There can be times during a Glenn Maxwell innings when traditional methods of cricket commentary are not enough to describe what has taken place. The spirit of invention burns bright enough to dazzle the observer.
I’ve had that experience: on radio for a one-day game in Barbados in 2016, it went something like: “Braithwaite in to bowl to Maxwell, and – I actually don’t know what to call that shot. He’s effectively played… a reverse hook shot. Down through first slip. For four.”
Maxwell already loved the reverse sweep, having been roundly scolded for using it during a Test against Pakistan in 2014. His Barbados shot was an extension of it. Except that rather than kneeling against spin, he played it standing tall and upright, to an attempted bouncer, from a medium-fast seamer. Middled, but late enough to beat third man. You could say it was a reverse sweep in the same way as you could say that the Batmobile is a car.
Maxwell made 46 not out from 26 balls that night, winning a steep run chase against West Indies to take Australia into a tri-series final. Four and a half years later, on Wednesday in Canberra, he made 59 from 38 against India to set up another steep chase, but his remaining teammates fell short of the modest requirement.
Without a home win to feature in the broadcasters’ clips, the star replay of the night was a mighty switch-hit that Maxwell sent on a journey more than 100 metres from the middle. Seeing flight from the wrist-spinner Kuldeep Yadav, Maxwell swapped his hands on the handle in a trice, became a left-handed batsman for a moment, and played a slog-sweep that soared into the night sky and nearly struck the dark glass windows at the back of the Donald Bradman Stand on the full.
Commentators expressed their amazement by saying that it “wasn’t a cricket shot”. The thing is, by now it is a cricket shot. Across his preceding two matches in Sydney days earlier, Maxwell played switch hits while piling on 108 runs in 48 balls. Back in Barbados in 2016 he played it too, nailing a six off mystery spinner Sunil Narine. It’s not confined to him: the T20 revolution has seen all kinds of reverse hits become widespread for players across the leagues of the world.
There are technical differences, in that a reverse shot does not necessarily require changing grip or stance. It can reverse the direction of the bat swing simply by pushing the back arm forward so the toe of the bat is nearer the bowler. A switch hit fully swaps hands on the handle, and front foot for back, so the toe of the bat remains nearer the keeper but in the opposite stance. Maxwell uses both methods. The effect is the same: using the direction of swing to bring the full face of the bat through the ball while aiming behind point, rather than nudging with a bat marooned on the off side.
Since the Canberra game there has been plenty of reaction to Australian ex-captain Ian Chappell saying the shot should not be allowed. He was not disapproving of Maxwell, he was asked a question and gave an opinion. And there is logic to his argument that if a bowler sets a field for a right-hander, it is unreasonable to suddenly bat with the left. It’s a worthwhile comparison that bowlers have to nominate their bowling arm and their line around or over the wicket.
The practical responses though are that the bowling approach also dictates where the non-striker stands, where the umpire’s attention goes, and where the sight-screen moves. Nominating an arm affects the mental calibration of angle for both umpiring and batting decisions. There is a safety element in a game that wants batsmen to be tested but not blindsided, given they face a danger greater than the risk of conceding runs.
Ultimately, only convention and convenience dictate that a player chooses a stance on one side of their body. They could take guard like French cricket, facing straight back down the pitch. They could stand with their back to the ball. They are allowed to use the bowler’s approach to move metres from one side of the wicket to the other, or down the pitch or back towards the stumps. All of these options affect field placings by changing their angles.
Cricket always changes. In the Victorian era it was purely about the off side, which is sometimes called “the posh side” to this day. Shots to leg are still disparaged as “agricultural”. Ranjitsinhji in the 1890s popularised the leg glance as a deliberate method of scoring rather than a happy accident. Reverse shots continue the evolution. Where convention is about meeting the ball with force as it arrives, reverses can involve catching up with the ball after it has passed the usual strike zone. That requires different skill, different finesse. It opens up areas of the ground in new ways.
With a deep point or a cover sweeper, a cut or drive must be perfectly placed to score more than a run. But any shot that goes finer will be worth two, perhaps four. And when it is time to swing big, behind point often has the least protection. With limited deliveries to come, the equation is risk-reward. Do you hit conventionally over long-on or midwicket, when a lot of those shots will fall short? Or do you aim for six in the direction where you are taking on one boundary rider rather than two or three? While it is seen as showmanship, the switch or reverse might at times be the percentage option.
For a small handful of players, that is. Which is why there is no need to oppose it: bowlers are in the game when their targets take risks, and just about anyone trying a switch-hit is pushing the dial up to 11. A player like Maxwell is one of a rare few sufficiently skilled and practiced to play it safely.
Maxwell spent his lockdown winter honing his shots, including the less orthodox. What was notable as he started his recent streak in Sydney was how secure he looked. Each switch, each reverse, came cleanly out of the middle. Most were along the ground, beating fielders. Only when he chose to ramp up did he go aerial. All those years ago, after his Test adventure met disapproval, he said that for him a reverse-sweep was “no different to a cover drive”. What he’s doing these days is proving that true.