Leaving it all behind: The trials of Maxwell
Since emerging from such a low that he 'literally hated' cricket, Glenn Maxwell has set his sights on proving himself, and on retaining a feeling he lost long ago
Glenn Maxwell had taken a full step outside his leg stump, and a skip down the pitch. As he helplessly watched leather clatter into timber, he might as well have been on another planet. As the fallout unravelled, he would rather have been. Out of sight, out of mind, a distant orbit away from the madness. Because the reaction to his split-second decision to charge down the wicket and then leave a full inswinger (first ball, no less) was about to rattle him like few other events in his life. Adam Gilchrist – a man not known for hyperbole – called it "the most extraordinary dismissal I've ever seen in the game". Social media did the rest, sending 'Maxi's Leave' (by now, of course, it had a name) at warp speed across the cricket universe.
He wasn't prepared for the response. Not for the internet memes, the endless replays or the repetitive questions. Certainly not for becoming a punchline. In hours, Maxi's Leave became more than the sum of its parts, a lightning rod for the central Maxwell argument. In the eyes of many, this was archetypal Big Show; a vacuous failing of style over substance, and perhaps even of the system itself. Maxwell had heard the criticisms before, but the din grew louder and more persistent this time, like rain crashing onto a sheet metal roof, until he couldn't get it out of his head. When he heard suggestions of spot-fixing, he could scarcely believe what was happening. He didn't know why he'd left the damn ball. God knows he had asked himself enough times, trying to find reason in something he knew deep down he couldn't explain. Quickly, he was gripped by despair.
"I was pretty depressed," he remembers. "I was flat. I was low.
"I started to really hate the game."
It had happened on a balmy Brisbane night, a few days before the end of 2014. It was a cruel finish to the most insane year. In the Indian Premier League, he had discovered an addictive, adrenaline-fueled cricketing high. At Kings XI Punjab, Maxwell began the tournament with 95 from 43 on the Friday, 89 from 54 on the Sunday, and 95 from 43 again on the Tuesday. By campaign's end, he had made 552 runs at a strike-rate of 187.75 – no player in the IPL, before or since, has scored that many runs at that speed. Across five April days, his life changed dramatically. He had made his Test debut the year before, but the IPL was the gateway to the masses. Packed stadiums, fanatical fans and the world's elite cricketers playing day-in, day-out for six straight weeks. Maxwell's domination of the tournament elevated him to demigod status in India, and his relaxed, likeable nature earned him a reputation as a man of the people. Even today, the impact lingers on Facebook, the contemporary barometer for popularity; he is the most followed Australian athlete on the platform.
"I just remember the game feeling really easy – it was almost like I could see what the bowler was going to do before (he did it)," Maxwell says.
"That just felt enjoyable. It wasn't a job. It wasn't a bore going to cricket. It was exciting because it felt like I was about to entertain a crowd, and like I was about to win a game for my team."
But 2014 had also dealt an unthinkable low. The death of Phillip Hughes had shattered him. No cricketer had imagined they could lose a friend and teammate in the circumstances they did, and for many, the shock only exacerbated the grief. Maxwell and then housemate Aaron Finch, who had been one of Hughes' closest mates, struggled to deal with their emotions. They went through different stages of grieving at different times, unable to find ways to console one another when they needed it most.
"We were both struggling pretty heavily from it," he says. "It was a pretty average time."
Maxwell found he couldn't concentrate on cricket. He was daydreaming in the field, imagining other things he could be doing with his time. When he batted, he got the shakes when short balls came his way. He was lashing out at people he knew didn't deserve it, driven by an anger that was at odds with his usually cool demeanour. He started doubting his ability at the elite level. In that summer's Big Bash opener, he copped a rough caught behind decision while attempting a reverse sweep. He walked off feeling as if the world was conspiring against him.
Then a week later, he walked onto the Gabba, advanced at the first ball he faced, shouldered arms, and his world caved in.
"That was the hardest thing for me to understand – I was at such a high at some stage during 2014 where I felt like I was hitting the ball so well," he says. "To get to such a low, where I was charging down the wicket and not playing a shot and getting bowled, it was hard to fathom.
"Mentally I was in a lot of trouble."
It took some timely interventions from a few trusted friends for Maxwell to begin making his way out of his fog. One of those was Ricky Ponting, with whom he had played a handful of T20 matches in the preceding years, at Surrey and then Mumbai. They shared a coffee, and their thoughts on cricket and life. Maxwell had idolised Ponting growing up, and now a kind of kinship had developed. Even through a short time together, he had felt understood.
"I did mention at one stage to him that I wasn't enjoying it – that I literally hated the game and I didn't want to be there," he says. "It was a chore to go to training, it was a chore to go to games.
"He was able to find something that sparked inside of me."
Ponting had a simple piece of advice: get into a contest. He had seen the competitive animal in Maxwell, a trait that pushes many professional sportspeople to the heights they reach. Cricket in the immediate aftermath of the Hughes tragedy had been understandably sedate; fast bowlers had been reluctant to drop the ball short, fielders had curbed their sledging. Maxwell's blood couldn't boil amid a détente.
When you find a contest, that's when you're at your best, Ponting told him. You'll enjoy the game – you'll find that again.
He remembers going out in his next match and taking aim at the bowler via a few choice words before he had even faced a ball. It was a self-motivating tactic not uncommon among cricketers; Steve Waugh had adopted the strategy with such success that cluey opponents began refusing to take the bait. But Maxwell found what he was looking for.
"He went straight back at me, and just all of a sudden that contest was there … it was him versus me," he says.
"It got me up and about, and ready to play again."
The World Cup that followed marked the end of a 12-month cycle that had started with the highs of the IPL. It ended in a similar vein. Maxwell hammered a record-breaking 51-ball hundred against Sri Lanka and played an important role in Australia lifting the trophy. With a specific job description, consistent selection, and meaningful contributions, he felt like he belonged. That was no small deal for the Victorian, who viewed himself as being misunderstood as a batsman since he had first started playing state cricket. This pigeonholing of him as a lower-order white-ball basher would continue to eat at him in coming years, however it was easy to ignore amid World Cup adulation.
"To be able to call the Australian cricket team your home is something that is pretty special," he says. "It was a nice feeling, to feel at home in that side."
More than three years on, it is something he is trying to rediscover.
Late last month, Maxwell touched down in Brisbane for the Australian limited-overs squads' first training camp under new coach Justin Langer. He was jetlagged and feeling the effects of six weeks of non-stop IPL. Through a blur of cities, hotels and stadiums, he had faced just 120 deliveries across 12 matches – an average of 10 balls per match. Playing for Delhi under Ponting, a lack of runs early in the tournament, and strong form from others, had seen him nudged out of the top four. It left him feeling short of opportunity. On the Sunday in Brisbane, he walked out to bat at Allan Border Field in a 25-over training match. Langer stood at square leg, acting as umpire, and for the first 20 balls or so, Maxwell couldn't find the middle of his bat. Then, slowly, it began to come, time at the crease reasserting itself as his most precious commodity. He eased a six over long off from the bowling of Marcus Stoinis. He effortlessly flicked Andrew Tye onto the roof of the neighbouring office building. When he walked off, he felt content that his time had been well spent. With a new regime and positions up for grabs, he wanted to make practice count, because he knows he has work to do.
Sometimes it has been through fault of his own, other times not so much, but too often, Maxwell's cricketing missteps and misgivings have been played out for public consumption. It has cast him occasionally in the public sphere as an egomaniac, though in truth he is an amiable man who is funny in a self-deprecating kind of way.
Since the last World Cup, he has been dropped three times from national colours. He has had a last-minute move to New South Wales blocked by Victoria (only to then be omitted from the Bushrangers' first Sheffield Shield match that season), and been publicly criticised by either Darren Lehmann or Steve Smith over his approach to training, his lack of first-class hundreds, and comments about then state and national teammate Matthew Wade.
On the flipside are his achievements. He has made the second-highest T20I score in history (145), a brilliant maiden Test hundred in India (during a tour in which Smith was the only other Australian to post three figures), the highest individual score in the Sheffield Shield for five years (278), and become the first player to take three wickets and score a century in the same T20I.
To a point, Maxwell acknowledges the former list as lessons that have helped him along what has been a winding journey. Among the latter, he talks at length about the Test hundred and the massive Shield hundred. It isn't difficult to establish why; he knows the murmurs persist about the type of batsman he is (he even refers to it as a "stigma") and wants desperately to convince people otherwise.
"I'm proud of the way I've probably changed a lot of perceptions over the last 12 months," he says. "It's been tough work trying to shy away from that 'T20 specialist' tag and show people I could play those long innings.
"Unfortunately I held that 'slogging' tag for a longer period of time than I probably should've. I probably saw myself as quite a technical batsman, and a guy who could play long innings."
And there lies the rub: the view of many onlookers, versus the view of the man himself. Maxwell believes – or perhaps wants to believe – that the tide of public opinion has shifted on the back of his recent Test and Shield returns, and now falls largely in line with his. The counter-argument would point to the fact he was dropped from the Test team just three matches after that Ranchi hundred, while in the Shield after Christmas, he averaged 19.5 from six innings.
He is also in an unusual kind of dilemma. For every spectacular T20 innings he plays for Australia, where his outrageous batting gifts are most widely on show to the public, Maxwell is edging closer towards completing an unwanted self-fulfilling prophecy. To that end, even his successes can come at a price.
It comes as a little surprise that Maxwell lists AB de Villiers as the player he has most enjoyed watching over the past decade or so. It is also instructive; no batsman has managed to combine short-form innovation with ruthless Test match domination quite like de Villiers.
"He's someone I've really looked up to," Maxwell says. "He's true entertainment."
The Australian is at pains to suggest any comparisons to the legendary South African leave him a little red faced, and are misplaced. Take their inventiveness in isolation though, and likenesses do become clear. While de Villiers has led the way universally in that respect with his remarkable 360-degree shot-making repertoire, Maxwell has been at the forefront for Australia through the same period.
Where de Villiers separated himself from the chasing pack was via his ability to blend consistency with pure entertainment. It is a combination reserved for only a selection of even the greatest batsmen – de Villiers, Lara, Gilchrist, Richards among them – and Maxwell has at times appeared to suffer as a man conflicted between a will to thrill and a desire to be a reliable run-maker.
The 29-year-old can be found at the top of most 'strike-rate' lists: he has the highest T20I strike-rate in history, the highest ODI strike-rate in history (min 1000 runs), and among the top 50 run-scorers in IPL history, his scoring rate of 161.13 puts him number one.
Maxwell attributes those statistics at least in part to the early phase of his career, when he was regularly tasked with blazing from ball one in the lower order. As a young player, a part of him loved the license, but in the long run he feels it cost him.
"I used to love hitting the ball over the rope, used to love hitting boundaries every ball and feel like I was controlling the game from ball one," he says.
"As you get older (you) realise that's not possible – teams do come up with plans against you.
"I was probably a little bit naïve in my early days. I rode my luck and was able to take bowlers on without really thinking about the consequences.
"As the consequences come – you get dropped, you end up back at your state, you're struggling for runs there – it can become a downward spiral pretty quickly."
Since the 2015 World Cup, his strike-rate has dropped by 10 runs. Against India in Melbourne in January 2016, he made a mature 96 in a run chase to win an ODI. They are small pieces in the reinvention he must prove to himself he can achieve. It is a work in progress, and one that now has a due date: the 2019 World Cup.
When Maxwell was publicly panned by his then captain Smith about the need to 'train smarter', he was left frustrated. The previous winter, he had diligently prepared for the Bangladesh Test series during long, lonely sessions against the bowling machine at the MCG, honing his sweep shot to the left-arm orthodox spin he knew he was set to face.
He had identified a need for change in his training habits, and began working with Stars head coach Stephen Fleming on methods to improve that aspect of his professionalism. Fleming had encouraged him to present himself as more of a leader to the younger players, both in terms of his training and how he carried himself away from the game. Ponting, too, had assisted in the maturation.
"I'd probably been working on that for 12 months before (Smith's comments)," he says. "It was more me identifying things … it was a long process that I was already working on."
Though both gifted batsmen, Maxwell and Smith have contrasting training regimens. Where Smith is famed for his marathon net sessions, Maxwell has tailored his training differently. He again credits Ponting, who has worked with him closely this year with Australia's T20 side and at Delhi, for having devised an efficient program.
"Not everyone benefits from facing 100 bowlers running in in the nets," he says. "(Ponting) was really good at identifying that with me, and giving me something to work on constantly.
"He's got a really good eye for technique … you feel like you're always improving around him."
With Ponting to again work closely with the Australians under the Langer regime (he is set to join the limited-overs squad currently in the UK), Maxwell looks likely to be a chief beneficiary. He is also optimistic about the new head coach.
"I'm looking forward to picking (Langer's) brain to see how he goes about it, and how he thinks I should go about it," he says.
"I know him and Rick will probably be pretty similar in the way they think about the game – I know they text a lot."
Langer and Ponting will have high expectations of Maxwell. They know the ability he possesses. They are also aware that, with the suspensions of Smith and David Warner, he is now the second-most experienced batsman in the squad. He is also older than Smith, and for a global context, he has three weeks on Virat Kohli. In short, the impetuosity of youth is no longer an excuse. Maxwell insists he is comfortable with that.
"I'm looking forward to playing a leadership role within this team," he says, "and being one of those senior players that the younger players can look up to and hopefully learn from."
He is also eyeing a place in the top four, where he has been given opportunities only sparingly in the past. The move up the order would regularly give him the responsibility of spending longer in the middle, of building an innings that can provide the foundation of a total.
"Over the last nine months in my development, I've really shown some improvement in batting longer periods of time," he says, and again you get the feeling he is a man who sees the need to push his case.
"If there does come an opportunity where I can bat higher, I can hopefully show the Australian public what I can do."
He is on the verge of receiving the chance he craves. Against England, the world's No.1 team, he could well have five opportunities to impress. Langer has spoken about the time for talk being over for the Australians with respect to their on-field behaviours, and the onus now being on them to put those words into practice against England.
He could apply the same philosophy to Maxwell.
As he looks across the next few weeks in the UK, and onto the World Cup in 12 months' time, Maxwell's mind also journeys back. To the 2015 tournament, when he felt he belonged in a national side that went on to become world champions. It was just three months on from 'Maxi's Leave', a time when he had started to wonder if cricket was even part of his future. Yet there he was, revelling in the abandon of his role, and savouring World Cup glory.
"I was able to play free, reckless cricket, without any sort of consequence," he remembers. "It was go for your life and enjoy it."
The pitfalls have been plenty since. Even this year, he has been dropped from the ODI side. But now he is back, again, and searching to replicate that feeling of belonging. If it happens, it will be different this time, but all the more satisfying if it unfolds as he sees it in his mind's eye.
"As you grow older, you look forward to new challenges," he says. "Playing the reckless, no-consequences game is great, but it's the stuff you do that's really hard for the team that you can enjoy even more.
"It's all well and good slogging when the game's done and dusted and you've got nothing to lose, but to get your team out of trouble … to a decent score, or over the line, is something that's special."
In a matter of days, Australia embark on a new era. Of Langer, and of Paine.
And maybe, just maybe, of Maxwell.