May 14, 2014

Maxwell's golden hammer

Despite T20's ceaseless urgency, Maxwell never appears to be in a rush. Could he, like David Warner, flourish in the Test arena?

Glenn Maxwell: at once both elegant and vicious © BCCI

Motivation comes in all shapes and guises. Take that needlessly unbroken, history-wrecking, last-wicket stand by Dennis Amiss and Bob Willis at Sabina Park in 1974. Boiled, fried and battered in turn by Roy Fredericks, Lawrence Rowe, Alvin Kallicharran and the Great Garfield, Willis had plodded to the middle with a heroic, match-saving expedition completed bar the bail-lifting. At the other end stood its intrepid leader, for whom nothing whatsoever was amiss. Now the icing beckoned. Understandably, Amiss rather fancied carrying his bat.

The Warwickshire opener was drawing to the close of an epic unbeaten 262, fortitude enhanced by a tea-time brandy. Had Willis done the decent thing, Amiss would have set an astonishing if grotesquely under-appreciated record, wresting from Glenn Turner - who'd made 223 not out on the same ground two years earlier - the honour of the highest score acquired while batting throughout a completed Test innings. All the same, the stat that best defines the singular single-handedness of this relentless stint is that not one member of what might generously be described as the supporting cast - not Tony Greig, Alan Knott or even Geoff Boycott - reached 40.

As it is, the lowly ranking of Amiss' Horatioesque effort in the Wisden Top 100 chart of Test innings (89th, considerably and laughably lower than his own 179 in Delhi in 1976) remains the equal-rankest injustice in the entire history of that monument to unprovable assertion we call "the list". (For the record, the other most blatant offences are unquestionably the unconscionable omission of Who's Next from Mojo magazine's "Greatest Albums Ever" and the snobbery-inspired absence of Carry on Constable from Sight and Sound magazine's list of the finest movies.)

Unfortunately, as Amiss relates in the latest issue of All Out Cricket, Willis had no intention of giving his wicket away, hanging tight for nearly an hour to no obvious purpose. Then again, in fairness, he had made his reason crystal clear to his partner from the very outset: there was no way on earth he was going to risk further humiliation at the hands of those Caribbean willow bullies, at least not that week.

Those poor souls hired to bowl at Glenn Maxwell lately can empathise all too readily.

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Glen or Glenda? Such is the question asked by the title of a controversial 1953 B-movie about a transvestite, directed with a measure of bittersweet autobiographicality by Ed Wood, the all-time king of cross-dressing Hollywood (anybody labouring under the illusion that Johnny Depp plays it safe should be forcefully reminded that, early in his career, he had the cojones to accept the lead in Tim Burton's biopic of Wood). While it would plainly be wholly wrong to even hint that a parallel might be drawn with Australia's latest crowd-pleaser, it does not feel inappropriate to ask that question here. Will Maxwell be satisfied as a mere flat-track bully, as Glenn, or will he reveal the full extent of his palette and flourish as the multi-dimensional Glenda?

For now, Glenn more than suffices. Indeed, so unquenchable is my thirst to see the Victorian creasemaster take guard and aim, my on-off, love-hate relationship with the IPL has never been more firmly on. Until this season, I didn't know - much less care - who played for whom. I definitely couldn't name all the teams, let alone any of the winners. Fond as I am of American sport, caring actively about the fortunes of athletic institutions that operate as rootless, transportable, biddable, bottom-line-obsessed franchises has always been beyond my ken.

Not that I didn't tune in: as someone possessed of an extremely perplexing hunger to consume any dish of cricket those tireless Sky Sports caterers care to serve up, I couldn't help myself. Tuning in, though, need not mean turning on, or even actually watching very much. Hearing is believing. As someone perpetually fearful for the game's long-term future, there's something rather reassuring about the clink of tumbling neon bails and the clang of railway sleeper on processed leather - especially when acclaimed by 50,000 pairs of lusty lungs. Hell, the encouragement even extends to the clunk of commentary hype and cliché. Stirring soundtracks - think Porky's and some of Adam Sandler's recent clinkers - can survive even the lousiest movies.

Can we find a foretaste of Maxwell's development in the career of Warner? The latter surged to prominence as a biff-bang-boomer, confounded all and sundry by making an instant impact at the top of the five-day order

That po-faced resistance has now crumbled. The rich irony being that, in the wake of the match-fixing that disfigured IPL 6 and brought so many envious chickens home to roost, I had promised myself that the league would never again darken the north-east corner of my lounge. Yet not only am I following a team's fortunes, I am even investing some emotion in them - albeit only to the extent that I want them to participate in as many matches as possible, not because I actually want them to hoist the trophy. That is because that not wholly blessed team is King's XI Punjab and my loyalty, such as it is, can be traced directly and exclusively to one man: Maxwell, the maestro of must-see TV.

Now I scan the fixture schedule with a schoolboy's zeal, eager to know when he's next on, determined not to miss a milli-moment - even if that habitually means recording the match and resolutely ignoring all bulletins until I've found a window to catch up. Soloists have long commanded my slavish, slavering devotion, but it is not inconceivable that Messrs Graveney, Chappell (G), Gower, Richards (V and B), Azharuddin, Hooper, Lara, Laxman, Amla and Pietersen could all be in for one hell of a beating.

Time and again these past few weeks, in the UAE and now India, Maxwell has elevated his calling to the heights of jaw-dropping wonder. No one has been shortchanged, not even the professional flaw-detectors. After all, the killjoys who sincerely believe they are duty-bound to detect and expose even the tiniest hint of weakness in others - all the better to masquerade their own inadequacies - can point snootily to that failure to turn four near-misses into centuries. Call it Maxwell's Golden Hammer Effect.

There is at once something elegant and vicious about Maxwell. Nimble of foot, an excellent judge of length, he strikes the vast majority of his drives with a smooth, even regal, authority; effort is even less discernible than are the rippling biceps or weightlifter's veins we have come to associate with prototype T20 heavyweights such as Kieron Pollard, Brendon McCullum and David Warner. The power and placement of his reverse hits, on the other hand, are embedded in ruthlessness. A 30-ball 50 is the summit of most ambitions; Maxwell appears to be targeting 50-ball tons every time.

Yet what impresses most is that eerie calmness. Despite T20's ceaseless urgency, he never appears to be in a rush, always seems content to bed in for a few balls, to wait for the right offering rather than impose himself by force of stats or will. Plainly too colossal a talent to be limited to 50-ball cameos, it is this asset, this well of patience, that fuels the belief that he can transfer those gaudy gifts to the loftiest stage. No, not the NatWest T20 Blast (in which he is due to enchant Hampshire fans this summer), but the Test arena.

Can we find a foretaste of Maxwell's development in the career of Warner? The latter surged to prominence as a biff-bang-boomer, confounded all and sundry by making an instant impact at the top of the five-day order, and has continued to enhance that side of his talents while regressing over the shortest haul. Having tasted the difference between working for financial reward and for professional satisfaction, between instant acclaim and lasting respect, he seems to have decided where his priorities lie. Fortunately, there seems no reason why he - and hence we - cannot continue having it all.

Will the same apply to Maxwell? Well, a first-class average of 41.04 isn't a bad re-launchpad back into the Baggy Green XI he penetrated in India last year. In his most recent fixtures in creams, in February, he went to town and painted it a luminous red.

Against New South Wales he made 94 off 95 balls in a total of 218; then, second time round, he sauntered in, undaunted either by a scoreboard showing 9 for 6 or the inevitability of an innings defeat, and lashed a lavish if pointless 127 off 102, with boundaries accounting for 98. Against South Australia the following week, he spun out the top three with those handy offbreaks, then entered at 50 for 4 and dug in for more than three and a half hours; the staggering statistic is not that he made 119 at a strike rate of under 75, but that he only bothered to wallop two sixes. Only Warner among the 50 leading run-makers in the latest Sheffield Shield campaign achieved a higher overall rate of destruction, and the opener's 93.61 exhibited appreciably fewer signs of restraint or an alternative gear than Maxwell's 75.87.

Maybe I'm being greedy. Maybe it's unreasonable to demand more helpings when what is already on one's plate is so plentiful and sumptuous. Stuff that. Right now, pure, unadulterated selfishness means that the thought of never whiling away an entire day dining at Chez Maxwell, or a week anticipating such a mouthwatering treat, is, well, utterly unthinkable.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His latest book is Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport

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