February 14, 2013

Maxwell could be Australia's X-factor

His all-round talents, especially bowling spin and batting against it, will be desperately needed in India

Glenn Maxwell could be the spinning surprise for Australia in India.

There is a lot to like about the young Australian allrounder. He bats with purpose and flair, not unlike Kevin Pietersen, fields like a Trojan, and his offspin bowling is coming on a treat.

South Australia's Nathan Lyon will lead the spin attack. His Test record is good (61 wickets at 32.16 in 19 matches), but his last two outings in first-class cricket have been a concern, in that he has spun the ball hard but has bowled with a flat trajectory, rarely bothering opposing batsmen. In the last Test against Sri Lanka, on a turning SCG wicket, he took 1 for 69 and 1 for 66, followed by 0 for 77 and 1 for 15 for South Australia versus Victoria in a Sheffield Shield clash.

If Lyon struggles in India, Maxwell will have to shoulder an even greater burden. Happily for Australia, it looks like he thrives on the challenge and is eager to take the Indians on. He is obviously a confident young man without being overly brash like Pietersen, and that is evident in his strokeplay, especially during that audacious unconquered 51 against West Indies in Perth, and in his being able to hold up well with the ball when under fire. He might go for a few fours but he always looks like he will get his man. There seems to be a technical hitch with his front arm, but he spins it hard and has great belief in his ability.

While Tasmanian left-armer Xavier Doherty is in the squad, I think he will play only if Lyon loses all form. It appears the selectors would prefer a spinning allrounder as a back-up slow man. Such a strategy makes sense in a team that is bereft of many good players of spin bowling. The batting needs a boost and that means Maxwell is in competition with New South Wales allrounders Steve Smith and Moises Henriques for a Test spot.

However, Maxwell is far and away a better spinner than the legspinner Smith, whose form with the ball has been abysmal and whose faulty action is greatly inhibiting his progress. Henriques, a medium-pacer, is unlikely to play in the Tests unless Australia opt for Lyon as the sole spin bowler.

India seem almost certain to prepare spin-friendly tracks, perhaps even those of the spitting-cobra variety, in the hope that their spinners R Ashwin (offbreak) and Pragyan Ojha (left-arm orthodox) will outbowl Lyon and Co. Don't be fooled, for Lyon and, I suspect, Maxwell will do a good job. They aren't quite in the Graeme Swann class, but they are talented, eager to improve, and may give Australia the edge.

Maxwell is the latest millionaire in the IPL, collecting a truckload of loot in signing with the Mumbai Indians, but it is his upcoming performances for Australia in the Test series in India that might make a lasting impression. He came into the Victorian limited-overs side in 2009-10, but it was the following summer that he first gave notice of his fabulous skill, with a 19-ball half-century - the fastest domestic one-day fifty in the nation's domestic history - for Victoria against Tasmania. His powerful striking has made him a threat in all three formats and his maiden first-class hundred came in March 2011, when he scored a brisk 103 not out against South Australia.

The likes of Ed Cowan, David Warner, Phillip Hughes, Usman Khawaja and Matthew Wade are extremely vulnerable to quality spin bowling. Australia cannot rely totally on the skills of Michael Clarke

The half-century in Perth gave notice that here was a young man who could improvise and adapt to demoralise and defeat his opponent. It was a batting show that would have delighted Pietersen. Unlike Pietersen, Maxwell is not mentally fragile, but like him, he is ever willing to take the opposition attack on and unafraid to try an improvised shot to bemuse and defeat the bowler.

As a bowler, I suspect Maxwell will become better than a part-timer or a second option for future Test sides.

His all-round talents will be desperately needed in India, where the preponderance of left-hand Australian batsmen will be sorely tested by the home team's spin bowlers. The likes of Ed Cowan, David Warner, Phillip Hughes, Usman Khawaja and Matthew Wade are extremely vulnerable to quality spin bowling. Swann must be rubbing his spinning fingers in glee at the prospect of bowling against so many left-hand batsmen in the coming Ashes battles. Sri Lanka's Rangana Herath, not a big spinner of the ball, but clever in his subtle changes of pace, made the Australian batting look ordinary at times this summer.

Australia cannot rely totally on the skills of Michael Clarke, whose batting against spin probably has no equal worldwide at the moment. Even Shane Watson struggles against good spin bowling, and, like all the left-handers aforementioned, he is much more comfortable against the faster bowlers, when the ball comes on to the bat.

The Indians will play Ashwin and Ojha, but they may also call on the services of Harbhajan Singh, who has worried Australian batting line-ups over the years and has a knack of getting under the skin of the opposition. They are not a patch on Erapalli Prasanna and Bishan Bedi of old, but on spinning minefields they will worry the Australians.

The Australians would do well to take a leaf out of the Michael Hussey book of batting. He hustled from the outset, always looking for ones and twos. The main thing is to rotate the strike, break the rhythm of the bowler and test his patience. The batsmen must keep the scoreboard ticking over.

If Australia do that then Clarke's men might just turn the tables on the Indians. And Maxwell is just the young man to provide Clarke with a real X-factor in his team's quest for victory on the subcontinent.

Ashley Mallett took 132 Tests wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. An author of over 25 books, he has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson and Ian Chappell

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