Walking onto the MCG for his Sheffield Shield debut a decade ago this week, Glenn Maxwell admits he was momentarily overtaken with worries about whether or not he was good enough to represent Victoria in the competition that had always been the prime pathway to the Australia Test team.
At the time, 22-year-old Maxwell was one of the bright young things perceived to be getting opportunities more easily than before as Cricket Australia and the states upped their search for a fresh generation. A few weeks before, Maxwell had set a national record for the fastest-ever 50 in the domestic one-day game, a 19-ball blur against Tasmania that set up his side for a memorable heist at Bellerive Oval.
But his returns in the Futures League were more modest, and in many ways Maxwell embodied the type of player perceived to be gaining too much, too soon in the search for youth. Maxwell felt it at the time, and remembers it vividly.
"I remember not actually doing a whole lot leading into getting my opportunity. I don't think I'd made a second XI hundred," he told ESPNcricinfo from New Zealand this week. "I was a bit nervous coming in whether I'd actually be good enough at that level, but then getting out there I think, my first game at the MCG, it's exciting, you get to play for your state and make your first-class debut.
"Chris Rogers gave me my cap and a lot of his chat was about how 'people will have their doubts whether this is the right time, but I can tell you from the rest of the group we think you're ready and we're backing the fact you're good enough to play at this level'.
"NSW were a good team, I think they had Scott Coyte, Moises Henriques, Beau Casson, Trent Copeland and Stuart Clark who I didn't get to face, that would've been pretty cool. But I remember going out there and I was facing Trent first ball and hit him for four, and thinking 'hopefully this is the start of a long Shield career' and been lucky enough to play 10 years."
Incredibly, 10 years later and the debate about Maxwell has not really moved too far from that initial question. Great limited-overs batsman and matchwinner, a hell of a T20 weapon in Australia and around the world, but as a long-form cricketer? Well, the jury of the Australian selectors is still out, and there is a chance it may never deliver a verdict other than by omission.
Right from the start, Maxwell appeared to have been identified primarily as a white-ball player, going to the UAE in 2012 and remaining a part of Australia's limited-overs squads almost perennially since then. Maxwell can't put his finger on whether or not this trajectory affected how he developed as a red-ball player.
"That's a hard question to answer, but I made a really good start to my Shield career," he said. "I was able to get a hundred in my second game and had some really good momentum towards the end of the season and then the following year being able to get picked for Australia in white-ball cricket, everything went from there. It was a pretty quick transformation from making your first-class debut to playing for Australia. I hadn't played a whole lot of one-day cricket for Victoria at that stage either. So it all happened pretty quickly at the start."
Never more quickly than a sunny afternoon at the WACA in Perth where Maxwell took apart West Indies with another rapid-fire 50 when promoted to open for the pursuit of a paltry target, and then found himself the centre of attention for the IPL auction two days later. As if to underline the speed of his rise, Maxwell was none the wiser until he walked off, angry, having made a less edifying duck in the second game of the ODI series.
"The auction was on the day of game two of that series and I completely forgot about it, that's 100% honest, I had no idea," Maxwell said. "I got a first-ball duck, walked off filthy, angry in the change rooms, and there were a few blokes laughing and giggling in the background and I thought 'what's going on here' and had no idea. So I sat down and Mickey Arthur and Michael Clarke grabbed me and took me into the back room and I thought 'oh they're going to yell at me for my blow up' or something like that.
"I know the key for me if I'm not quite feeling my best is to speak up or talk to the right people and actually have the confidence to have those conversations straight away and not have it fester and build into something that can force time away from the game because you're so flat."Glenn Maxwell on managing his mental health
"But they go 'the IPL auction's on' and I go 'okay, didn't know', and they said 'do you want to know what you went for' and I said 'yeah, doesn't bother me, whatever', and they said 'oh you went for US$1 million' and I said an expletive and sort of walked off and just sat there and had no idea how to react, and blokes were laughing in the background.
"That was a life-changing amount of money for me and to have the luck to be able to go back there most years and be able to ply my trade has been awesome for my cricket, great to play around the best players in the world and learn off different teams as well."
Maxwell's opening partner that day in Perth was a young Aaron Finch, who also happened to be captain of Victoria on the day of his Shield debut. The pair have always been close, even living together in Melbourne for a period when both were making their way as young white-ball cricketers for Australia, even as they still aspired to Test matches.
"It's been nice to have someone who's followed a similar journey and were still going together," he said of Finch. "I know how happy for me he was when I made my Test debut and vice versa when he made his. But I think we were living together from around 2012, and to be on the same one-day and T20 journey together at that stage and then eventually make our Test debuts was pretty cool. There was a lot of watching cricket in the house and talking tactics and all that sort of thing."
While the white-ball highlights are many, whether with Australia, a succession of IPL franchises or the Melbourne Stars in the BBL, Maxwell's red-ball fortunes can be summarised as a series of brief flirtations with Australia on tours of Asian nations, in between too few Shield appearances for Victoria to change any perceptions about his concentration span, his dealings with fast bowlers, and whether he is a better option than other less obviously talented players.
"I'd certainly be open to playing any red-ball if the schedule allows, and I think that's the main thing at the moment," Maxwell said. "It's easy to say 'yeah, I'll play all the Shield cricket in the world', but if I'm playing for Australia in T20 and one-day cricket on tour, it's just not possible at that time. That's not to say I've given up on my Test dream, I still want to play Test cricket and feel like I'm batting as well as I ever have in my whole career.
"It's probably taken a little bit longer than I would've liked as far as working out what I want from my technique and to feel comfortable at the crease, but it's a nice position. If there was some Shield cricket I've no doubt I'd be able to perform and hopefully push my name forward. But with the schedule and the way hubs are and with Covid, it makes it quite difficult at the moment."
Other difficulties have intervened at times, not least in 2016 when he was momentarily left out of the Victorian Shield side after trying to switch states to New South Wales, then publicly criticised and fined by Australia's team "leadership group" for some honest but not inflammatory comments about finding it "painful" to be batting as low as No. 7 for Victoria.
Two years later, with two clear holes opened in the Australian Test line-up by the bans imposed on David Warner and Steven Smith, Maxwell was embroiled in another farrago as he turned down a chance to play county cricket for Lancashire on the premise he would be needed to play for Australia A in India as a trial for that year's Test tour of the UAE, only to be omitted from the A tour and then left out of the Test team too. The selection chairman Trevor Hohns and coach Justin Langer both professed their ignorance about the "planning email" sent to Maxwell earlier in 2018, before Cricket Australia later conceded its existence.
In between times, Maxwell provided the world with one instance to prove he does have what it takes to be a Test batsman, at least on slower surfaces: a superb century in partnership with Smith in Ranchi in 2017, the kind of innings that Australia will be in desperate need of when they begin an intensive series of Test assignments in Asia from early 2022. Trips to Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India are planned, totaling eight Test matches in all.
"There's obviously a possibility I could try to find a way over there, we've got a bunch of subcontinent white-ball tours where hopefully I can perform well and push my case forward that way as well," he said. "We know that if you're batting well in subcontinent conditions, it doesn't really matter the format, you can still find a way.
"I certainly don't feel like that's beyond me at the moment. The fact I'm the other side of 30, I've got plenty of experience now all round the world and I've faced a lot of these bowlers in different competitions, so to have that experience coming into a subcontinent series where there's going to be men around the bat, plenty of pressure on, I feel I'm well adept to handle that."
The matter of dealing with the short ball is a question Maxwell has faced privately and publicly ever since Langer stated he "needed to work really hard on that area" and that opponents "bring their fast bowlers back on" whenever he walked to the wicket during an underwhelming 2019 World Cup. A more open stance and better focus of both eyes on the ball have helped Maxwell pick it up earlier, leading, he believes, to a less rushed approach.
"I'm picking up length far better than I was, I don't feel like I'm rushed at the crease," Maxwell said. "I think for a long time there pace probably rushed me, I didn't feel like it was a short-ball thing, it was probably the added pace of certain bowlers that probably got the better of me.
"But it's more now that I feel like I'm picking up length better and able to deal with high quality fast bowling. Combine that with one of my main strengths in playing spin, and if I can continue to work on the way I play fast bowling out in the middle, hopefully that's going to put me in good stead in the future."
Something else Maxwell now has in his favour is a much better sense of his own mental health. A decision to pull out of cricket for a period in 2019-20 was lauded by the likes of Virat Kohli, and has served to aid Maxwell in how he has tackled the continuous cycle of biosecurity bubbles that have emerged as cricket's response to Covid-19. This has been true as much for Maxwell's ability to help team-mates as captain of the Melbourne Stars and now a senior member of the Australian white-ball side as it has been for his own wellbeing.
"I know the key for me if I'm not quite feeling my best is to speak up or talk to the right people and actually have the confidence to have those conversations straight away and not have it fester and build into something that can force time away from the game because you're so flat," he said. "I think the confidence to have those conversations recently has been really good and even more so in quarantine, being able to chat to different staff members straight away if I'm not quite 100%, if I just need a little bit of time.
"I hope it's been good for my group [at Melbourne Stars] that they've got someone who will be understanding if something doesn't feel right, where they don't feel like they're having it held against them or going to be used or perceived in the wrong way. I hope that's the environment I've been able to create and not just for my team, hopefully players from all around Australia and the world as well."
All this adds up to a worthwhile re-examination of Maxwell's capability to add to his seven Tests and one century, part of a mere 67 first-class games since 2011. As ever, this will be as much a matter for the selectors as Maxwell's own run-making, but he is undoubtedly an older, wiser and more aware figure than the one who sauntered out onto the MCG with Finch and company on that late February morning a decade ago.
"100% I'd like to add to both of those numbers," he said. "It's not a lot of first-class cricket for someone who's been playing since 2011 and to have 10 years of cricket and only average six Shield games a year. So it's been few and far between, but I'd certainly love to get back out there in the whites and try to push my case."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig