No member of this Australian side whose name is not Steve Smith has seemed less likely to score a Test century against India than Glenn Maxwell – not because he is not capable of it, but because he never looked like getting a chance to get off the bench and out into the middle.
Australian sides always have some kind of internal strife going on. Steve Waugh’s outfit had the irascible Shane Warne’s open contempt for coach John Buchanan; Michael Clarke’s lot, including current vice-captain David Warner, had ‘homework issues’ and a player the captain diagnosed as a cricketing cancer. And the current lot has Maxwell, who spent the run-up to this tour stumbling from one controversy to the other.
Unlike with a Warne, or a Symonds or Shane Watson, though, Maxwell’s problems stemmed from ambition. Since late last year, he has made no secret of the fact that he wants a place in the Test XI; in a search for better opportunities, he even tried and made a pig’s breakfast of an attempted move from Victoria to New South Wales.
Having successfully shot himself in the foot with that attempt, he then put a bullet through the other one when he explained himself. It is painful, he said, to be batting below Victoria captain Matt Wade in the Sheffield Shield – this, after his first Shield game of the season, where he followed Wade at number six and made 81. Such a position, he elaborated, most often meant that he was in a position where he had to go for quick runs to set the game up, and didn’t really have the space to script the sort of batting narrative that could win him a Test spot. The only reason he, as a batsman, was playing below the keeper was that Wade was captain and got to pick the batting order, he said.
It was the statement(s) of a player who, damned by his own reputation as a limited overs big-hitter, had in his own estimation worked on both the technical and temperamental aspects of his game, and was now ready to play with the big boys in whites – all he wanted was a chance to come good. But what the establishment heard was not a crie de couer but a brattish outburst of disrespect. “Everyone was disappointed by his comments,” said Steve Smith at the time, voicing the official condemnation.
The word ‘disrespectful’ came up a few times; “one of our team values is respect for teammates”, Smith said while announcing a fine on Maxwell for his statements. Coach Darren Lehmann rubbed it in when he said Maxwell was never in the frame for the Adelaide Test against South Africa that the player had set his heart on. “Are you going to pick a bloke who hasn’t made 100 for two years?” Lehmann asked, referring to Maxwell’s Shield record – rubbing needless salt in the sore spot that had triggered Maxwell’s angst in the first place.
If Mitchell Marsh hadn’t done his shoulder… if Marcus Stoinis, who bats above Maxwell for Victoria, had been part of the original party and not a hurried call-up still struggling with jet lag… A half-dozen ifs stood between Maxwell and the chance he has pursued with such earnestness.
In the event, he lucked into a slot (even just prior to the toss, Brett Lee in the expert’s chair suggested that Stoinis would get picked; that Maxwell’s propensity to get out trying too many shots, plus the fact that as an off-spinner he had limited value given the presence of Nathan Lyon, would weigh against him). He got luckier still that three of Australia’s top order batsmen threw their wickets away — on the first day Ranchi track, if you had to guess how it would go after Australia won the toss, you’d have said at least two of Warner, Renshaw, Marsh and Handscomb would bat big in addition to Smith which, had it happened, would have had Maxwell coming in when quick runs were needed.
Somehow, though, it all came together. And Maxwell showed exactly what he was talking about when he said he had been working on his long game. His defence was tight; he scrupulously avoided even a twitch in the direction of the sweep or the reverse for the longest time; he took his time to settle in, scoring just 19 off his first 50 balls faced; when he did open out it was only on bowling errors and even then, he made sure he hit very straight. It was Test batting as it should be. Dogged, determined, yet alert to opportunity — to go with his nine fours and two sixes, he played out 127 dot balls and ran 39 singles and seven twos, backing his captain in a 191-run stand that turned the game on its axis and put the Aussies in the box seat.
“Would you pick a bloke who hasn’t made a 100 for two years?” Lehmann had asked. As he stood with the rest of the team to applaud Maxwell’s 100 on the second morning, the batsman, who celebrated the landmark with unrestrained vigor, would have been forgiven for thinking, what now?