Maxwell's spin put to the test
This time last week, as he was doing the rounds to inform players of their inclusion for Australia A against the South Africans, the national selector John Inverarity called Glenn Maxwell. The conversation featured not only a notification of Maxwell's selection but a frank challenge from Inverarity as to how he should approach it.
"I spoke to him and said 'you're the spinner, you're in the hot seat, get on with it', and we hope he responds to that sort of challenge," Inverarity said. "Glenn is a player of particular interest, a player of great skill and exuberance and enthusiasm.
"We want him as an allrounder, so we're very keen for him to get opportunity with his spin bowling, and we're putting him in the hot seat here. We had intended to have Jon Holland in the side as the spinner and Holland went out, so we then decided to have Glenn Maxwell."
Holland's serious shoulder injury has opened up the field for Australia's reserve spin bowling options rather more than the selectors would have liked. At the end of the home summer is a tour of India, and apart from the incumbent Nathan Lyon there are few viable options.
Michael Beer's slow left-arm spin is steady, as seen during the Twenty20 Champions League when he was one of few Perth Scorchers to enhance their reputations, and Jason Krejza's success on his previous visit to India in 2008 means he should not be ruled out entirely as an option. Cameron Boyce's leg-breaks, too, are not without their charms. But otherwise the field is thin, so much so that one senior Australian player has been heard to say the national team's next spinner after Lyon may be yet to emerge from club cricket.
Aware of this dearth, the selectors chose not to name Beer to face the South Africans at the SCG, even if he would be the likely choice to replace Lyon should the South Australian off spinner fall afoul of injury during the concurrent Sheffield Shield match against Tasmania. Instead, they have continued their fascination with Maxwell, a player of enormous self-belief and so far modest spin skills.
"Michael is well regarded and is a good, steady spinner," Inverarity said. "We feel that he's a known quantity, we don't need to find out a lot more. And he'll be bowling in the Shield game [for Western Australia v Victoria]. It's an ideal opportunity for Glenn Maxwell. You're the spinner, you get on with it, and see how he responds to that."
Maxwell's off-breaks are not yet terribly hard spun, overly loopy or even particularly accurate. But his confidence and aggression, so evident on his first Australian tour that the ODI captain Michael Clarke dubbed Maxwell 'the big show", are the qualities that have attracted Inverarity's panel most of all. They are eager to find out if he can respond to the challenge set before him as a bowler in the way his batting responded quite fearlessly to some testing ODI assignments against Pakistan in the UAE. This is a selection based on attitude as much as skill.
Australia's T20 captain George Bailey had Maxwell in his squad at the World T20 in Sri Lanka, and said the young allrounder's bowling still had plenty of development ahead of it. Bailey said Maxwell was at this point better utilised as a back-up to another slow bowler, emphasising the size of the challenge he will now face against what is likely to be South Africa's Test batting line-up.
"The challenge for him is going to be to step up and be the No. 1 spinner," Bailey said. "I think he's in a good area now where he'd be a great back-up spinner. But the thing I love about Max is every time he's been challenged he thrives on that challenge.
"I know he'd really be looking forward to that opportunity, but at the moment particularly in four-day stuff he's still got to work a little bit to become as consistent as you need to be to be the No. 1 spinner. I think he can be patient enough when he wants to be, so it's probably just about learning a bit more of the craft of spin bowling and just being as consistent as he can be."
Against a background of thin slow bowling resources, Maxwell's performance over the next three days is arguably the most pivotal subplot of what is a quite speculative Australia A team. Should he do well enough, Maxwell may book himself a place on the Test tour of India next year. Do poorly and he will likely be typecast as a limited-overs concern.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here