What are the chances of seeing, even in a T20 game, a reverse sweep being played by a batsman to a ball pitched a couple of feet outside leg? While the shot is often lucrative towards the end of an innings, how many batsmen would be audacious enough to try it if there were more overs left in the game than had been bowled?
Glenn Maxwell is one such player who is rewriting the rules of batting in the shorter formats of the game. The shot mentioned above was played against R Ashwin in Kings XI Punjab's first IPL game last year. ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball commentary described it in this way:
3.2 Ashwin to Maxwell, FOUR, no need to get your eye in, just pull out that reverse sweep and drag the carrom ball from way outside leg stump to the point boundary. That is just a top shot.
Maxwell played a few more fours after that one, with equal success.
Still, there are a few batsmen who, in spite of being phenomenally good in T20, find it tough to translate that success to the 50-over game, for they simply do not have the game to take on quality bowlers who aren't hamstrung by being able to bowl only four overs a game. Most batsmen who are T20 successes are lethal against lesser bowlers, and reasonably aggressive against better bowlers, but if a quality bowler is allowed to have an extended spell against them, they are found out. However, though Maxwell is not a runaway success in ODIs yet, his knock against England in the tri-series final and against India in the warm-up game are a fair indicator of what to expect from him in the World Cup. While he might not be the standout performer for Australia - he plays in a side with proven match-winners in it, and bats too low to make a regular impact - he is likely to play a few crucial knocks when they matter.
Maxwell, like a lot of modern batsmen, has quick hands that allow him to generate great bat speed. It's a quality that's needed if you aren't built like Chris Gayle or Kieron Pollard. There's no substitute for hitting the ball hard once it gets old and the field spreads. While there's still a lot of merit in putting the ball in gaps and running hard, 300-plus in an ODI and 200-plus in a T20 can't be achieved without hitting fours and sixes, and Maxwell is good at it.
What makes Maxwell different from most players is the fact that he doesn't play the bowler or the ball that is bowled to him but the field that has been set for him. Once he's reasonably confident about his form on the day, his choice of strokes is totally a reaction to where the fielders are. The reverse sweep I mentioned earlier was a result of the point fielder being inside the circle to Ashwin. So Maxwell had to either beat the inner ring or hit over it. Yes, there's still a lot of risk because of the lack of complete control while playing a reverse sweep, because of the angles involved, but Maxwell isn't one to fuss over percentages.
That's another quality most batsmen who pull off these unorthodox shots share - they are completely convinced that they will pull it off almost every single time. Virender Sehwag would play Muttiah Muralitharan against the spin all the time with a conviction that the ball wouldn't go through the gap between bat and pad. If it did, he'd consider it an aberration and play against the spin again when Murali came on. Sometimes you envy these players' mindsets; most "thinking" cricketers spend their time wondering about what will happen if they don't connect.
If the third-man fielder is inside the circle, it is almost a given that Maxwell will attempt a reverse sweep sooner rather than later. If the point fielder is inside to a fast bowler, Maxwell will attempt an inside-out shot, backing away. The good thing about playing the gaps is that he doesn't need to hit a 70-yard shot every time, and since he only needs to clear the 30-yard circle, he doesn't hit the ball too hard, which means he can maintain shape on most occasions. Reading the field also gives you an insight into the bowler's plan. For example, if the third-man and fine-leg fielders are inside the circle, the bouncer is out of the question; instead a slower one is much more likely. If the mid-off fielder is inside the circle to a fast bowler, you don't expect full balls.
Obviously it's not easy to reverse-sweep a fast bowler, or to hit him down the ground if it is short, but the rewards are worth the risk. There's a bit of criticism about Maxwell sometimes throwing his wicket away when ten to 12 overs are left in the game, but that's the nature of the beast. You can't play high-risk, low-percentage cricket and score big hundreds regularly. Also, given his batting position, he's not really required to score hundreds; his job is to maximise the scoring potential.
While there are many things that are going Maxwell's way at the moment, teams might want to look at the chinks in his game.
For starters, he isn't 100% comfortable against good quick bouncers, so opposition attacks may want to look at using the big grounds in Australia to lay traps. Maxwell gets away with playing attacking shots against bouncers in the IPL because of the slower pitches and smaller grounds, but he might get into trouble if he tries the same things in Australia. It won't be a bad idea to throw the ball to your fastest bowler when Maxwell walks in.
The second ball that's likely to work is the yorker. Targeting the nose and toes is fairly established as a successful tactic in the death overs, but with Maxwell you cannot afford to wait till the death overs, because he gets going as soon as he walks in to bat. If you allow him to find his feet, chances are you'll end up paying a huge price.