Brad Haddin's well played fifty
Brad Haddin looks out across the Gabba with the hunger of a desert traveller happening upon an oasis. The first Ashes Test is also his 50th and his first at home in near enough to two years.
There is a streetwise manner to Haddin that conveys his age and his awareness - at 36 he is old enough to have been playing for Australia at a time when defeat was unthinkable. But surveying the home of summer's first Test, all verdant turf and sunshine, he is happy to lapse into the lyrical.
"Matthew Hayden always used to say there's no better place to be than the first Test of an Australian summer at the Gabba," Haddin told ESPNcricinfo. "The excitement about it is just massive and that's how I feel leading into this."
Usually such lines can be ignored as mere hyperbole but in Haddin's case the journey back to Brisbane has given them plenty of meaning. For six horrible months in 2012 he cared not a bit for cricket, as he sat at the hospital bedside of his seriously ill daughter, Mia. Haddin was in the West Indies when word reached him of her worsening condition; he flew home immediately and would not countenance another day in the game until she began to stabilise.
Even after returning to play for New South Wales, he spent as much time with Mia in hospital as he did on the field, sleeping by her side more than once during domestic fixtures with the Blues. Eighteen months on from the episode, Haddin still baulks at speaking about it, but is happy to admit the milestone of 50 Tests has been made richer by the personal battles he fought along the way to get there.
"I've always said I never doubted I could come back to this level, and if I did have any doubts about it I wouldn't have come back to play," Haddin said. "Circumstances allowed me to come back to cricket and I never had any doubt I'd be back here.
"I still think my best cricket's in front of me - if I didn't think it was I wouldn't have pushed to come back. Personal milestones are something you think about more as your time's done, but I'm proud of that. It's been a big 18 months for myself and my family, so it's going to be an exciting day."
Haddin's return to the Australian team was no easy road either. His batting and wicketkeeping form had been ebbing away before the short-lived visit to the Caribbean, and remedial work on both took place as he established himself once more with New South Wales. The incumbent Matthew Wade was doing well against South Africa and Sri Lanka, though his errors behind the stumps left a slight avenue open to the older man. That avenue became wider with the retirements of Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey, and the weight of experience they took with them.
Even so, Haddin was not called up for the fateful tour of India earlier this year, biding his time at home until the call came to fly over as injury cover on what had become an increasingly dysfunctional traipse across the subcontinent. Haddin flew into a team riven by the decision to suspend four players in Mohali. When Wade's ankle injury necessitated another change to the team, Haddin kept wicket neatly in the third Test, while in the evenings younger players gravitated towards him, a figure of honesty and perspective but also humour.
The Indian crucible showed the team still needed a senior man like Haddin, irrespective of longer-term plans for Wade to retain the gloves. He was reinstated for the Ashes, not only as wicketkeeper but also vice-captain. In England his role covered the numerous facets required of a strong deputy, from tactical assistance for Michael Clarke on the field and in the team room, to off-field responsibility for keeping team-mates relaxed and grounded.
"I think we're a pretty good mix. I don't want his job I can tell you that," Haddin said of Clarke. "I feel now the role I have in the Test team coming back from England and now, I feel you can put your mark more on this group and I'm enjoying that role. I have no intentions about trying to become a captain; I'm comfortable with my role as vice-captain and helping the team in that way."
Having been through what he had with Mia, the tense insularity of the team he re-joined was anathema to Haddin, and he set about rekindling the sorts of constructive relationships and attitudes that define strong teams almost as much as on-field success. On plenty of occasions during the Ashes tour, Haddin could be found guiding younger players, including David Warner, Steven Smith, Nathan Lyon and even Clarke, who learned much from Haddin's earlier freewheeling stints as captain of New South Wales.
Haddin does not suffer fools, though he has found time for rascals. His support of Warner through a year of tribulations, many of them self-inflicted, has demonstrated a rare degree of care and attention for a player who may yet prove critical to Australia's Ashes chances. Though uneasy about suggestions of keeping watch over Warner by day and by night, Haddin is happy to quantify the value he sees in a man so nearly sent home from England.
"I don't think David needs anymore looking after than anyone else in the team," Haddin said. "But he's a fierce competitor out there and we're a better team for having him around. He brings that passion for winning cricket games. He's great for our group and rascals win you comps as well. They're not scared; they enjoy the game and enjoy competing.
"Off-field is a massive part of being vice-captain, the stuff out on the field is the easy stuff. Behind the scenes you're making sure your group's got a smile on their face, they're not worrying about things they don't need to worry about and they're just enjoying the game of cricket. You're looking after your mates, and that's a big role of the vice-captain, to make sure come game day there's no baggage and we just get out there and play the game for what it is."
The battle for the Ashes will define the careers of many players, not least Haddin himself. Contests with England have drawn out Haddin's best, from a century at Cardiff in 2009 and Brisbane the following year, to a memorable bid for victory at Trent Bridge five months ago and the record for most dismissals in a series. He winces when reminded that Brisbane means he will have played 50 Tests without once being part of a winning Ashes team, as telling a statistic about Australia's recent years of decline as any other.
"It does make the goal pretty clear," he said. "Ashes campaigns are great to play in and I've been privileged enough to play in three of them now. The hype and theatre is outstanding, and this one's no different. It's a good feeling; it's a lot more settled than it was last time going to England.
"We can talk about saying we got close and we played better cricket in that series, more a brand of cricket we wanted to moving forward in the series, but the bottom line is England won 3-0, and we've got to come out here on our home soil and find ways to up the ante in our game and compete for longer periods to turn that result around."
As for how Australia can get there, Haddin proposes a simple method and attitude for each member of the Australian team: prepare thoroughly, do your job, and show as much joy in the success of others as your own.
"You can overcomplicate it and use fancy words and analyse things too much, but everyone's got to do their job," Haddin said. "Guys will have good days, guys will get hundreds or five-fors, but you've got to enjoy the moments when your team-mates do well. Your turn will come around and you've got to enjoy the success of your mates in your own hard times. Do your job and create that environment that allows you to enjoy the success you have."
Given the trials, trips and snares Haddin has encountered on the way to the Gabba, few could possibly begrudge him and his family a belated Ashes triumph.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here