July 31, 2013

Ashton Agar's big challenge

Can he enjoy a sustained career at the top and still retain his essential core?

Ashton Agar Model 2013: a helluva nice lad © Getty Images

The career of Ashton Agar will be a fascinating study of nature v nurture. On the face of it, we have a fresh-faced kid who appears to be a helluva nice lad. He's good-looking, modest, talented, and is imbued with strong family values and an admirable sense of perspective for one so young. His reaction to being dismissed for 98 on Test debut spoke volumes for how firmly grounded he is, though he would have been forgiven for daring to have his head in the clouds if he so chose.

On the flip side, he now enters a profession that can so easily corrupt absolutely. In Australia, and perhaps around the world, male professional sport can take a most charming young man and spit out a grizzled, surly, decadent old one. In some celebrated cases, you don't even need to wait that long; the system can change you before you are long in the tooth. The question I pose is whether Agar can enjoy a sustained career at the top and still retain his essential core personal brand despite a career in professional sport rather than because of it.

His will be a fascinating case study for me to follow. When I'm not hunting lions (with a camera) in Africa, I spend my days working with professional athletes from a variety of different sports in Australia. I've witnessed thousands of young men come through the system, find their feet on the big stage, slip up spectacularly now and again, and emerge from the other end of the sausage factory. What I've seen is a phenomenon that almost makes me wish that my sons won't ever make it in professional sport, despite the obvious pride I will have if the unthinkable happens - unthinkable only because they will have the weight of genetic disadvantage to contend with!

Australian sport, obvious exceptions notwithstanding, currently faces a crisis of confidence in terms of ethics. Performance-enhancing drugs, salary-cap rorts, sexual-assault allegations, drink-driving charges, bar fights, match-fixing, gambling, wife-beating, social-media indiscretions, you name it. There is barely a day that passes when a new scandal is not aired, 99% of it focused on male athletes, coaches, administrators, or player-agents from high-profile sports. Some of it is inevitably a subset of the normal population statistics for such behaviour, but much of it can be directly attributed to a culture that tempts, cajoles, and almost forces impressionable (arrogant) young men to conform to an ugly norm.

An inconvenient truth it may be but I've seen it happen too often to write it off as mere coincidence. The fact that most sporting codes run extensive player-education programmes - to cover topics that most other young men would have expected to have learned at home - is proof that being exposed to the rarefied atmosphere of the professional sport culture is enough to corrode basic values.

Professional sport isn't helped by the culture of denial and cover-up that pervades it. From CEOs to medical staff to coaches to media officers to sponsors, and even the police in some cases, the prevailing culture is undeniably to win at all cost

In many senses, it is inevitable. Take a young man with a yet-undeveloped pre-frontal cortex, add an unhealthy dose of narcissism, a wad of cash, limited post-school education (sometimes barely even that), loads of female attention, too much time on his hands, and too many bars and casinos open late at night, and you've created the perfect storm. It would take someone pretty special to be able to emerge unscathed from this environment.

Professional sport isn't helped by the culture of denial and cover-up that pervades it. From CEOs to medical staff to coaches to media officers to sponsors, and even the police in some cases, the prevailing culture is undeniably to win at any cost. To navigate these murky waters and emerge unmarked by these influences calls for a young man with strong family values and a belief in something greater than his identity as a mere sportsman. Of course those young men exist, but they do it despite the system, not because of it. That's where the nature v nurture experiment becomes fascinating to watch.

In Agar, we have a young man whose family will surely provide him with a level of natural immunity that will no doubt afford him some protection. You only have to look at someone like Mike Hussey to have faith in the notion that good men can always remain thus. Cricket and rugby union have more of these success stories than many of the other major team sports, but that again speaks to the power of family background. It is no guarantee but at least many of these athletes start off with a shield around them that the system tries hard to weaken. I work with many young men across issues like drugs, alcohol, violence, and respect for women. I monitor their social-media sites, I hear their stories, I'm often involved in counselling them when things go wrong. For that reason alone, I almost wish for a different destiny for my own sons, despite my passion for cricket. But they have a good mum, so they'll be okay!

Agar will hopefully enjoy a ten- or 15-year career at the top. He might soon have to cope with that first wrench of disappointment if he gets dropped from the Test team, but if his reaction to being caught in the outfield or denied Stuart Broad's wicket at Trent Bridge is anything to go by, he will smile, shrug his lanky shoulders, and thank god for his blessings. Listening to his family being interviewed made me proud to be associated with the sport, despite having no contact with him whatsoever. It was just a feel-good story all round.

Anyone familiar with Rudyard Kipling's poem "If" might wish for an Ashton Agar who can "talk with crowds and keep your virtue / Or walk with Kings-nor lose the common touch". Or someone who can "meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same".

If he can walk that thin line of fame and fortune and still remind us of Ashton Agar Model 2013, it will indeed be a triumph of nature v nurture. It used to be the case that life used to be a metaphor for sport, reminding us of all those values that the Greek philosophers waxed lyrical about: sportsmanship, good health, camaraderie, respect for opponents, honesty, chivalry and fair play. Sadly it is now all too common that the reverse is true - sport has now become a metaphor for life and is rife with terms like "cheat", "liar", "thief", "profiteer", and "win at all costs". Young men like Agar have the power to remind us that Kipling wasn't just a poet - he was a dreamer.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on August 2, 2013, 4:35 GMT

    I've got no idea if Ashton Agar is going to be a great spin bowler or all rounder. It's too early for that. He definitely has more talent than your average tail ender with the bat. I like his approach has a bowler. He gets overspin on the ball, which will give him that awkward dipping flight you need to confuse batsmen. He needs to work on his control of length as he bowls the short ball that can be cut too often. But at 19, he's way ahead of where a lot of bowlers of his style are at his age. For example Swann was in his late 20s before he emerged as a test spinner

  • jagannath on August 1, 2013, 22:59 GMT

    Agar needs to be clear in his mind whether he is a bowling all-rounder or not. I am a little disappointed that his ideal is Vettori. No disrespect to Danny. Anyone would ba proud to have a record like his. BUT It would be nice to hear youngsters say their ideal is Sobers or some such legend. For starters Agar will need to put more revs on the ball. His bowling lacks bite. He is a personable young man with a good head on his shoulders. A good bat and an even better attitude. But his primary role is to take wickets. Unless he does that his dream debut will remain just that-a dream.

  • Jaydeep on July 31, 2013, 20:00 GMT

    Come on, gentlemen (and presumably, ladies) commenting on this thread. The world has a surfeit of dour naysayers, verily. I couldn't care less if Agar is 'a modest talent' or if he puts fewer revs on the ball than Graeme 'The Smirk' Swann. As of now, he is special, which is why articles like these are being written, and why those like Michael Jeh can still prod the stodgiest of us to get up, open the window, and let the rainstorm in for a bit. Until you make a Test debut for your country at 17, and then make more runs at your position than anyone has ever made in the 150 year odd history of the sport, articles like this about naysayers like you will have to wait. Agar will always be in exalted company if only we think of others who debuted this young for their countries - the likes of Waqar Younis, Sachin Tendulkar, and Joe Root (just to keep in the exception to prove the rule). Good on you, Ashton. All the best for a dazzling career to come.

  • Mark on July 31, 2013, 18:02 GMT

    I like Agar. I don't know what Micheal Jeh is trying to allude here. Family values? You are saying it is under threat if he becomes famous? Well fame can bring its own pitfalls. But hang on are you making a judgement on Agar after just two test appearances? I like Agar. He is a good cricketer, who might I add seems to be a better batsman than a bowler. However Australia is searching for a leg spinner so if he develops further he could be a permanent fixture for Australia. Micheal Jeh young men, will be young men. Let them have it. Don't put your moralizing views on Agar and pontificate from a pulpit. I am sure Micheal Jeh you might have had a pretty wild youth yourself when you were at Oxford playing first grade cricket.I am sure your family values back then went walkabout for a period. Also this article is one eulogy to Agar, let him prove himself further. Personally I think he is an exciting young cricketer.Oz need more like him, who knows like warne he could be a bowler who can bat.

  • Peter on July 31, 2013, 14:13 GMT

    I see Agar as a very average spinner who can swing a bat. He will be in the team for a few tests and then out of it just like the other 10 spinners Australia have tried since the great Shane Warne retired. He may have looks and charm that make him marketable but if he can't bowl then he's not much good to anyone.

    Before people start worrying about whether they can market someone maybe they should first look at whether the person is any good at their job and Agar isn't. He's only young and has time on his side but he needs to go away, learn his trade and come back in 5 yrs because at the moment he is way out of his depth

  • Dummy4 on July 31, 2013, 12:05 GMT

    Too much of is being made of a modest talent. Ashton Agar is , at least now, no better than a club class bowler.He will most probably go the way of the other spinners Australia has tried in recent times- after a dozen odd tests may be.

  • Adam on July 31, 2013, 9:55 GMT

    If he finishes his career with 10 tests he will be doing well

  • xxxxx on July 31, 2013, 9:38 GMT

    Like the author, I also wish Agar well. Unlike the author and the marketing men I do not think of Agar as a "brand" or a "case study" or or a dream-like example of what everyone should be like or an innocent ripe for corruption by the system.

    Due to his talent and hard work Agar now has the opportunity to develop both as a man and a cricketer via the medium of international cricket. Like all of us on this planet he will be exposed to good and bad and ugly and how he deals with all of that and the lessons he learns will determine his character.

    I hope that Agar will be allowed and forgiven mistakes along the way and that the media will not "rebrand" him as a demon if they do occur. I also hope he is allowed to develop naturally without too much trendy life coaching, player education and the like, especially if those running these courses have a depressive and unrealistic view of Aus society as an "ugly norm".