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Ashton Agar is Australia's 13th Test spinner since Shane Warne. It is quite a story. Is he the one?
July 12, 2013
Before the Test there was a skinny teenager with a baggy cap hanging around the Australian nets. He was smiling, laughing, fiddling with his cap, and having a great time. It looked like someone's nephew had been allowed pitch access. Instead it was the 13th post-Warne spinner.
While the entire cricket world was looking at Fawad Ahmed, Ashton Agar could have been dancing a naked watusi and still got no coverage. Even when Ahmed went home, Ahmed had more press than Agar. Then if people ever dared look past Ahmed, it was all about Nathan Lyon. While some ex-players had suggested Agar, it was never really pushed as all that serious. Agar did no press, had no hoopla, and it is doubtful how many people knew he was even in the country.
Now all that has changed. He's been interviewed more times than he's shaved. His story is amazing. On the face of it, it's got to be the most amazing story of any Australian spinner since Warne. He scores flashy runs, he takes important wickets, he fields like a pro. His loose limbs look designed to be used for 170 Tests.
But the story of the spinners since Warne includes a 12-wicket haul on debut, the biggest smashing of any spinner, a man leaving for a TV career, a bloke the selectors even knew nothing about and a man retiring with a broken heart. If Agar is the new saviour, he's lifted by the corpses of 12 other spinners.
This dark road started with Stuart MacGill as Warne's dramatic and often reliable understudy. He waited so long to be the main man, Warne's exit should have meant he strode onto the scene with his jolly swagger and angry face. Instead his knee was dodgy. And his TV career gained momentum. At one stage it seemed Cricket Australia didn't even know where MacGill was. When they did, it was because they'd followed the trail of long hops. His knee forced him out of the team.
It was another aged wristspinner with international experience who replaced MacGill in the Test team. Yet, no matter how much experience Brad Hogg had, he was never a Test match bowler. His wrong 'un is hard to pick, although not always as hard to pick as sloggers in the Big Bash make it look. His stock ball was never threatening, a bad sign for Test spinners, and against India he was outbowled by the part time offerings of Michael Clarke and Andrew Symonds. Not that it mattered, as he retired shortly after that series.
MacGill was brought straight back for a tour of the West Indies. There, he played like a member of the Fanatics had been pulled out of the crowd after a few drinks. He ran like a man with cardboard knees. And then he retired mid-series.
Australia had gone from three experienced wrist spinners to none. They would also be the last three spinners given the opportunity to step down.
After outperforming Bryce McGain in the Shield final by taking four wickets and scoring 89, Beau Casson was MacGill's back up on that Windies tour. Like MacGill, he was a promising wristspinner who had fled Perth for Sydney searching for more friendly conditions. Instead of the confidence of Warne, the cockiness of MacGill or even the steadiness of Hogg, Australia had Casson crying as he received his cap.
Even in a decent Australian team, against a poor West Indies team, Casson looked nervous and out of place. His first innings seven overs cost 43 runs in a total of 216. In the second, with the West Indies chasing a nominal target, his left arm wrist spin took 3 for 86. There was still little confidence, but he was just a young wristspinner, he would have plenty of time to improve.
Except he never played again. Since that time Casson has been thrown out of a Shield game for bowling too many full tosses. He resorted to playing cricket in Darwin to recapture his form, and then after a brief, unsuccessful, comeback retired because he had tetralogy of fallot which sounds like a World of Warcraft-style game but is actually a dangerous congenital heart defect. Casson is now 30, still retired, and played 12 first-class games after his one Test.
Cameron White didn't believe he was a spinner when he was picked. If Warne's belief in himself was his most remarkable quality, White's lack of belief made his selection remarkable. As captain of Victoria, White had bowled less and less over the years, using himself as little more than a sixth or seventh option on the darkest days. Australia ignored that and White travelled to India to team up with Jason Krejza. Except, Krejza didn't play, White did.
White did take the wicket of Sachin Tendulkar in the first Test. But Sachin does like to help out debutants. In four Tests White took five wickets for 342 runs. But perhaps the most interesting moment was when he bowled a ball that barely touched the pitch. It was the wide that was so bad, it travelled from country to country telling everyone Australia was becoming less and less of a force in world cricket.
White was once called The Next Warne; mind you that was before most people had seen him bowl. White now occasionally bowls medium pace. He still rarely bowls legspin, and has played no more Tests.
As White bowled truckloads of doorknobs and longhops in India, Krejza sat by and watched. Krejza had an interesting past: he once tested positive for cocaine and claimed his drink was spiked. At the time Michael Brown, speaking for Cricket Australia, said: "I saw a report recently that stated there were around 4,000 reported cases of drink spiking last year and higher-profile athletes and celebrities can be targeted."
In 2006 it was doubtful that Krejza was high profile, a celebrity or was even recognisable to people who hadn't met him multiple times. When he was selected, in 2008, he was still largely unrecognisable.
As each Test in India passed, it seemed weirder and weirder that Australia wouldn't try Krejza. The official word was that he wasn't ready yet. They said it so many times I'm sure the transcribers stopped writing it. It also didn't seem to matter that White had never been ready. By the last Test, they were 1-0 down and had little choice but to throw him the ball. Suddenly he was ready, or he was there, fit, and an actual spinner.
What happened next was perhaps one of the oddest debuts in history as Krejza did what almost no bowler has ever done: he pretended runs didn't matter. It didn't matter that he was bowling to Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, Ganguly and Dhoni, the ball was going to be flighted and ripped. And he did it again and again and again and again. It was the way spinners bowl in nets, only he was bowling to legends of the world, who were hitting him for sixes and fours; that he ignored.
There were also wickets. Oh, so many wickets. Wickets everywhere. Eight of them in the first innings alone. For only 215 runs. And off only 43.5 overs. Flight, six. Flight, four. Flight, wicket.
In the next innings he just continued to do the same. 4 for 143 off 31. They were 12 wickets of the most surrealist insanity you could ever see. There is no computer in the world, or even human brain, who could fully work out what had actually happened in this Test.
The selectors gave Krejza another Test, he took one wicket, never failed another drug test and hasn't played Test cricket since.
It is almost impossible to tell the entire story of Australia's next spinner, even though he only played one Test. McGain went from an office worker to an Australian spinner after turning 30. In his 20s he wasn't even always in his club side's first XI. It was the story that never looked like happening. Casson was picked ahead of him after McGain had bowled poorly in the Shield final because he opened up the callous on his spinning hand when swimming in salt water. He injured his shoulder when he was picked to tour India and had only one game to provide his fitness to tour South Africa, a tour that he missed the flight for.
His body and mind were telling him what people had told him for years: you shouldn't be playing Test cricket. But his record was good, and his comeback game ended in a messy five-wicket haul and he eventually caught a flight to South Africa.
When he was finally picked, it was because Marcus North, who'd been given a chance to play as a batsman partly because of his offspin, was sick in South Africa.
McGain was 36, and had dreamed longer than most about this. That dream went horribly wrong as McGain was essentially caught in the middle of a Sharknado without a shotgun or chainsaw.
The locals still say: "On a sunny day when the Newlands pitch is flat, if you listen carefully, you can still hear McGain scream." McGain's figures were 149 runs from 18 overs. The wicket column was not required. Strangely, McGain never played another Test match.
Nathan Hauritz always looked too demure and kind to be a cricketer. He should have been a paediatrician or a McDonald's manager. Instead he became an offspinner and as early as 2002, when he was only 21, he played one-dayers, and in 2004 he played Test cricket in India, and was outbowled by Clarke who took 6 for 9. When he was picked the second time, it was because McGain was injured, and Krejza was injured between his two Tests. At that stage Hauritz wasn't thought good enough to be playing for New South Wales. Hauritz had been picked from Sydney grade cricket.
For the 2009 Ashes he was Australia's first-choice spinner, and outbowled Graeme Swann at Cardiff. But he was never truly loved or believed in. He often chipped in, but never more than that. Ponting wanted him to develop new strings to his bow, or even evolve a new bow, but essentially Hauritz bowled close-to-the-stumps offspin with friendly drift that spun back in. He was an anti-mystery spinner. He would never ever be more than that. And Australia was desperate for more than that. Hauritz continually improved his skills, but he couldn't produce magic tricks with plumber's hands.
They told him to improve his batting. And he did. They told him to be more aggressive. And he did. They told him to take five-wicket hauls. And he did. They told him to believe in himself. And he did. And they picked someone who wasn't quite as good and he never played again. Hauritz is still only 31, has not played a Test since 2010 and will finish with a bowling average of 35 from 17 Tests.
After he was dropped there was a story that he was selling his Australian kit at a garage sale in disgust. It turned out to be not true. But if anyone had a right too, it was Hauritz.
Due to an injury to Hauritz, Steve Smith was picked to play a series against Pakistan in England. Smith had long been seen as a potential all-round option for Australia. He had even taken a seven-wicket haul in Shield cricket; there were Shield spinners who didn't take seven wickets in a summer. He could get turn. His fielding was amazing. And he was an attacking, if flawed, batsman.
In his first Test he took 3 for 51 in the second innings, which sounds good. But at the other end North took 6 for 55. In his following six Tests he took one more wicket. Now Smith has somehow made himself a No. 5 batsman, which at times looked even less likely than him making it as a bowler. In this Test, he hasn't bowled a ball on a pitch that has taken spin. He will bowl again, infrequently and probably inconsequentially.
The man who replaced Hauritz was Xavier Doherty. Doherty had been a quality limited-overs bowler, who would often stop midway through a delivery before completing it, like the great Satchel Paige. It was one of the few tricks he had. His bowling average was always massively high in first-class cricket. His selection came more from the belief than if you tossed up anything left-arm slow to Kevin Pietersen he would stumble over it and fall on his face. He didn't. Instead he used Doherty as dental floss.
No one ever expected to see Doherty again, but he kept popping up. Generally he went unnoticed unless he was ripped apart like he was when he had to bowl an over with Kieron Pollard and Chris Gayle at the crease in the final over of Australia's semi-final of the World T20. His last Tests against India had him being economical and as threatening as a Dixie cup. His Test average is now 78, and something magical or horrible would have to happen for him to ever come back.
Michael Beer was picked because of his local knowledge of Western Australian pitches. The only problem being that he had only just moved there, and had played less on the WACA than Hauritz had. Beer had only played five first-class matches; it was if the selectors had been driving past a bus stop and seen Beer flicking the ball to himself and thought: "Well, he has strong fingers."
It was probably the selection that confirmed the fate of the selection panel and coach of the time.
It wasn't that Beer was rubbish. It was just that he wasn't very exciting or dynamic. He was a big lug of a spinner who turned the ball an appropriate amount, but rarely more. In two Tests, Beer has three wickets. The two most interesting things about him are that he was the last wicket of the 2010-11 Ashes and that had he not got injured, we might never have seen his understudy Agar in this Test match.
Glenn Maxwell made his debut in India. Because if you have a young all-round spinning talent you want to destroy, that is the place to do it. Maxwell is an awkward spinner. For the first few years of his career, Victorian fans thought he was there for his fielding. Maxwell has endless confidence; according to some he has a bathtub of X-Factor. His jerky round-arm style looks very part-time, and until he started bowling around the wicket to right handers, he looked very ropey indeed. But he kept improving, so Australia picked him against India and he took wickets.
Now his good balls were more than okay but his bad balls could be seen in any pub side in the world. And there were a lot of them. But in two Tests he took seven wickets of varying luck and skill. Unfortunately for him, he also made only 39 runs in those two Tests, and Australia decided that he wasn't needed for the Ashes and may not factor again until the next Test tour to the subcontinent.
Even if he was in full uniform, you could walk past Nathan Lyon and not know he was an Australian cricketer. Which is what he did in his career for a while. For 22 Tests he was almost always Australia's first-choice spinner. Even if in India he'd been dropped.
Lyon came from nowhere; well actually, he came from the groundstaff. Lyon was the assistant groundsman at Adelaide Oval and had been driving back and forth to Canberra playing second XI cricket for the ACT Comets. Somehow, while all this was happening, he was also picked for South Australia and was the leading wicket taker in the Big Bash for the winning side in 2010-11. It was good timing, as that summer Hauritz was allegedly selling things in his garage, Doherty was being drained of bodily fluids in Adelaide and Beer looked stunned to be involved.
Lyon was picked to travel to Sri Lanka.
Lyon's first ball in a Test was the wicket of Kumar Sangakkara. It swayed in, dipped nicely and spun enough to take the edge. But he didn't stop there; he took four more wickets as well. This was a controlled five-wicket haul by an Australian spinner, making his debut against world-class players of spin. A 98 from a No. 11 was probably more likely at that stage. Lyon might have been very similar to Hauritz, close to the stumps, no doosra, decent spin, but he already had the confidence of his team and selectors that Hauritz never seemed to gain.
Lyon probably wasn't even Hauritz 2.0. There was no doosra, no carrom ball, no anything that went the other way. It was just standard offspin from a country that had never really produced anything better. But Lyon was decent, and consistent. He was given 22 Tests. He was steady, not sexy, but he put the ball where he wanted consistently.
In Adelaide he failed to beat South Africa. And turned himself into a bowling robot for a while. But he had learned from that, he seemed to always be learning, improving. Every article was about how he was getting better, how he'd worked out this Test cricket. Fixed a kink. Tweaked himself in a good way.
Lyon's best spell of bowling was in Delhi where he took 7 for 94. It looked like a turning point for him. He was no longer just a guy who chipped in, he had fought back from missing one Test, and had done so with his best performance for Australia, and finally making India work hard against spin. In the second innings, the magic disappeared, but he still ended with nine wickets in the match. He'd done it in a way more repeatable and sensible way than Krejza's big haul. That was also Lyon's last Test. It was Australia's previous Test before this one.
Lyon has not spent much time on the field this match, but he was cheering as loudly and voraciously as anyone else during Agar's innings. Lyon will play Tests again. He'll play when Australia need two spinners, when Agar is injured, if Agar loses form, or he'll just be picked randomly when Agar is seemingly the obvious choice.
There will be people who will say that Ashton Agar is the spinner Australia have been looking for. The one that these 12 other bodies have been keeping the spot warm for.
If the dark days of Australian spin have taught us anything, it's that weird things happen to Australian spinners. We have absolutely no idea what will happen to Agar in the future. He could become a lawyer in Galle, collect a world record amount of kazoos, walk cats for a living, or even play 170 Tests.
Agar is still 169 short of that mark, and he's still 21 short of the amount of Tests Nathan Lyon has played. He might - however unlikely - never play Test cricket again.
But if the strange sad conveyor belt of Australian spin does move beyond Ashton Agar, he has at least given us something truly remarkable. Warne did that all the time, but just once is pretty nice.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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