Wade vindicates his promotion
On Test match eve, Michael Clarke was posed an earnest question: having reclassified Mitchell Johnson as an allrounder, was Australia's captain giving any thought to promoting him to No. 6, ahead of Matthew Wade? Generally Clarke will give any question its due, even if most of his answers tend to be towards the safe side. This time, though, his response was pointedly dismissive.
"He won't be batting No. 6 ahead of Wade," Clarke said. "He is a genuine top-order batsman, Matthew Wade. It's just that he keeps, so batting at six or seven gives him more time to recover. He has been hitting the ball really well [though] hasn't made a big score for a while, so I wouldn't be surprised if you see him walk out and make a hundred in this Test match."
Emphatic as those words were, they paled next to the actions with which Wade vindicated his middle-order posting on the third morning at the SCG. In guiding the tail through the morning and making a joyous century, Wade set Australia up for a much improved third-day performance in which Sri Lanka were hurried towards defeat. There is even a case to be made that Australia's wicketkeeper should be considered for a higher commission than No. 6. At the very least, he should be acknowledged as Australia's best allrounder - more reliable than Johnson, more durable than Shane Watson.
As he did in Dominica last April, guiding Australia out of awkward circumstances with another compelling century, Wade arrived at the wicket at a moment on the second evening when the game was slipping from his team's grasp. He was cautious early on, even a little uncertain, as he tried to get acquainted with the turning ball. The early passages of a Wade innings can appear hesitant, almost apologetic, for he commits time to establishing himself deliberately, not manoeuvring the ball around with the alacrity of Michael Hussey.
But there is invariably a moment in Wade's innings when he clicks up several gears, going from a posture of reacting to the circumstances to an altogether more assertive one where his intent is to set the tone for proceedings. In Dominica, that moment had been when he passed 50. Earlier this summer against South Africa in Brisbane, Wade stodged his way to two from 23 balls, before cracking a straight drive that nearly took the head off Rory Kleinveldt, then cutting him to the boundary next ball. Wade plays himself in carefully, but having done so he feels free to unleash.
In Sydney the point at which Wade declared his intent sticks in the memory not so much for the runs that were gathered as for the pain that was inflicted. On 22 he had endured a torturous period in which he was given out caught behind and escaped via DRS - which spotted a no-ball in addition to the absence of an edge. Next he was dropped at short leg, and finally given out caught at bat pad off Rangana Herath's bowling - this dismissal was also overturned via the DRS, but it was clear that a change in approach was required.
In the same over Wade responded to a pair of similarly pitched deliveries from Herath by sweeping with a great deal of venom. Twice he knelt down to play the shot, twice he connected sweetly, and twice Dimuth Karunaratne was sent hopping around the infield after being struck stinging blows to the body. From this over Wade was far more committed in his intentions and went to stumps well set on 47.
A series of indifferent strokes and questionable judgements by the other batsmen had left Wade with only the tail for company on the third morning, and his innings resumed in a collected manner. Again he followed the pattern of the evening before, gathering himself and reading the circumstances before going on the offensive. This time the loss of wickets forced Wade into greater aggression, but when he chose to attack after the arrival of the last man Jackson Bird he did so with breathtaking precision and power, going from 70 to 101 in 18 blistering balls.
Nuwan Pradeep felt the brunt, as Wade bisected the two men roaming the offside boundary early in an over, before taking advantage of the field coming up to stop the single by cuffing behind point for another. On a pitch Phillip Hughes had described as difficult to drive on, Wade's timing was beyond compare, pinging further boundaries to cover and wide long off. He saved his best for the shot that took him from 97 to 101, gliding with power to the square side of deep cover and racing in ebullient celebration towards the dressing room.
Given that this will be the last match in which Michael Hussey takes a place in the middle order, it was a performance to hearten Australia, expert in its rhythm and decisive in its execution. Wade's wicketkeeping has a little further to go, particularly on the higher bouncing surfaces of Australia, but his fighting instincts and batting power to give them full vent offer tungsten to the middle order at a time when there is brittleness elsewhere.
As for where Wade might bat in the future, it is worth remembering another line from Clarke, which he uttered in the wake of the Dominica innings. "I think if he plays the way he's been playing," Clarke had said, "there's no doubt he could play as a batsman." Those words ring truer now than ever.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here