Fearless Haddin is Ashes star turn
"We don't want to get into a situation where we're relying on Brad Haddin to drag us out of trouble every time."
When Australia's batting coach, Michael Di Venuto, said these words in the aftermath of the Boxing Day Test, he was reflecting on an Ashes series in which his team's top order have proven consistently vulnerable in the first innings. But on the first day of Test cricket in Australia for 2014, as Haddin performed his act of dragging for the fifth time in as many matches and took Steven Smith merrily along with him, a blue-blooded SCG crowd of 45,352 had reason aplenty to ask the question: why the hell not?
More sober reflection offers plenty of reasons to worry at how Michael Clarke's team have repeatedly asked Haddin to man the pumps, not least the thought that South Africa in February and March won't be anywhere near as courteous to the tail as England have been. Nonetheless, there has been a wonderfully entertaining and carefree air about the way Australia's platforms for Test victories have been assembled, with Haddin the fearless, fighting and fluent centre of it all.
Visceral though Mitchell Johnson's contribution to the series has been, epitomised by a three-over burst this evening, he would not have been given anywhere near the sorts of totals he bowled behind in Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth or Sydney without Haddin's interventions. It has been a common and logical assumption that Johnson will be named Man of the Series. But by lodging a nomination in which he has passed 50 in every first innings while taking sundry catches besides and also serving as Michael Clarke's most trusted lieutenant, Haddin has made a case for a share of the award at the very least.
The SCG's atmosphere may have been a little more New Year's festive than Ashes tense, given the series margin, but Haddin's contribution was very much representative of all he had done in earlier, weightier matches. England's bowlers used the movement on offer decently after an indifferent start, extracting seam when many might have expected a little more swing under cloudy skies. Australia's batsmen responded with strokes either overconfident or indeterminate, conveying a porous technique that has now been evident on seaming surfaces for the best part of a decade.
David Warner's feet were nowhere to a Stuart Broad delivery that moved away enough to flick off stump, Chris Rogers let his guard down and dragged a presumptuous pull shot on to his wicket, Clarke pushed too firmly at a ball moving away from him, Shane Watson reminded anyone who had forgotten about his prominent front pad, and George Bailey fiddled and fell, again demonstrating a weakness against steady bowling in the channel outside off stump that will surely be his millstone if pitted against Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander.
So Haddin walked out with England's bowlers seemingly sure of themselves and their plans, rejoicing in a scoreline of 5 for 97 and gaining most of the help they wanted from an SCG pitch similar to that on which Mohammad Asif had filleted Australia for 127 in 2010. Having marked his guard, Haddin negotiated his first five balls from Broad studiously, gaining a rough appreciation for the way the surface was playing and the manner of the bowling, before walking down the pitch at the end of the over to discuss the match situation with his New South Wales team-mate and leadership protege Smith.
Often, Haddin's innings can begin with a starburst of strokes to announce his arrival, to his batting partner, spectators but most pointedly opponents. This time he settled in for a little over half an hour, reaching 12 from 34 balls. In that period he eluded a review for a catch by James Anderson when ball had hit front and back pad rather than bat, before narrowing his focus on Ben Stokes.
England's youngest and most promising bowler, Stokes has won deserved praise this series for showing sterner stuff than some of his more storied counterparts. But here, as in Perth, Haddin used the Durham allrounder's impatience for another wicket to his advantage, goading him - verbally or otherwise - into the short-pitched bowling that allowed runs to be added crisply and quickly, while coaxing England away from the length that reaped the earlier wickets. In all, Haddin cracked 29 from the 21 balls Stokes hurled at him.
In what seemed like no time at all, Haddin's fifty arrived, inspiring a frustration among the visitors that Stokes articulated after play. "It's just the way he comes out and plays his natural game whatever the situation," he said. "Quite a lot's gone his way but fair play to him, he's played his natural game and taken every chance he's had to get runs and played really well. When he came in today and starts hitting you back over your head you're almost standing there scratching your head thinking 'This isn't meant to happen'..."
While Haddin scrambled on, taking increasingly garish liberties against Anderson among others, Smith was able to construct another innings to underline his immense potential to anchor Australia's middle order for years to come. The WACA Ground again came to mind as Smith grew in confidence as a result of the clarity with which Haddin played. This can be illustrated neatly by the two halves of what became Smith's third Test hundred. In Haddin's company, he reached 55 from 95 balls. After he was dismissed, Smith surged, ransacking 60 from his final 59 deliveries.
"The way he played his shots today was brilliant, to form a partnership with him and get into the position we're in was great," Smith said of Haddin. "We were basically just saying 'Watch the ball closely and have a clear mind', and Brad was certainly clear in what he was doing. It was great to just sit up the other end. In tough circumstances he comes in and tries to switch the momentum of the game and he's done it on numerous occasions in this series."
For numerous occasions, read every occasion that mattered. When Michael Carberry, Alastair Cook and the reluctant nightwatchman James Anderson hopped around in the SCG twilight, now confronted by a score around double the tally hoped for in the minutes after lunch, they were caught in between their two main sources of torment this summer. Ahead of them, at the top of his mark, stood Johnson. Behind them, flashing a pitiless smile while brandishing his gloves, was Haddin.
Australia would do well not to rely on him so completely in future, not least because, at 36, they do not know how far into that future he will keep playing. But for this Ashes series, there has been no reason not to. He has been the man of the hour, and arguably the summer.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here