Updated: October 19, 2021 2:30:19 pm
Glenn Maxwell was “bawling” in the room in the presence of fiancee Vini Raman, who was the first to spot that he was suffering from depression. The sobbing had been triggered by his selection for the 2019 World Cup semifinal against England. Post that game, in which he didn’t score many and Australia were hammered, Maxwell was sitting in the dressing room, casting a glance at other players with the thought that had afflicted him for a while.
“I felt like I was 100 percent to blame and I was looking around the room going ‘I wonder if they’re thinking the same thing’. I wonder if they’re looking at me going ‘If only Max, you had turned up this tournament,’” he tells Neroli Meadows in her podcast Ordineroli Speaking.
The external question asked by irate fans internalised to a degree that he couldn’t function normally. A couple of months after the World Cup, after more troubles on and off the field – even when he was fielding, he “would be off with the fairies” – Maxwell sought out sports psychiatrist Ranjit Menon, an external consultant for Cricket Australia.
Things have changed for the better now as he almost single-handedly dragged Royal Challengers Bangalore to the Indian Premier League playoffs and is the prime hope if Australia are to shed their sub-par performances in T20 World Cups. Menon is understandably elated but also cautious, as mind-doctors have to be. Though he refuses to get into any specifics of Maxwell’s case, he does offer qualified optimism.
“Maxwell is a tough-grown-up man. The way he has rebounded with great performances in recent times does suggest he is in a good happy space,” Menon tells The Indian Express on Monday. “The thing is though – and I am speaking generally and not about him here – is that success isn’t the barometer to judge mental health. In most cases, mental issues have to be managed. There aren’t magic pills to cure them. We have seen (tennis player) Naomi Osaka having troubles with success, to put it in a simple way. Success isn’t always a liberating force as is perceived. Maxwell is doing well, and hope he continues to sparkle as he is a very fine honest man.”
Honesty, in this sense, isn’t just about his dealings with the world but crucially with himself. When self-deceptions are done away with, the inner clouds clear and the sunlight of wellbeing can rush in.
“Athletes acutely feel the sense of being judged negatively and over time, that can be a debilitating feeling. At a very young age, they are reared as professional athletes. The way their underlying personality develops over time is heavily influenced by athletic performances – we call it athletic identity,” Menon says. “Part of that identity is wanting to perform to that level consistently. And your internal expectations of your own self get significantly affected. For some, it can have disastrous consequences like becoming depressed and acutely anxious. Then the external expectations, like coaches and fans needing you to perform, and when you are not performing at the level they expect you to, you feel like you are letting them down,” Menon says.
In many ways, Maxwell has a boy’s view of what it is to be a batsman. The predetermination in most shots, the child’s confidence that he can pull off reverse-laps and such, the urge to whisk the ball to unconventional areas – he bats like someone raised on gaming platforms, and is perhaps the true representative of this generation.
Unsurprisingly, confidence is the key to such a batting style. Which he had oodles off. Simon Helmot, a coach in the Big Bash and IPL in the past, rewinds to a moment in a dugout 10 years ago. Coming in at 157/6 with less than 10 overs left, Maxwell smashed Australia’s fastest domestic half-century (27-ball 61, the fifty came off 19) to help chase down 269. His previous highest for Victoria Bushrangers was 33.
“When I congratulated him all excited, he goes, ‘You look surprised, coach. That’s what I do!’ and everyone laughed. It was the breakout match for us, and for him,” Helmot says. “At u-19 level, he had the ability to strike the ball at far greater power than others. When he came to Victoria Bushrangers, he could hit the ball to different places and set himself differently from most at the crease. The confidence was striking.”
Helmot’s faith didn’t waver from then on. Even last year, when the runs weren’t coming, the coach was confident. Maxwell had yet again overhauled his technique – he keeps doing it as if it were a Playstation game – and has now opened up his stance completely. The shoulder and front leg were almost facing midwicket, while the bat curiously was left open, facing mid-off at times. Last IPL, he repeatedly tried dragging the ball to the onside but it wasn’t coming off as well as he would have liked. Helmot was unfazed, though.
“He is a problem-solver. About the lack of runs – is it the technique or wrong shot selection? I feel, as he wasn’t using the offside that much in the IPL (last year) but will use the switch-hit more and the reverse-paddle. The new technique and strategy haven’t matched yet; it will, I feel, from now on.”
Helmot’s assessment has been proved right. The bat-angle has been tinkered a touch but the rest of the open stance has remained and runs have flowed. The reverse-paddle and switch-hits too have been frequently seen, along with the big heave-ho to the onside in the 2021 IPL. RCB used Maxwell smartly, giving him the middle overs – 7th to 15th – to free himself and unleash hell.
The Australian set-up also played its part in the unravelling of Maxwell’s psyche. At that 2019 World Cup, Maxwell talks about a couple of episodes that are pretty revealing.
He had copped a fierce blow in the nets from Mitchell Starc and had gone to hospital hoping that his bone “was broken”. “It doesn’t feel like it’s snapped right through. I was thinking about things I could do on the way back to snap it … I was so angry with myself. I had indirect anger at other people on it. It didn’t make sense … I was frustrated with the way (I was) playing, I was frustrated with how I was being perceived… this (injury) was my ticket out of disappointment.”
The day he returned from hospital, Maxwell was thrown into another intense net session, with Justin Langer (head coach) and Ricky Ponting (who was the batting consultant during that World Cup) turning on the heat. “I was on a few painkillers and I had JL and Ponting just bounce the crap out of me in one net to see if I was ready to go. And that was my fitness test and got hit a couple of times, but I just sort of literally, blank-faced and just went, ‘yep, yep, this is what I’m doing here. Sure. Whatever makes everyone else happy. I’ll just, I’ll just do it. I’ll just get through the rest of this tournament.’”
It wasn’t long after that Vini Raman cottoned on to the fact that he was depressed and urged him to seek professional help. “Some athletes might have pre-existing vulnerability, be it genetics or whatever. They have had this issue for a long time and when they come to a high-performance environment, it manifests itself. The second set of people are those who haven’t had this issue before but because of that environment and pressure, they start to develop a new onset of illness,” Menon says.
Rishabh Pant was chirping from behind the stumps during RCB’s last league game. “Jo mere ko daal raha tha, voh daal… inko kaisey pata chalega?! (Bowl the one they bowled to me. How will they understand?)” Pant told Axar Patel in Hindi with a chuckle when Maxwell was new to the crease. And Patel kept firing it in full to keep Maxwell quiet for a few balls. Maxwell’s response came swift and furious.
He shuffled around, went down on his knee to reverse-crash a Patel delivery to the backward point boundary. Next ball, he scythed the reverse-hit through covers. The spinners were off and Maxwell then returned to his open-stance whack through midwicket to the seamers. When Ripal Patel hurled one outside off, he smashed it over extra cover. He stayed unbeaten on 51 as RCB pulled off a last-ball win. It was his sixth fifty in this IPL and when he failed in the next game – the Eliminator – RCB too sunk.
As the irate trolls on social media began to show their class, Maxwell would react: “Some of the garbage that has been flowing on social media is absolutely disgusting! We are human beings who are giving our best each and every day. Try being a decent person maybe instead of spreading abuse…”
Menon says it’s not his place to advise Maxwell or sportspersons to stay off social media. “He has reacted in the manner he thought was best. To let them know the players’ point of view. He is a grown-up adult, a tough man, and will decide how best to react. I will say this: the pressures on athletes from social media have grown manifold in the present times. That’s a huge difference from the past; now nameless, faceless mobs can reach you. It adds another dimension to the whole athlete-fan relationship and does heap more pressure.”
The T20 World Cup will be fascinating to track Maxwell. In some respects, the last year or so when he has dazzled, the external expectations were perhaps a touch lower. Now that he has sparkled in the IPL and shown the world the heights that an unshackled Maxwell Version 2.0 can achieve, the expectations would be back. What would the man who bats like a boy do?
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