Former Australian captain Steve Smith has made his return to cricket in Australia, hitting 85 from 97 deliveries in NSW grade cricket. However, his innings for Sutherland came to an abrupt end.
Few sports operate in such subjective spheres as cricket.
While the availability of statistics suggests ability is quantifiable, it’s naturally much more than that. Averages and strike rates reveal only so much to a selector, and their perception of a player is dictated by several other standards.
When that perception is unfavourable, however, shaking it proves more difficult than scoring runs or taking wickets.
For Glenn Maxwell, his ‘perception’ in Australian cricket – at least among those who really mattered – was at rock bottom at the beginning of 2018.
After his attitude was openly questioned by coach Darren Lehmann and captain Steve Smith, he was infamously told to ‘train smarter’.
The omission that followed (for the ODI series against England) surprised many, as selectors opted for fellow big-hitter Chris Lynn in the middle order. After Lynn pulled out of the series through injury, Maxwell’s recall appeared imminent.
But selectors pulled another surprise, this time including Victorian teammate Cameron White as the replacement. Lynn’s selection over Maxwell may have been line-ball, but their preference for White sent a strong message: change your attitude or you’re not getting picked.
It wasn’t the first time management made their displeasure known with the all-rounder. A year previous he was reprimanded and fined by the Australian leadership group for publicly questioning his batting position at Victoria.
Frustrated with a lack of opportunity, Maxwell’s off-the-cuff remarks about batting lower than wicketkeeper Matthew Wade weren’t well-received by Smith and Lehmann. For them, it confirmed their perception of him: talented and supremely skilled, but also reckless and undisciplined.
They were, like many other views in cricket, just opinions. Opinions that aligned – however unfairly – with Maxwell’s ‘bigshow’ brand. Despite publicly denouncing that tag at every opportunity, there’s still a section of fans who believe it’s self-labelled. Perception really can become reality.
While Maxwell couldn’t care less for the opinions of ill-informed fans, he had to care about the opinions of Smith and Lehman. His career hinged on them. Setting out to prove them wrong in 2018, a twist of fate (in the form of Australian Cricket’s biggest ever on-field scandal) would mean their judgment of him no longer meant anything, for they were out of a job.
Their replacements, however, perceive the Victorian in a much different light.
When Ricky Ponting was named as Australia’s T20 coach in February, Maxwell’s approval of the move was palpable. The pair had worked closely together at the IPL level and developed a strong relationship on and off the field. For Maxwell, someone had arrived in the Australian setup that understood him.
In an interview, he praised the former captain’s ability to “get the best out of players”. He immediately repaid Ponting’s faith and was named Player of the Series in the tri-tournament against New Zealand and England.
The key appointment, however, which has already proved imperative for Maxwell is that of Justin Langer. The new coach has a clear admiration for the Victorian, calling him “one of the most talented young players of the modern game” last summer.
And after it was revealed yesterday he would hold greater powers at the selection table, Maxwell’s career path has suddenly taken a turn. For once in his career, he’s a valued member of the side where his personality and style can shine.
Langer was at pains to point out in his first press conference as coach that he “likes different people”.
“The ones I like the most are the ones who are a bit different”, the former opener said. “You’ve got to have some personality…and be comfortable in your own skin”.
That is Maxwell. To a tee.
When he wasn’t picked for the upcoming Australia A tour of India, some assumed he had been dropped. The September tour, after all, is seen as an audition for the two-test series against Pakistan in October and features the likes of Usman Khawaja, Matt Renhsaw, Mitch Marsh and Peter Handscomb.
But that’s not the case. He’s been told he can prepare in Australia for the Pakistan series, with the assumption he’ll be picked. He’s gone from international outcast to assured selection in very short time, and without doing much at all.
His IPL and recent ODI form, after all, has been moderate at best. An interview with Gerard Whateley earlier this week revealed the confidence Langer’s appointment has instilled in him: “There has been a lot of positive reinforcement that I didn’t need to go on that Australia A tour”, he said. “I think the main goal at the end of this is to have such a good 12 months that I can write my name on that (Ashes) team sheet in 12 months’ time”.
While his skill-set or overall form has scarcely changed in the past six months, a change in leadership has completely shifted Maxwell’s career path. Selection in sport is naturally subjective, but in cricket, it is amplified.
For Maxwell, recent shifts at the top have transformed things for the better.