March 28, 2014

Watching Ashton Agar

When you make 98 from No. 11 on debut, it is your premature fate to never just be another name on a teamsheet
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From 98 on Test debut to no wicket in 40 overs and 2 runs off 32 in the Shield final
From 98 on Test debut to no wicket in 40 overs and 2 runs off 32 in the Shield final © Getty Images

Late cut is the best-named shot. Hook, pull, glance, sweep and reverse sweep, on-drive, off-drive, cover drive, square cut, block - evocative labels all, and they paint what's happening and where. Late cut tells you when. And it doesn't just tell. It implies; implies skill, because to hit the ball late is hard, implies as well something close to sweetness. There is a delicate torment in that stalled half-second when a batsman dips at the knees and time dangles and everyone sees what's about to unfold and is waiting, waiting for him to play his rare shot.

Late cut. Such is the power of "late" that "cut" too is intensified, becomes literal. It can pierce, slice you open, if you're fielding, whether you're watching - like at Trent Bridge when Ashton Agar did a strange flexing of his forearms, a dummy swing, which turned into a giant tumbling backlift that he checked for a moment while Graeme Swann's delivery took its time streaming down, this ball whirring past the crease line, nestling nearly in the keeper's gloves, at which point Agar snapped awake, uncoiled his wrists, swivelled the bat-face, sent the ball scudding wide of slip. It took him from 63 to 67 and not only that, it levelled the first-innings scores, and something else, it showed people that this Agar could fine-tune magic.

That was eight months ago. We knew at the time his 98 runs were a Test No. 11's world record. They were the cricketing impossibility of 2013. But we did not know their meaning - only that, as Tanya Aldred wrote in her powerfully weighted match report, "Outside the ground, in the Radcliffe Convenience Store and the Instrument Repair Centre, life went on… For Ashton Agar, it will never be the same again."

He was 19 then, the willow of his blade scuffed and taped-up; 20 now, he has a Kookaburra bat contract. Morning phase is over. This week's Sheffield Shield final at Manuka Oval was Agar's last game of big-time cricket, his first break from playing, for a while. At Manuka he bowled - six spells, 40 overs - before batting. Technically he is a bowler. And Manuka is an irregular first-class ground: grassy banks, sightscreens with wheels, the wooden Jack Fingleton scoreboard, no coffee van, no wicket in 40 overs for Agar.

No frustration showed. Unrufflability had been a hallmark of Agar's at Trent Bridge. It bounces out of his tanned skin still. He did his job, capping the runs up one end while Western Australia's fast bowlers attacked from the other, because the normal job - wickets - is not yet Agar's job as he isn't a reliable wicket-taker. Commonly young bowlers bowl, learn, bowl some more at a slightly lower level of cricket. Instead Agar was at Manuka, bowling from the Shops and Cafés End, same angle mostly, with a little spin, not much drift, drop, rip or loop, no tricks, plenty of accuracy.

Watching cricket, a team game, naturally you take an interest in certain individuals. It is Agar's premature fate to be never just another name on a teamsheet, somebody people can come to blank.

He's headed for the national cricket centre in Brisbane, under the tuition of Greg Chappell and other specialist coaches, while the rest of us remember what he did to that ball of Swann's, and wish warm thoughts his way, and wait, and hope like hell Chappell and Co lay their hands off him

The score as he loped out to bat was 7 for 144, not so different from Trent Bridge's 9 for 117. Long sleeves hid his long arms. But the slow-unwinding ease of his movements - the touch of Gower - was instantly familiar. Tumbling backswing and a minimal flicker of his feet. Josh Hazlewood and Trent Copeland of New South Wales were reverse-swinging the old ball across him. Fifth ball, Agar crouched in defence, the ball trickling towards the mid-on fielder, who leapt out of the silence and jiggled his eyes and began star-jumping backwards in a conspicuous effort to not pick the ball up, daring Agar to run one so he would have the strike for the next over - disrespectful to a Test 98-maker. Agar's rhythm went lost after that. Batting without rhythm, an important batting art, seemed to Agar some totally foreign pursuit. After a dozen balls he'd been hit once, dropped once. And after that the lateness of his movements grew more pronounced. When his innings was 25 balls old, he had attempted the slash-outside-off-stump seven times, missed six, connected once, scored zero from the stroke. Then Hazlewood pitched one slightly fuller, enough to clip the flailing bat's edge. It had been a highly eventful 32-ball 2.

"I was hitting the ball fairly well," he'd said in the aftermath of Trent Bridge, "and I just tried to keep doing that", except some days you don't hit the ball well, or can't hit it at all, and what then?

"Dream" was the word journalists plucked out of the air eight months ago. Agar used it himself, five times in the press conference straight after. You can glimpse a woman on a street and detour daily down that street in the hope of eyeballing her again, and logic and history say you're a chance. But to dream a dream again? Retrace your night-time steps, pre-warm your milk to the same temperature: there are no guarantees.

When that Ashes series had ended, journalist Chloe Saltau visited the Agar family home at Bentleigh, suburban Melbourne, where she noted, poignantly, "He is undaunted, and he doesn't ever want to forget how he felt on the field at Trent Bridge." That day he'd struck two sixes in 40 minutes, drive shots - between the side fence and the citrus trees next to the driveway, in Bentleigh parlance - which is as many first-class sixes as he's hit in the 260-odd days since. He has played a full Sheffield Shield season, just gone, averaging 56 with the ball, 15 with the bat and how he'd like to be the one doing the reverse swinging of those numbers.

The morning after his eventful 2, rain closed in. New South Wales drew the match to win the Shield. Agar bowled 21 more overs, no wickets, and shortly he's headed for the national cricket centre in Brisbane, under the tuition of Greg Chappell and other specialist coaches, while the rest of us remember what he did to that ball of Swann's, and wish warm thoughts his way, and wait, and hope like hell Chappell and Co lay their hands off him.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy and Australia: Story of a Cricket Country. His new book is Rock Country

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • POSTED BY LoungeChairCritic on | April 1, 2014, 23:59 GMT

    As a close follower of WA cricket, my gut feeling is Agar is an absolute talent. Although he had an ordinary shield year, he will not be the 1st and last sportsmen to suffer from second year blues. His desire to succeed was clearly evident in his decision to leave his close family and head out west at the age of 18 or 19. I think it was a mature decision by a young kid who believed that he wouldn't get an opportunity if he stayed at home. As a bowler, I think he has the ingredients of a good orthodox left arm off spinner. They really need to work on his slider and using the crease to change angles to batsmen. As a batsmen, I think his defence and ability to let balls go should be encouraged. Unless you are a freak like Gilly, most people can't just come out and give it a smack on a consistent basis. If he learns to bat time, the runs will come.

  • POSTED BY R_U_4_REAL_NICK on | March 30, 2014, 22:20 GMT

    Always remember that he was supposed to be in the team as a bowler. The problem with too many international teams at the moment is they're constantly trying to hammer square pegs into round holes. The sooner selectors remember the golden rules that batsmen need to score runs and bowlers need to take wickets (or at the very least hold up an end in certain circumstances), and anything else is just a bonus, then order will be restored. In the future should we be looking out for 'Agar the batsman', 'Agar the bowler', or 'Agar the all-rounder'?

  • POSTED BY dieseldoc on | March 30, 2014, 9:00 GMT

    it was a class knock..helped by Hughes' determination..a batting natural..forget Chappel..get a bowler to help him forward and the batting will flow on with ease and confidence

  • POSTED BY Winsome on | March 29, 2014, 9:25 GMT

    That first paragraph is truly a thing of beauty. I immediately thought of Mahela Jayawardene playing that shot and how elegantly he does it. Could have stopped reading their really as that's all I could think of during the article, lol.

  • POSTED BY on | March 28, 2014, 21:24 GMT

    Mind my words, Agar will come again, and it will be no surprise to see him develop into a reliable Test all-rounder. It will take 2-3 years, but it will happen. Muirhead will also develop into a good Test cricketer,but they will never be competing for the same spot. Australia is blessed at the moment to have several emerging bowlers who can bat or batsmen who can bowl - Maxwell, Pattinson, Faulkner to name a few. Agar will be another. Those who write him off need to take the long view. Steve Smith, Australia's captain-in-waiting, is the prime example.

  • POSTED BY on | March 28, 2014, 20:25 GMT

    I genuinely think that Boof played Agar as a joke in order to lull England into a false sense of security. If so it worked beautifully. Top bloke is Boof.

  • POSTED BY xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx on | March 28, 2014, 18:22 GMT

    @willsrustynuts - I am very surprised to see an England supporter raising the issue of shame after the recent 5-0 Ashes spanking.

  • POSTED BY steve48 on | March 28, 2014, 18:11 GMT

    @willsrustynuts; a bit harsh, mate, he showed enough batting talent to be a bowling all rounder. Problem was he was nowhere near good enough at bowling! Lehmann's strangest decision as Aussie coach, to be honest. A kid that age better really rip it if he is to be a test spinner, not gonna have enough experience to outwit batsmen, and Agar doesn't rip it! Lyon must be a good guy not to have sulked about that selection!

  • POSTED BY Ross_Co on | March 28, 2014, 17:22 GMT

    Agar played well against a cobbled together 'international' team. It's unfair to expect that he could reproduce that against a proper cricket side like NSW.

  • POSTED BY on | March 28, 2014, 16:25 GMT

    Probably the worst player to debut for australia in recent years, can see muirhead being a prospect, agar not so much unless he turned out like steve smith

  • POSTED BY LoungeChairCritic on | April 1, 2014, 23:59 GMT

    As a close follower of WA cricket, my gut feeling is Agar is an absolute talent. Although he had an ordinary shield year, he will not be the 1st and last sportsmen to suffer from second year blues. His desire to succeed was clearly evident in his decision to leave his close family and head out west at the age of 18 or 19. I think it was a mature decision by a young kid who believed that he wouldn't get an opportunity if he stayed at home. As a bowler, I think he has the ingredients of a good orthodox left arm off spinner. They really need to work on his slider and using the crease to change angles to batsmen. As a batsmen, I think his defence and ability to let balls go should be encouraged. Unless you are a freak like Gilly, most people can't just come out and give it a smack on a consistent basis. If he learns to bat time, the runs will come.

  • POSTED BY R_U_4_REAL_NICK on | March 30, 2014, 22:20 GMT

    Always remember that he was supposed to be in the team as a bowler. The problem with too many international teams at the moment is they're constantly trying to hammer square pegs into round holes. The sooner selectors remember the golden rules that batsmen need to score runs and bowlers need to take wickets (or at the very least hold up an end in certain circumstances), and anything else is just a bonus, then order will be restored. In the future should we be looking out for 'Agar the batsman', 'Agar the bowler', or 'Agar the all-rounder'?

  • POSTED BY dieseldoc on | March 30, 2014, 9:00 GMT

    it was a class knock..helped by Hughes' determination..a batting natural..forget Chappel..get a bowler to help him forward and the batting will flow on with ease and confidence

  • POSTED BY Winsome on | March 29, 2014, 9:25 GMT

    That first paragraph is truly a thing of beauty. I immediately thought of Mahela Jayawardene playing that shot and how elegantly he does it. Could have stopped reading their really as that's all I could think of during the article, lol.

  • POSTED BY on | March 28, 2014, 21:24 GMT

    Mind my words, Agar will come again, and it will be no surprise to see him develop into a reliable Test all-rounder. It will take 2-3 years, but it will happen. Muirhead will also develop into a good Test cricketer,but they will never be competing for the same spot. Australia is blessed at the moment to have several emerging bowlers who can bat or batsmen who can bowl - Maxwell, Pattinson, Faulkner to name a few. Agar will be another. Those who write him off need to take the long view. Steve Smith, Australia's captain-in-waiting, is the prime example.

  • POSTED BY on | March 28, 2014, 20:25 GMT

    I genuinely think that Boof played Agar as a joke in order to lull England into a false sense of security. If so it worked beautifully. Top bloke is Boof.

  • POSTED BY xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx on | March 28, 2014, 18:22 GMT

    @willsrustynuts - I am very surprised to see an England supporter raising the issue of shame after the recent 5-0 Ashes spanking.

  • POSTED BY steve48 on | March 28, 2014, 18:11 GMT

    @willsrustynuts; a bit harsh, mate, he showed enough batting talent to be a bowling all rounder. Problem was he was nowhere near good enough at bowling! Lehmann's strangest decision as Aussie coach, to be honest. A kid that age better really rip it if he is to be a test spinner, not gonna have enough experience to outwit batsmen, and Agar doesn't rip it! Lyon must be a good guy not to have sulked about that selection!

  • POSTED BY Ross_Co on | March 28, 2014, 17:22 GMT

    Agar played well against a cobbled together 'international' team. It's unfair to expect that he could reproduce that against a proper cricket side like NSW.

  • POSTED BY on | March 28, 2014, 16:25 GMT

    Probably the worst player to debut for australia in recent years, can see muirhead being a prospect, agar not so much unless he turned out like steve smith

  • POSTED BY willsrustynuts on | March 28, 2014, 16:20 GMT

    Why is it that that innings in the UK is not recognised for what it was? A desperate attempt by a failing Australia to regain the initiative. If anything, it is his team mates that were shamed in that match, not England.

  • POSTED BY newnomi on | March 28, 2014, 15:35 GMT

    The first paragraph is poetry; the rest is prose of the most prosaic variety. If you wanted to romanticize the late cut, which is what I thought when I started reading this piece, there are plenty of worthy candidates. Younis Khan and Hashim Amla come to mind immediately. I'm sure other readers can supply you with lots more examples from days of yore.

  • POSTED BY steve48 on | March 28, 2014, 12:05 GMT

    If he can't spin it, he won't be a bowler, if he can't develop mental strength, he won't be a batsman. Was a legendary innings, one that helped burst England's bubble, in fact, but he needs help deciding who he is what his game is, then maybe he can have a career. Hope he works it out..

  • POSTED BY xxxxxxxxxxxxxyyyyyyyyyyyyyyzzzzzzzz on | March 28, 2014, 10:39 GMT

    It's strange how there are always people so keen to write off emerging talent. No doubt, the same was said of Warne, Tendulkar, Kallis and Gower. I suppose that seeing beyond the end of their nose is just too big a challenge for some.

  • POSTED BY Protears on | March 28, 2014, 10:33 GMT

    He is one of the Australian talents, one that cannot get into the team because the 30 year olds are more dependable. The Australian bubble is going to burst.

  • POSTED BY on | March 28, 2014, 8:04 GMT

    A lot of fringe players past and present would have loved the chances this young bloke has had over the last year....since Trentbridge he has constantly been first picked and quite frankly has failed to perform.. I am sure he will develop but for a one hit wonder he surely will be under pressure next season.

  • POSTED BY Sir_Francis on | March 28, 2014, 8:01 GMT

    He's an interesting fellow. Some perspective. Xavier Doherty, who has already played 4 Tests too many, has 100 wickets more than Agar for a similar average. Though Doherty's average has plummeted from those heady days of his Test debut where it reached 50, at 31 he's unlikely to improve much more whereas, at 20, Agar has scope to improve a lot (hopefully). Add 10 runs to his batting average, take 10 runs off his bowling average and he starts to resemble Vettori. At least that's what I'm hoping for. He's only 20. No rush (mind you, Vettori has only just turned 18 on test debut and didn't do too bad.

  • POSTED BY dunger.bob on | March 28, 2014, 7:58 GMT

    He's 20 years old for gods sake. Writing him off this early is a bit premature to say the least. Something may click some time in the next 5 years and he could still have a long and successful test career. .. Or he could fade away and become another cricketing anomaly and a big hit at cricket trivia nights. Either way it's way too early to say.

  • POSTED BY Andre117 on | March 28, 2014, 7:19 GMT

    I think the quick rise to fame caught him a bit off-guard. He's only 20 so give the lad a few years and maybe what the selectors saw in him will shine through in time. De Kock seems to be going through the same thing. After a magnificent ODI run against India he's been labelled as a basher and trying to live up to that title is costing him. I think he needs to start slow like Amla and finish like an in-form Miller/Morkel once he has eye is in. I think once both Quinton and Ashton get their games right they will both be future stars.

  • POSTED BY on | March 28, 2014, 7:09 GMT

    "Touch of Gower"? The most ridiculous comparison I've ever read. Did you ever watch Gower?

  • POSTED BY Kingman75 on | March 28, 2014, 6:58 GMT

    Lyon can't take second innings wickets. Agar can't take first or second innings wickets.

  • POSTED BY on | March 28, 2014, 6:26 GMT

    Pretty sure he'll develop into a very capable cricketer. He seems to have a good head on his shoulders and an enormous amount of talent, but it was never going to just all come together in a consistent fashion over night. A couple of months off would be better for him I'd have thought. One for the future.

  • POSTED BY TATTUs on | March 28, 2014, 3:15 GMT

    Well, you better get your wish on that last line. Else its Greg Chappell! The boy will be gone, for ever.

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  • POSTED BY TATTUs on | March 28, 2014, 3:15 GMT

    Well, you better get your wish on that last line. Else its Greg Chappell! The boy will be gone, for ever.

  • POSTED BY on | March 28, 2014, 6:26 GMT

    Pretty sure he'll develop into a very capable cricketer. He seems to have a good head on his shoulders and an enormous amount of talent, but it was never going to just all come together in a consistent fashion over night. A couple of months off would be better for him I'd have thought. One for the future.

  • POSTED BY Kingman75 on | March 28, 2014, 6:58 GMT

    Lyon can't take second innings wickets. Agar can't take first or second innings wickets.

  • POSTED BY on | March 28, 2014, 7:09 GMT

    "Touch of Gower"? The most ridiculous comparison I've ever read. Did you ever watch Gower?

  • POSTED BY Andre117 on | March 28, 2014, 7:19 GMT

    I think the quick rise to fame caught him a bit off-guard. He's only 20 so give the lad a few years and maybe what the selectors saw in him will shine through in time. De Kock seems to be going through the same thing. After a magnificent ODI run against India he's been labelled as a basher and trying to live up to that title is costing him. I think he needs to start slow like Amla and finish like an in-form Miller/Morkel once he has eye is in. I think once both Quinton and Ashton get their games right they will both be future stars.

  • POSTED BY dunger.bob on | March 28, 2014, 7:58 GMT

    He's 20 years old for gods sake. Writing him off this early is a bit premature to say the least. Something may click some time in the next 5 years and he could still have a long and successful test career. .. Or he could fade away and become another cricketing anomaly and a big hit at cricket trivia nights. Either way it's way too early to say.

  • POSTED BY Sir_Francis on | March 28, 2014, 8:01 GMT

    He's an interesting fellow. Some perspective. Xavier Doherty, who has already played 4 Tests too many, has 100 wickets more than Agar for a similar average. Though Doherty's average has plummeted from those heady days of his Test debut where it reached 50, at 31 he's unlikely to improve much more whereas, at 20, Agar has scope to improve a lot (hopefully). Add 10 runs to his batting average, take 10 runs off his bowling average and he starts to resemble Vettori. At least that's what I'm hoping for. He's only 20. No rush (mind you, Vettori has only just turned 18 on test debut and didn't do too bad.

  • POSTED BY on | March 28, 2014, 8:04 GMT

    A lot of fringe players past and present would have loved the chances this young bloke has had over the last year....since Trentbridge he has constantly been first picked and quite frankly has failed to perform.. I am sure he will develop but for a one hit wonder he surely will be under pressure next season.

  • POSTED BY Protears on | March 28, 2014, 10:33 GMT

    He is one of the Australian talents, one that cannot get into the team because the 30 year olds are more dependable. The Australian bubble is going to burst.

  • POSTED BY xxxxxxxxxxxxxyyyyyyyyyyyyyyzzzzzzzz on | March 28, 2014, 10:39 GMT

    It's strange how there are always people so keen to write off emerging talent. No doubt, the same was said of Warne, Tendulkar, Kallis and Gower. I suppose that seeing beyond the end of their nose is just too big a challenge for some.