November 13, 2014

Embracing Maxwell's unpredictability

Fans pop a vein when his ludicrous tactics fail, shrug when he succeeds. Either way, cricket's first bona fide troll is not about to change

Does Glenn Maxwell lack guile? Maybe. Does he lack commitment and focus? No © BCCI

I feel a bit sorry for Glenn Maxwell, which possibly isn't an entirely popular stance at the moment. In every generation there are cricketers who elicit strong negative reactions from a fair portion of fans and Maxwell is certainly one of those players. I understand the angst, I just don't share it.

Much of what is said about him - the stuff I tend to read and watch anyway - positions Maxwell as being this wasteful, maddening symbol of everything that is wrong with his generation. Which is a lot to lump on one guy. He's a sort of cipher through which people angrily vent their frustrations at everything from the rise of T20 cricket and the supposed march to hell it entails, to the product range down at the Apple store. To them, Maxwell is the infuriating cricket symbol of the Twitter age and they are not shy of saying it. Often on Twitter.

The two biggest problems he has in this losing PR battle are his unfortunate nickname, The Big Show, and also the manner in which he plays, which is its own unique personal branding exercise. The first he can't help, and in an interview last summer he was at pains to point out to TV presenter James Brayshaw that he hated it and wished people would stop using it. Maxwell appeared genuine in this hope. Back in the Channel Nine studio after that pre-recorded segment ended, Brayshaw immediately resumed using it. On the second matter, Maxwell can hardly be expected to abandon the techniques and philosophies that earned him fame and fortune in the first place.

You also wonder if he'd cop less grief if that first big IPL bidding war over his services had petered out in the 900,000s, rather than the million that put an immediate target on his back.

Here's a few facts that are beyond debate: when batting, Maxwell plays some quite ludicrous shots, strokes that would have seemed preposterous only a decade ago, strokes that you could only have imagined being played if dreamt up by a videogame developer high on Red Bull and amphetamines. The game would be called ICC Jam and Maxwell would be on the cover, reverse-hooking Richie Benaud's head clean off his shoulders with a bat carved out of the bones of war veterans.

Often Maxwell plays those ICC Jam strokes at inopportune moments. Often they don't work, resulting in dismissals that make him look like he's on a personal crusade to ruin the aesthetic of batting, or kill Benaud via the more conventional method of heart failure. Often those shots do work and he looks like a mad genius. All of this makes him appear as though he takes it all less seriously than others, when, in fact, most of the time he's dead serious. A lack of guile? Maybe. A lack of commitment and focus? No.

The game would be called ICC Jam and Maxwell would be on the cover, reverse-hooking Richie Benaud's head clean off his shoulders with a bat carved out of the bones of war veterans

On the odd occasion, Maxwell plays textbook strokes with great aplomb. That is why his first-class batting average is 40.74, and not, say, 17.58. Without crunching numbers I'd guess he gets out playing conventional strokes as often as he does the ridiculous ones, probably more. Because he's cricket's first bona fide troll and has an insatiable thirst for irony, he also chose to become an offspinner, arguably the most dour and characterless of all of cricket's arts.

Watching Maxwell bowl offspin is what I'd imagine it would be like to see Lil Wayne calmly assembling an IKEA coffee table. Like most offspinners, sometimes he gets belted out of the attack. Often he takes wickets and occasionally even keeps it tight. When he's not plying either of those two primary skills, he fields like a combination of Ricky Ponting and one of those shirtless, unpredictable, fast-pacing heroin addicts you'll often see outside train stations in Maxwell's home town. But I digress.

Take all of those potential Maxwell moments - the mad switch hits, the kamikaze reverse sweeps, the filthy long hops that dismiss decent batsmen, the jaffas that don't, the terrier-like fielding efforts - and draw a box around them. Turn them into a flow chart. Then notice the way that at the end of that flow chart there's generally two widespread fan reactions: apoplectic rage when it goes wrong and barely more than a grudging shrug of the shoulders when it goes right.

Maxwell's got some faults, that is certain. On current evidence he's nobody's idea of a Test batsman, at least not a No. 3 (or an opener, as he was amid the jaw-dropping chaos of Australia's 2013 Test tour of India). But he's also not the Antichrist. He doesn't pick himself in those teams, though you can be assured that if he was a selector he'd be opening the batting and bowling in every format, because he seems to genuinely believe that he should. In a way, there's actually something to admire about his chutzpah.

You'd be worried if every junior cricketer started playing like him, but I think we're actually fine with the odd Glenn Maxwell, even just the one. He's not going to change, so maybe we should all just live a little and watch him though something other than half-covered eyes. And watch our heads, obviously.

Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sport in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian Australia and Wasted Afternoons. @rustyjacko

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