AS A 16-year-old, Matthew Wade’s biggest care in the world was whether he’d choose football or cricket. Then he was told he had cancer.
It was diagnosed almost by accident. Wade was belted in the groin during a game of state football and then, while he was away for a school camp, he realised something wasn’t right.
”I went in and got it checked and the doctor basically said if I hadn’t been hit in the testicle, maybe I would never have known the tumour was there, so I was pretty lucky I got hit in the nuts and got it checked,” Wade told The Saturday Age. ”It was just a surreal sort of thing. It didn’t hit home until I sat there and they told me basically that I was going to go through chemotherapy and lose my hair and all that sort of stuff. As a young bloke at 16, I think that’s when it hit home that this was pretty serious. Before that I didn’t really know, I just thought I’d have an operation and it would be taken care of. Then, sitting down and talking about it, I realised how serious it was and I was pretty lucky to get through it.”
He needed those qualities to get through two cycles of cancer treatment, which knocked him around in ways he hadn’t expected. The experience also changed his outlook at a time when Wade – a tough in-and-under midfielder whose father, Scott Wade, played 12 games for Hawthorn in the 1980s – was nearing AFL draft age.
”For a couple of years I really just sat back and enjoyed the little things. I wasn’t as driven for a period,” Wade said. He began a plumbing apprenticeship and kept playing both sports – VFL for Tasmania and first-grade cricket in Hobart – without thinking he would reach the top level in either. ”When I got diagnosed with testicular cancer, that was at a pretty crucial time for my footy. I kept playing, but it wasn’t probably as intense as what it could have been. I floated through that period and started the apprenticeship because I thought professional sport was out of the question.
”I still tried to train between cycles [of chemo], but it was too hard to do it at the intensity I wanted so I let it take a back seat. I remember batting out here [on Bellerive Oval] two or three months later in an under-19s game. I wanted to keep playing, I just never thought I would play at the highest level. I just thought I’d play first-grade cricket and footy, do my apprenticeship, and that would be me.”
The cricket-footy dilemma resolved itself without Wade having to make a decision. His grade and national under-19 efforts earned him a rookie contract with Tasmania, and his ambition returned. ”I realised if I was going to do something, I was going to do it properly.”
For Wade, who was behind Tim Paine in the queue for the gloves in Tasmania’s Sheffield Shield team, that meant making a plan. He could have stayed and forged a career as a specialist batsman, but instead looked around the country and backed himself to overtake Adam Crosthwaite in Victoria for the 2007-08 season. He was 19 and it felt like a big move.
”It’s the biggest decision I’ve ever made to date, to make the move to Victoria, and I thank my parents, I suppose, for pushing me out the door a little bit. I spoke to my old man, who played a few games for Hawthorn … he went over for a brief time and had a crack at it, then came back probably earlier than what he wanted to. He said: ‘Home’s always here. You can always get on a plane and come back if you want to’. Thankfully I made the decision to move over, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Still, Wade had to fight. Teammates remind him occasionally of the impulsive reverse sweep that cost him his wicket in Perth towards the end of his first season with Victoria. The shot also cost him a spot in the shield final, which the Bushrangers lost to NSW. He began to make amends the following season. A maiden first-class century in Hobart was followed by a vital contribution in a winning final, at the Junction Oval, and it felt like a turning point.
But the innings that convinced teammates of his strength came a year later in the title defence at the MCG. Coming in at 5-60, they recall Wade telling Queensland swing bowler Chris Swan, who had pointed to the scoreboard, that it would tell a different story on day five. It did; Wade rescued the Bushrangers with a defiant 96 and Victoria won by 457 runs. ”That said a lot about his character,” a teammate said. ”He doesn’t back down to anyone.”
During Wade’s lifetime, Australia has had three regular wicketkeepers. At the time of his move to Victoria, Adam Gilchrist was embarking on what turned out to be his last summer, and Brad Haddin was ready to inherit the gloves after a long wait. On one level, Wade was just trying to get a first-class game, and he found out quickly that he needed to bring his glovework up to scratch. On another level, he was looking further ahead.
”My decision was bigger picture. I had the opportunity to stay in Tasmania and try to pursue a career as a batter in the middle order somewhere, but I decided, at my age and the way things were going in Australian cricket, I had to look at the big picture. I’m not going to sit here and say I made the decision based on playing for Australia, but I didn’t want to look back and wish I’d had a crack.”
This week, national selector John Inverarity confirmed that in one-day cricket, Wade had replaced Haddin as Australia’s first-choice gloveman and that the intention was to take both on the Test tour of the Caribbean. There, two of the feistiest men in Australian cricket can fight for the gloves. ”I don’t want to get too far ahead,” Wade said. ”I’m concentrating on this [one-day] series, game to game, but if I got the chance to go to the West Indies, hopefully the selectors take me and Brad, it would be awesome. Hopefully I can play a few one-day games over there, a few Twenty20s, then just get a feel for what goes into a big tour like that.”