The Chu household in Hawke’s Bay, on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, had witnessed many Christmases but none as special as the one in 2005. A lavish Christmas lunch was soon followed by a 5-year old Max opening his presents and sprinting into the backyard for a classic Xmas ritual- backyard cricket.
“My grandparents had bought me a full set of gear, and I remember running straight outside with the wicket-keeping gloves on and keeping in the family BYC game all Christmas afternoon!”, Max Churecalls in a conversation with Sportskeeda. An electric presence behind the wickets can be quite handy after all.
Fifteen years later, he’s played in an U19 World Cup, made his provincial debut for Otago but, more significantly, he’s lined up to play against the likes of Ben Stokes, Joe Root and Jofra Archer among other names.
With his current situation pictured, it is imperative to mention that his precocious knack of keeping wickets wasn’t lost. There’s hardly ever a story of a sportsman from Down Under that doesn’t involve an all-important decision of prioritizing one sport over another. Cricket, for Max, staved off competition with rugby, hockey, and basketball.
“It was probably at age 12 when I got selected for a district (and then regional) representative team, but a year early. That's when I sort of thought 'this is my favorite sport' and I really enjoyed playing against the older kids.”
Playing club cricket for Carisbrook-Dunedin for several years, he quickly gained a reputation as one of the country’s best young wicket-keepers. An U19 call up seemed more or less imminent with New Zealand hosting a World Cup in 2018.
He played four games in the U19 World Cup that saw hosts New Zealand being thoroughly outplayed in the quarter-final against Afghanistan as the spin trio of Qais Ahmed, Mujeeb Zadran and Zahir Khan spun a web to knock the hosts out. However, a World Cup of any kind is an elite experience afforded to the country’s best and Max made the most of it.
“The U19 World Cup was an awesome experience. As a 17-year-old, I really hadn't had a full taste of what very high-performance cricket looked like, and it was eye-opening for me. Traveling the country, media obligations, etc. were some of the many things that you quickly had to learn how to handle, and at the time it was as close to a professional environment as you could get - that's what made it different for me.”
His natural keeping skills did not go unnoticed in an otherwise dismal campaign as Otago came calling. However, as Assistant coach Anton Roux tells Sportskeeda, it was a host of other skills and his work ethic that proved fruitful in Max bagging his first professional contract ahead of the 2019-20 season.
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“I think it’s as simple as the fact that he really enjoys cricket, and really enjoys working at getting better. The drive to continuously get better cannot be coached and this is evident the minute you meet him. He has laser-like attention to small details and does not cut any corners, and by doing so he brings along other players with him. “
In February 2019, Max donned the whites for a New Zealand XI against the touring Sri Lankans in a three-day fixture even before his provincial debut across any format. With three catches and an unbeaten knock of 33 batting at No. 10, he saw off the likes of Dilruwan Perera and Lakshan Sandakan. A tough first-class debut against the Central Districts followed as Otago went down by an innings but the selectors continued to blood him against touring sides like Bangladesh and England.
“ I've been lucky enough to play in a few NZ XI fixtures against quality oppositions, and that has been an amazing experience for me. The main learnings are probably that it is still just a game between bat and ball, and the difference between international cricket and the next tier is the execution and consistency of skills over time. I think watching how Joe Root and Niroshan Dickwella played spin was a standout.”
To many viewers and fans, a specialist wicket-keeper who bats as low as No. 10 can be quite confounding. Of course, in modern-day cricket, this feeling can come from watching Jos Buttler consigning the crowd members to do the catching or BJ Watling farming the strike for hours at length while also doubling up as a watchful keeper.
The role of a specialist keeper maybe quite underrated but try telling that to Don Bradman or County Cricket Club captains. For many years, ‘choose the best keeper, batting secondary’ was the Australian way. Despite the shouts of keepers doubling up as swashbuckling batsmen, Max remains unperturbed and knows his spot in the XI is, for now, primarily as a keeper with his batting skills a work in progress to be developed over the seasons.
A competition for places
Max has largely remained an understudy to Mitch Renwick, another keeper-batsman in the squad. With Renwick opening the batting, Max’s spot isn’t always guaranteed and his opportunities in the Plunket Shield and the Super Smash have been far and few between. However, Otago decided to blood him in the shortest format with a debut in the Super Smash this season.
From a coaching front, Roux understands having competition for spots will lead to difficult selections but only helps in pushing players to be their best selves.
“Max is a level-headed guy in general and understands the balance of the team sometimes doesn’t allow him to play as a keeper. He is getting his opportunity now in T20s but in the other formats, Mitch has the gloves. Max understands this and at the same time will drive him to learn and get better. He and Mitch are training partners and push each other to get better each day. It’s great to see them work together.”
On air during Otago’s campaign in the Super Smash where they ended up being the semi-finalists, New Zealand’s first World Cup-winning captain Emily Drumm attributed Otago’s success to the fine balance between youth and experience in the squad. She went on to laud Max’s earnest attempts behind the stumps where he’s the captain’s aide overlooking the fielding placements.
With Otago opting to have a spin-heavy strategy employing left-arm wrist spinner Michael Rippon and finger spinners Dean Foxcroft and Anaru Kitchen in the T20s, Roux thinks Max has developed a key relationship in his first T20 season.
“Max has gotten a lot more confident in and around the group, and with our team culture that we have developed, we encourage all players to talk and share, and Max’s input has been great and a breath of fresh air. He has particularly struck up a good relationship with our spinners and plays a key role together with them.
He still has a way to go to develop his batting further, but he is by no means a slouch with the bat and has already scored some telling runs down the order for us in four-day games. Now it’s about expanding his white-ball batting, gaining some strength and figuring out what type of batter he wants to be for Otago in white-ball cricket.”Published 29 Mar 2020, 23:06 IST