Lauderdale suburb of Hobart. While Wade was more of a tough cricketer who had this innate fierceness about him, Paine, who was three years elder, was a natural cricketer and a talent-oozing child genius who earned a rookie contract with Tasmania at 16 years.
Paine had a seamless wicket-keeping technique and was a gifted stroke maker. While Wade would have to use his raw power to muscle the ball over the fence, Paine could do it with an effortless loft. To have an illustrious neighbour your parents always compare you with is a mental hassle. Wade's concerns were compounded by the fact that he was also a keeper-batsman like Paine.
To top that off, they were both next in line while Brad Haddin enjoyed his Baggy Green stint. At Tasmania, Wade was an understudy to Paine. At 16, he overcame testicular cancer but bad news followed him as Tasmania chose Paine over him every time. With a heavy heart he migrated to Victoria, a move that saw him earn the state captaincy and later a Test cap. He would later return to Tasmania to take over from Paine as their main keeper.
But Paine, who had made his Australia debut and suffered a subsequent exile long before Wade, would still come back to displace him. With runs drying up for Wade - Australia's incumbent keeper then - ahead of the home Ashes in 2017/18, Australia's selectors pulled off a surprising move and recalled Tim Paine to the Test team, a return to national colours after seven years.
What was even more glaring was that Wade was Tasmania's preferred choice of keeper ahead of Paine during this very period. At 32, Paine seemed a stunning choice and the keeper himself expressed his astonishment then at being recalled. "I thought it was pretty close [career being over] if I'm honest," Paine said at the time.
Interestingly, it was Paine's batting form that had tilted the scales towards him. He was also the more naturally gifted keeper and Wade's listless form with the bat did not aid his case.
As fate would have it, the Sandpapergate saga unfolded leading to an overhaul in the Australian team structure and Paine was suddenly catapulted from a fringe player to Australian Test skipper. In every way, Paine was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. His calm demeanor and pleasing personality meant that he fit Australia's requirements then for a mild, yet persuasive skipper.
On the other end of the spectrum was Wade. At 30, his career seemed over then and there. There was Alex Carey being groomed as the next wicket-keeper batsman and Paine, who had replaced him, had gone on to become Test captain in less than six months.
Most would have given up their cricketing dreams at that point. But Wade is cut from a different cloth, one that has less frills, less artwork and solid stitching . He has oodles of this dog-eat-dog spirit and natural grit, a byproduct of his gruelling childhood cricketing sessions with a naturally gifted Paine. Losing meant buying fish and chips for everyone present.
"We [Paine and Wade] have known each other for years," Wade told ESPNCricinfo a few years back. "We used to play games every summer in the backyard. Him and his brother and me and my two cousins used to have some pretty gruelling cricket matches in the backyard. The loser always had to go and get fish and chips at the local shop."
When Wade realised that his keeping dreams would largely hinge on Paine's availability or the lack thereof, he was quick to move to his secondary skill, one that he had treated with a stepmotherly affection all these years - his batting.
"I think Kez [Alex Carey] is going to be the next wicketkeeper for Australia, I think everyone knows that, it's just a matter of time for that to happen," Wade said recently. "I don't see myself solely as a wicketkeeper anymore and I don't feel like I'm pushing for that spot too much anymore."
The move back to Tasmania from Victoria worked wonders for Wade the batsman as he became acquainted with Jeff Vaughan, a diligent batting coach who had this unique quality of building a great rapport with batsmen he mentored. The Bellerive Oval presented Wade with a massive challenge. The bowler friendly wickets in one way forced him to focus on his batting.
Vaughan did not forcibly change Wade's style of batting. That alone was enough for the Tasmanian to place his trust in him. He changed his bat, changed his brash attitude towards batting and let the ball come to him. He respected the bowler, respected the tough wicket at the Bellerive Oval and churned out runs. Plenty of those.
In the 2018/19 season, Wade became one among the only two batsmen (Marcus Harris being the other) to make 1000-plus runs in a season in Shield cricket in the last four years. He knocked off two tons and eight half-centuries and averaged above 60.
Importantly, he also fulfilled every criteria for an Ashes selection. 351 of his runs in the season in Shield cricket came against the Dukes ball, the one used in England.
Wade also went on to score centuries against Northamptonshire and Derbyshire for Australia A with the latter being the fastest List A hundred by an Australian coming off just 45 balls. A 114 against a strong England Lions attack featuring a few England Test bowlers sealed his Ashes spot ahead of a really close competitor in Carey, who had World Cup runs in the country backing his case.
Even then breaking into the Test XI seemed tough until he was backed to translate his domestic form into Test runs at Birmingham, something that he had struggled to do all these years. But this time, it somehow felt different even when his maiden innings lasted just five balls.
In the second essay, as he knocked off a Test ton after six and a half years, it was only apt that Paine was at the non-striker's end. The Australian skipper had overshadowed him through age cricket and nearly ended his International career two years ago.
The metamorphosis to a pure batsman was perhaps spurred by the cageyness of the zealous backyard cricket days where Paine was always a step ahead. The realisation that he could still get into the Australian team without competing for one spot with Paine turned Wade's career around and gave him an Ashes century and a career resurrection most would remember for really long.
Despite years of acquaintance, it is the competitive edge that keeps these two going. Within that weird formality which could embrace any two childhood mates as they enter adulthood might lie the recipe of playing the two of them in the same team, working towards a common goal.