Glenn Maxwell training at CCI, Mumbai ahead of the warm up game against India A © AFP
Glenn Maxwell training at CCI, Mumbai ahead of the warm up game against India A © AFP

Glenn Maxwell is a curious case. Not many rate him as a Test cricketer. Neither did he do anything special to be rated one. In limited-overs he bears the tag of ‘invincibility’ but yet manages to get dropped. He is a crowd-puller. He has a massive fan-following as well as has a set of detractors. It, however, does not stop his popularity transcend boundaries. In India a section christened him Glendeep Singh Maxwell for his association with Kings XI Punjab (KXIP). He is an enigma, who cannot be written off. But, there are doubts in place at the same time if he will be one of Australia’s key players in their tour of India.

Maxwell’s last Test assignment came against Pakistan in UAE, in 2014. Lehmann had then said the all-rounder had been chosen because of his “x-factor”. Nonetheless, Brydon Coverdale, in his ESPNCricinfo article, explains the theory with great wit that sums up the situation: “and perhaps it is no coincidence that in mathematics “x” is used to represent the unknown.”

Topsy-turvy turn in 2016-17

Maxwell returned to the Australian side with a bang in the T20I series in Sri Lanka. Opening the innings, he slammed a 65-ball 145 first and followed it with a 29-ball 66. Australia won 2-0.

A month later, Maxwell was a surprise omission for the ODI series in South Africa. Travis Head got the nod ahead as the versatile explosive batter who bowls off-spin. As fate would have it, Australia went on to lose 0-5.

Ironies continued further. At the start of the Australian summer, Maxwell could not find a slot in the Victorian side. There were divided opinions. Australian selector and a great of the game Mark Waugh put his weight behind Maxwell. “He should have been playing. From an Australian point of view, he’s quite capable of playing Test match cricket. You need to be asking the Victorian selectors why they left him out. It surely can’t be cricket-related because he would be in the team,” Waugh had told AAP.

That’s not all. Cricket legend Allan Border seconded Waugh and mentioned that Maxwell should look for a new First-Class side. His teammate Peter Handscomb, who made it big for Australia this season, backed Maxwell and raised an eyebrow over the notion of his bad patch with the red ball, “Obviously the last red ball game he played was last year so what form can you go on? Do you go on that one or do you go on the most recent way you’ve seen him?”

Maxwell had scored 392 runs at 56, with a strike rate of over 85 in the Sheffield Shield 2015-16. He did not bowl enough and clinched just 3 wickets. His exploits in Sri Lanka were still fresh in minds.

When Australia were revamping the side after the beating against South Africa in Hobart that led to the series loss, there was a buzz about Maxwell being a part of the sweeping changes. The likes of Matt Renshaw, Handscomb and Nic Maddinson got a call-up.

Australia’s coach Darren Lehmann was blunt while putting the Maxwell buzz to rest: “Are you going to pick a bloke that hasn’t made a [First-Class] hundred for two years?”

By the time Maxwell made a return to the Victorian side, he found himself batting below his captain Matthew Wade, a wicketkeeper-batsman. Maxwell’s theory of a ‘wicketkeeper should be batting below a regular batsman’ did not go well.

He was then picked for the Chappell-Hadlee Trophy against New Zealand in Australia. He dug the axe to his foot when he ended up expressing his disappointment for batting below Wade in the press conference ahead of the first ODI.

He went on to be penalised by the team.

Captain Steven Smith had then said: “Everyone was disappointed in his comments and I’ve expressed that to him myself and spoke to the team. One of our values is respect and having respect for your teammates, your opposition, your fans, your media and I thought what he said was very disrespectful to a teammate and his Victorian captain. The leadership group got together and we decided to fine Glenn. We thought that was sufficient punishment. I was disappointed with the comments he made.”

Maxwell remained out in all the three ODIs, watching Head make strides towards sealing a regular position. A section then kept backing Maxwell for a berth in the flight to India. However, former Australian leg-spinner Kerry O’Keeffe rubbished Maxwell’s batting technique in the longer format. In a YouTube video, he said, “That off-spin is not even handy. It’s dross (rubbish). It is perhaps the worst action for a spinner in First-Class cricket in Australia. Maxi’s action has fallen apart, because of that drive to bowl dot balls in Twenty20 cricket.”

Maxwell returned for the ODIs against Pakistan and the Chappell Hadlee Trophy in New Zealand, striking at 32.33 at a strike rate of 121.25 and surprisingly, he did not bowl a single over.

The season has been a topsy-turvy ride for Maxwell, who eventually made it to the flight to India despite averaging just over 25 in this First-Class season.From not being a good enough, longer-format player for his domestic side to being in one of the toughest lands to play Tests, Maxwell’s Test fortunes turned in a span of less than three months.

Selectors had their reasons, though.

Chairing the selection panel, Trevor Hohns reasoned, “Glenn is very experienced in Indian conditions. He is generally regarded as a good player of spin bowling. He is a good fielder, and his off-spin could be handy. If conditions prevail, we have the option of playing him as the all-rounder and having the extra spinning option available to us.”

The race of all-rounders

Australia’s experiments with Callum Ferguson, Maddinson and Hilton Cartwright at No.6 flopped this season. Usually No. 6 is an all-rounder’s position, but dearth of quality all-rounders has been a feature in Australian cricket.

Yes, there were the Monty Nobels, Keith Millers and Allan Davidsons or even a Richie Benaud, but they, historically, have relied on a specialist batsman at No. 6. Ricky Ponting for long had that position; there was Damien Martyn or Michael Clarke as well for a while before moving up. There were steely characters such as Steve Waugh, Border and Doug Walters as well, among the men who have successfully batted at that position.

[Random Trivia: Don Bradman did not enjoy great success in the 6 Tests that he batted at No.6. He scored 681 runs at 97.28 and slammed 3 hundreds. Yes, he was below par when you compare that number to his staggering career average of 99.94.]

Australia have been trying to fill the hole created by the absence of Mike Hussey at that number. Shane Watson and Mitchell Marsh did not enjoy great success.

Currently, Australia have hoards of all-rounders in domestic cricket, mostly pace-bowling ones. Apart from Marsh, there is Moises Henriques, Marcus Stoinis, James Faulkner, Dan Christian, Cartwright and the list goes on.

Maxwell’s First-Class batting and bowling average stands near 40. He has the promise to successfully slip in to Andrew Symonds’ boots. He can tonk the ball, rather more innovatively and in a matter of session swing the momentum with his counterattacking methods. He is an excellent fielder. All the same, his off-spin needs to be worked on. If that’s in place, it might be a big heal for Australia’s subcontinent woes.

What to expect?

Maxwell, in the recent past, has found success against Ravichandran Ashwin in the shorter formats. With his ultra innovations, he can upset the rhythm of the best bowlers. ‘The Big Show’, as he is nicknamed, comes with his set of cons. When his methods flop, the showers of criticism get heavier. That, no matter what, is bound to happen. In fact, India, too, have faced their own share of emotions fluctuating between thrills and gloom and anger when a certain Virender Sehwag batted.

Maxwell and Sehwag have co-incidentally played for KXIP. No wonder the team has suffered contrasting results (IPL runners-up in 2014 and bottom of the table in 2015).

It would be foolish or overoptimistic to expect Maxwell fire right away. He falls in the category of cricketers who could do better without the axe looming over. His style of cricket is bound to get you inconsistent results, but when things come off, it’s ‘the Big Show’ and worth the patience.

Maxwell has played all his three Tests in Asia, having played the first two in India. He has been around the team for a while. To put things into perspective, his experience while analysing the Indian conditions will be of good help.

To accommodate Maxwell in the side, Australia will have to take the tough call of leaving the Marshes out. The composition will have to be five batsmen, Maxwell, wicketkeeper, two pacers and two spinners.

Ian Chappell writes in his ESPNCricinfo column: “Maxwell is an intriguing player, and it is easy to see why selectors keep hoping he can turn potential into profitable returns. Despite his potential to destroy opposing attacks, he will be a difficult fit for an Australian team whose primary slow bowler is also an off-spinner.”

With Mitchell Starc’s fitness issues and reputation of breaking down, two pacers might be a risky proposition in conditions where reverse swing will play its role. Contrary to popular conceptions in India of ‘spin to win’, Australia’s best chance to upset the Indians is pace, where their strength lies. That is where a Mitchell Marsh comes in.

And also the other debate would be: Shaun Marsh, too, has the experience of subcontinent conditions (he is a star in India and scored a hundred in Sri Lanka recently), and can pile up big totals. Hence, should Maxwell be preferred ahead of the southpaw?

With Maxwell, there lies a huge risk of an attractive explosive 30-35 and then a top-edge before the long walk back. Another squandered opportunity. His off-spinners are unlikely to trouble the likes of Virat Kohli, unless they switch on to a self-destruct mode like they did against Joe Root in the Mumbai Test in 2016.

This is the make-or-break chance for Maxwell. He will be a tricky pick. However, the key here will be: pick him at your own peril and once you do, stick to him, give him the space (at least 3 Tests), back him, make him a part of your plan and show him confidence.

If he clicks, the ‘Big Show’ will be a match- or series-defining one is on the cards.