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

From 98 on Test debut to no wicket in 40 overs and 2 runs off 32 in the Shield final Chris Hyde / © 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