Wade forces the issue
Whenever Victoria batsman Brad Hodge deputised for a resting Ricky Ponting in Australia's ODI team, he felt he was achieving very little by being there. Convinced he was only keeping Ponting's seat warm, Hodge made slim scores on numerous occasions, reasoning it did not matter whether or not he succeeded. Invariably, Hodge would return to the fringes of the national squad, ruminating on how unlucky he was. The possibility of making a sparkling hundred and forcing someone else out of the team never appeared to dawn on him, and he ended his international days with the righteous air of the perennially wronged.
Another Victorian, Matthew Wade, has been keeping Brad Haddin's seat warm in the Caribbean, after Australia's No. 1 Test gloveman left the tour due to personal reasons. Over the first two matches in Barbados and Trinidad, Wade did little to provoke criticism, but not so much to linger in the memory either. His glovework was neat, his batting doughty and his character sturdy. However he did little to change the status quo, as demonstrated by the captain Michael Clarke's steadfastness about Haddin's return for the next home summer.
"In my opinion Brad will still come back into the Test team when he's fully fit and available," Clarke had said before this match. "But the next Test is a long way away, there's a lot of cricket to be played and that's certainly nothing against Wadey. I think he's done everything in his power to put his hand up there and perform. I think he's made the most of his opportunity in Tests, one-day and Twenty20 cricket. I think he'll play a huge role in Australian cricket going forward and he wants to continue to get better like the rest of us."
All that has been changed by Wade's startlingly poised and powerful century on the second morning of the Dominica Test. Unlike Hodge, Wade has made the kind of batting statement that is virtually impossible for the selectors, Clarke included, to ignore. By dragging Australia from 169 for 7 to their eventual 328, Wade showed a counter-attacking instinct of the sort that Haddin hinted at, but at a level of accomplishment more often associated with his storied predecessor Adam Gilchrist. All Haddin's three Test centuries have been made in innings where at least one other Australia batsman passed three figures. Wade's innings was the first Australian score of more than 73 for the entire tour.
While there was some good fortune behind Wade's performance, including a dropped return-catch by Kemar Roach immediately prior to Mitchell Starc's run-out - a dismissal that triggered the keeper's thrilling charge at the bowling - his confidence and presence of mind as he neared the milestone of a first Test century was truly compelling. Having cowed the West Indies bowlers with a trio of sixes and a handful of other boundaries, Wade pushed through the nineties with scarcely a moment's hesitation, and moved from 99 to 103 with a simply played but commandingly placed punch through the covers.
Wade's first reaction was to shout in exultation and punch the air with his batting glove, not a millions miles removed from Gilchrist's celebration when he reached a first Test century in a legendary fourth-innings chase against Pakistan at Bellerive Oval in 1999. Now, as then, Australia's wicketkeeper had seized the match; West Indies' facile batting in the afternoon would only confirm the fact.
Wicketkeeping is one of several areas the selectors will have to assess as they spend the next few months working out whether or not to go back to Haddin. Wade's work behind the stumps has been tidy in extremely challenging circumstances, and it may be argued that he has done better than Haddin managed when he also debuted on West Indian tracks in 2008, and followed up with notable struggles on the subsequent tour of India. Haddin enjoyed several decent days behind the stumps towards the end of the past home summer against India, though his batting had trailed off.
Haddin's leadership, too, is a significant factor for discussion. Though Shane Watson is the formal vice-captain to Clarke, and led Australia in his absence during the Caribbean ODI series that preceded the Tests, Haddin is clearly an important and savvy lieutenant. This can be as apparent off the field as on it, and Clarke has deep respect for a man he began his first-class career alongside. Haddin's captaincy of NSW was also an example that Clarke sought to follow, and their thoughts were commonly in sync across the 4-0 caning of MS Dhoni's team. Wade has shown in this series that he is a capable voice in the field and a sharp observer of batsmen also, but he does not yet have the experience that Haddin can call on if picked against South Africa in November.
That first Test is more than six months away, and in between Wade will take the gloves for a broad assortment of ODI and Twenty20 matches in Ireland, England and Sri Lanka. Over that time the public and the national team will both grow more used to his presence, and he will grow more used to theirs. It is not yet clear exactly how Haddin's personal situation will affect his desire and inclination to travel with the national team again, and he will have been out of the seat a long time by the time Graeme Smith's men arrive in Australia. Clarke will likely have the casting vote on whether Wade usurps the senior man then. Either way, a striking innings at Windsor Park has forced the issue, and has made it highly unlikely that Wade will finish his career with the same sense of 'what if' that is likely to haunt Hodge.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here