August 29, 2013

Inspiring Haddin a positive for Australia

Australia's record-breaking wicketkeeper has overcome personal challenges to play an anchoring role for the team

Ian Healy used to liken a team's wicketkeeper to the drummer in a band: you sit up the back, keep the beat and don't get noticed. That was certainly the case for Brad Haddin in this Ashes series. But he deserves to have been noticed. If a batsman or bowler had set an all-time record for most runs or wickets in a Test series they would be the centre of attention. Haddin should be given similar praise after he broke Rod Marsh's 30-year-old record for the most dismissals in a series.

For Haddin, this series could have been remembered for one bad match with the gloves at Lord's. But he showed his true character and talent by taking up the challenge and his last three Tests were exceptional behind the stumps. I'm sure Haddin will say his record is testament to the bowlers, and they do create the chances, but that he held on to 29 catches in a five-Test series is testament to his skill and mental strength. It is a great credit to him.

His achievement is all the more remarkable given the adversity he has endured in the past 15 months. When he left for Australia's tour of the West Indies early last year, his attention was completely focused on his daughter Mia and her serious illness. He and his wife Karina also welcomed another young child during that period and, as any parent with a newborn would know, it was an exciting but challenging time. To balance caring for a new baby, a seriously ill daughter and the rest of the family was very demanding.

Haddin found that once things had stabilised somewhat at home, the best way for him to move on with his life was to refocus on cricket. I have admired Haddin's temperament and mindset not only because of the challenges surrounding his daughter's illness, but also because, prior to that West Indies tour, he had been left out of Australia's one-day team. At no stage when Haddin has been left out have I seen an angry response or heated comment from him.

Often when senior players are left out based on performance or age, they can be prone to making a bitter comment. History shows that many players in that predicament take the opportunity to fire a shot or two off. Haddin just said that he wanted to go away and perform well enough to make the selectors pick him again. It was a particularly gracious way to handle the challenge and he has done the hard work to get back in the side.

During the Ashes series, he slotted straight back into that senior player role that he filled before he left the team, and he has done so with no bitterness or reluctance. I'm sure Michael Clarke and the senior players found him a terrific ally to have. His wicketkeeping was especially impressive given the challenging, almost subcontinental, conditions.

He spent a lot of time over the stumps to a variety of spinners and accepted a number of terrific chances from thin and thick edges from Nathan Lyon, Steven Smith and Ashton Agar. He was even skilful enough to glove one edge off the bowling of Agar to Clarke at first slip, although to say the fact the appeal was turned down didn't go unnoticed would be an understatement of the highest order. Both teams were still tit-for-tatting about it three Tests later.

With the bat he may only have averaged 22.88, but he made two half-centuries at important times and even his smaller scores contributed to valuable partnerships. Haddin has proven himself a very solid performer with the bat for Australia. Over the course of an extended period, I don't think Australia will feel they are missing out on anything with the bat by having Haddin in the side, and his keeping form is up there with the best in his career.

Haddin turns 36 in October but he remains physically very fit and has always been a hard worker. Perhaps his time away from the game, albeit for such challenging personal reasons, has given him a refreshed approach to cricket. The first thing I noticed fall away for me personally was my desire for the game; that was the warning sign that my time was up. I suspect Haddin is not as jaded as some players might be at the same age. As an older player you are scrutinised more in every series and Haddin is aware of that, but it might be a great motivating force during the home Ashes.

It will be interesting to see how the teams respond during the series in Australia. For the second time in successive Ashes series in England, Australia lost despite statistically having a lot of the best individual performers. But England played the right cricket at the right times, particularly early in the series. They did enough to kill the series off pretty quickly. I think England will feel like they did enough to get the result but that they have room to improve.

Australia will be able to take the larger step forward by way of confidence and belief. I'm sure they will feel they have a more united overall feeling in the team, leadership group and management group. They have stumbled across a batting order that they might be able to stick with for a while. The bowling unit was as a general rule terrific throughout the series.

They will feel they have well and truly challenged England and closed the gap on a team that has performed very well for the past few years. Although it was a 3-0 Ashes retention for England, that may even be a minor psychological boost for Australia. I think it is Australia who can take the biggest leap forward relative to where they were before the series.

Adam Gilchrist was speaking to Brydon Coverdale

Adam Gilchrist played 96 Tests for Australia as a wicketkeeper-batsman and was part of three winning Ashes campaigns