How Glenn Maxwell ended his biggest show
Cricket had stopped being fun for one of the game's most fun-loving players. Glenn Maxwell explains how the truth helped reignite his passion
Louis Cameron is a Melbourne-based journalist. A former Victorian Bushrangers fast bowler, Louis joined the cricket.com.au team with assistance from the Australian Cricketers' Association's Internship Program in 2016.
"How you going, Maxi?"
A perfectly reasonable query. Thoughtful. One mate checking in with another. In the bubble of the Australian cricket team living an abnormal life of constant scrutiny, travel, hotels, playing, performing, it's a daily touchpoint. An open-ended question with an assumed reply.
"Yeah, fine. Going well. You?"
Glenn Maxwell was lying. A white lie. Not a sinister one. He gave the answer others wanted to hear. Don't need to bring my mates down, he thought. It was easier to lie. Once you say it enough, maybe it isn't even really a lie anymore. Maxwell wanted to believe it so much that sometimes he actually did.
But it was a charade designed to keep others happy and himself from having to confront a reality that frightened him. For Maxwell, the performance wasn't stopping on the field.
"When you're on tour, we see everyone every day," he tells cricket.com.au.
"You just go, 'Yes, I'm fine. Yes, I'm fine'.
"And then there comes a stage where you just can't say it anymore. I just got to that stage."
So how was Maxi really going?
Not well. Definitely not fine. The game he had loved since he was a kid wasn't fun anymore. Even putting the pads on triggered its own sense of dread. Maxwell hates the nickname 'The Big Show' that has stuck to him like chewing gum on the sole of his shoe, much more the notion that it was self-appointed. Yet as much he detests it, it is just a little bit accurate. On the field, he is a big show. People want to watch him play the game that consumes him. Kids, especially, love Glenn Maxwell. What appears reckless abandon with the bat often masks more intricate strategy but, to the next generation, he sums up what is fun about cricket. Sixes, reverse sweeps, boundary-line catches, bullet throws from the boundary.
"It's a game that I've loved, since I can even remember being able to walk," says Maxwell, "and to have so many negative thoughts was quite alarming."
Maxwell was pretending he was fine. Justin Langer saw through the act. At the start of the last home summer, the national men's coach asked him how he was going and this time pierced the mask.
"I'm not going that well, actually," Maxwell told his coach.
Maxwell had been putting on a big show. Doing a pretty good job of it, too. The day after his admission to Langer, he spanked a hapless Sri Lankan side in a T20 at Adelaide Oval for 62 off only 28 balls. He then commentated a run-out while he was fielding. And doing the running out.
"There's only so much to the front that you can show every day," he says. "It can certainly wear you down when you're putting on a mask of being an international, domestic, whatever cricketer you are.
"When you're putting that on every day for people to see in public, it can really weigh you down and you can forget who you are, and forget what sort of person you are."
Over the previous 10 months dating back to the start of 2019, Maxwell had gone from playing for the Melbourne Stars, to Australia's one-day team, back to the Stars, then travelled to India and the UAE with Australia's one-day and T20 teams, straight to the United Kingdom to play for Lancashire, back to Australia for a pre-World Cup camp and practice games against New Zealand, then again to the UK for the World Cup, followed by more county cricket there, then into 50-over and four-day cricket with Victoria before the Sri Lanka T20s started another home season. That all came despite not opting to nominate for the Indian Premier League for the first time in seven years. The longest he had had between cricket games was 12 days, which he spent with the Aussie squad on a special pre-World Cup trip to Gallipoli.
Maxwell's case is not unique. Other international cricketers have taken on similarly busy playing schedules. Nor does he claim his well-paid career is any harder than the challenges any of the rest us face in our own lives. But mental health does not discriminate.
His partner, Vini, had been the first to notice something was up. She dropped everything and flew over to Adelaide to be with him
"She's been incredible," says Maxwell. "Even when she was going through her own things she was still sort of making sure I was okay, because she knew that I was obviously struggling."
Maxwell went cold turkey. From having played at least one game per week (bar the Gallipoli trip) for the whole calendar year, he went almost two months without one. At first, he didn't miss it.
"Everyone was asking me at the time, 'when are you going to come back?'" he says. "And I just said, 'when I feel like I can again'. And those first few weeks, I just didn't feel like it at all.
"I probably isolated myself a bit during that period of time where I didn't sort of want anyone around. I didn't want to drag anyone down with the way I was feeling."
He played golf, watched the odd game of cricket on TV and most importantly surrounded himself with friends and family – the people who knew him as Glenn the person, not Glenn the cricketer. Among those, the key conversation he had was with someone who could help him reconcile the two.
A year earlier, NSW cricketer Moises Henriques had bravely detailed his battle with depression in the hope it would help others open up.
"Moises was one of my first phone calls after I got the courage to pick the phone up and actually talk to someone," Maxwell says.
"He has been amazing in that sort of space and he was able to talk me through what I was going to be feeling over the first few weeks.
"Not everyone goes through the same sort of feelings, but I found he was someone who I was able to confide in and talk to about pretty much everything that was on my mind and what I was going through.
"And he actually made me smile for the first time in a while, even if it was a joke at our expense, and the way we were feeling."
Maxwell specifically remembers strapping on his pads in his first game back with his club team Fitzroy-Doncaster, as if that one action marked the end of one thing and the return of another. Break over. He had deliberately picked a game in Geelong, the most remote team in Victoria's Premier Cricket competition, to make his return. Away from everything. Just his teammates, the opposition and 22 yards of turf. He was returning, not just to cricket, but also to social interaction and team dynamics. Like the first day back at school. Maxwell was back in the only world he has known his whole adult life.
"It was just going back playing with a few mates and just being back in a change room again," he says. "Just basically dipping my toe in the water and being around a group of people.
"It was actually quite hard. Just even putting the pads on was a really difficult step, and I remember feeling all the anxiety and pressure of even just putting the pads on – that is something I remember really vividly."
At first the familiarity was disconcerting.
"It's just all the thoughts that you had associated with cricket seem to come flooding back," he says. "All the mental demons you had before started to come rushing back."
Gradually he began to rediscover the joy. With Fitzroy, he was playing with skilled and dedicated but ultimately amateur cricketers who on Monday would be back in an office or on a worksite or at school or university. As challenging and otherworldly as the modern international cricketer's lot has become, the game's link to its grassroots in Australia is unique. If Maxwell played Aussie rules football, Victoria's other favourite sporting code, there is no way he would ever have been able to play four games with the local team he had been with since he was a teenager. With Fitzroy, Maxwell was playing, not performing.
"I think he really enjoys it," Fitzroy-Doncaster captain Ejaaz Alavi told cricket.com.au in December. "Whenever he's had the chance to play (club cricket) in the past, he's put his hand up to do it every single time.
"We're really lucky to have him and I think (he) really enjoyed being back with the group and spending time talking rubbish on the sidelines."
When Maxwell turned the corner from internal doubt to actual excitement again about returning to play, it was different. Just playing was not enough for the 31-year-old, who was set to captain the Melbourne Stars for a second season. On the surface, the notion of saddling someone who has just experienced major disruption in their life with further responsibility made little sense. But Maxwell is nothing if not unorthodox.
David Hussey lit the fuse. Maxwell's former state and national teammate and now Stars coach has made a habit of downplaying his own contribution since moving into an off-field role ("I just drive the players to and from the ground," was a favourite refrain during BBL09). But as the pair began catching up, he noticed – and then harnessed – Maxwell's simmering enthusiasm.
"He's got an infectious personality," Hussey told cricket.com.au ahead of the Big Bash. "The environment we've created is one of freedom. You can go out there and be your individual self and you know that everyone in the team will back your abilities.
"It's a nice environment for him to go out and just play – he's protected from all external (noise)."
While shielded from the intense scrutiny of international cricket at the level below, he latched onto a greater role with the Stars. As his own appetite for the game was reseeded, he also found that throwing himself into the minutiae of planning for the Big Bash season helped.
"I almost felt like it was an outside interest, like it was something to distract me away from my own game," he says.
"I wasn't just thinking, 'everyone's waiting for me to do something here', or 'everyone's putting pressure on me about what I did during the World Cup or what I did over here, what I did for Victoria'.
"It just felt like I wasn't overindulging in something that was just my game."
Paradoxically, Maxwell had no trouble rediscovering his touch with the bat. But while that might have surprised few, none would have predicted such a rapid re-acclimatisation. In his first game back in the spotlight, albeit in another satellite city, the Gold Coast, Maxwell blazed 83 off just 39 balls including five sixes. It was the first of a series of stunning knocks as the Stars reeled off wins in all but one of their first 11 games under Maxwell's stewardship.
"Everyone played the game with a smile on their face and it shone through in everything we did during the tournament," he says.
"It was a great distraction from what I had been through and the guys were really good with that. They didn't see me as someone who'd gone through something so damaging.
"They just saw me as one of their mates."
Had Maxwell been a footballer, this next chapter would not have been part of the story. Do well in club cricket and there's another level above to conquer. Do well in domestic cricket and there's another level again. The questions about international cricket inevitably followed.
He gave the answer no-one wanted to hear. But he wasn't lying.
"I wasn't thinking about it," he says, bluntly. "And that was the key thing, I was really honest.
"I was thinking about taking care of the other 17 players in the Stars squad at that stage, and trying to do everything I could to make sure that they had the best time of their lives playing for the Melbourne Stars."
That the title again eluded the Stars following a strong regular season, a recurring theme through all but one of the nine BBL seasons, was a blow. His anger was palpable following their defeat to Sydney Sixers in the final. Yet through admitting his own vulnerability, Maxwell had emerged from the season stronger.
But he knows not everyone who struggles with their mental health has the same access to trained psychologists, or a vast support network of family and friends. It might be a cliché but it's because it works; the only advice he has to others is to talk to someone.
"As hard as it may be to admit that you're struggling, I think it's really important to find the courage to speak to the right people that know you better and will always have the best interests for you as a person at heart," Maxwell says.
Just last month he got engaged to Vini, his partner who had first noticed all was not well. It's perhaps no surprise she is a pharmacist. What was a surprise was how Maxwell proposed. He had hoped to pop the question on one of the Mornington Peninsula's picturesque beaches, but plans for a getaway down the Victorian coast were nixed when he was forced into elbow surgery on the day they were supposed to drive down. So instead he told her to meet him in a Port Melbourne park.
"It was a shocking day," he recounts, having also not factored in that, "unfortunately school had just broken out as well, so there were people everywhere."
Maxwell stood behind a tree looking "like a real creep" as his future wife walked around confused about where she was supposed to be meeting him, before finally the crowd of schoolchildren cleared and he was on one knee in front of her. He was innovative as always, though even then he didn't quite nail the landing.
"There were tears everywhere," he says, "and as I gave her a hug, I was like, 'I think I've forgotten something here' and I still had the ring in my hand.
"I hadn't put it on her finger. It all went poorly, but she's got the ring. She's pretty happy now."
So is Maxwell, for the most part. He knows he isn't 'better' or 'past it'. Some days he wakes up and it's a struggle. Other days are easier. Cricket might always be both the problem and the solution but since acknowledging that, it's become more of the latter and less of the former.
"I'm a lot more open in the way I communicate with people," he says. "I don't beat around the bush.
"I make sure I'm 100 per cent honest with everyone. I want people to know exactly how I'm feeling and that's not being brash, that's not being over the top.
"It's just being honest, so they can be honest back to me as well."
Maxwell's big show is finally over.
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