Selectors beguiled by a natural
Sixteen years ago, a teenaged left-arm spinner was chosen to face England. Daniel Vettori had played a mere two first-class matches in his life, but his natural aptitude for spin was abundant and would be demonstrated on a debut that would be New Zealand's only ray of light in an abject defeat. Wisden was to note that Vettori "performed with considerable maturity, more indeed than some of the senior players".
Back then, Ashton Agar was not even four years old. But there are unmistakable shades of the young Vettori about his rapid rise to a stunning selection for the first Test against England, and the way he has convinced the decision makers of Australian cricket that he is ready for such a tall task. Selectors, coaches and team-mates have been beguiled by Agar's languid, flowing bowling action and similarly attractive batting, while his wiry, athletic frame lends itself to sharp work in the outfield just as much as the delivery of a looping, teasing arc with the ball.
In the words of Agar's state coach Justin Langer: "Besides his infectious personality and energy for the game, Ashton's strength comes in his natural and free style of play. Whether with the bat or ball his movements are reminiscent of the great athletes. Many young players today look very tense and mechanical in their movements. They often look 'over-coached' and are unable to move with freedom, power and speed. When you observe the great athletes there are few who look like this. While Ashton has much to learn ... his free movements give him the chance to fulfil his undoubted promise."
Melbourne born, Agar's Sri Lankan heritage provided him with something of an affinity for the spinning ball, and at the Richmond Cricket Club he suggested plenty of ability, learning to ply his trade among older heads from the occasion of his first grade debut at 15. It was not all a completely smooth progression, however, including a spell of four games in the club's second XI during 2011-12. But he was by then representing Australia as an Under-19, and he was selected for the World Cup in Queensland in mid-2012.
It was there that Western Australia's talent spotters chose to swoop, taking advantage of the fact that a logjam of spin bowlers existed in Victoria. Agar, also a budding law student, took the chance to pursue his cricket with maximum vigour. "It was just opportunity to play first-class cricket," Agar said of his move last summer. "They had Maxwell, Cameron White bowls, David Hussey bowls, and Muirhead and Holland as well. There were too many spinners over there so I decided to move. Fortunately it's working out in my favour."
Initially, Agar was still a bowler in reserve. Michael Beer had played for Australia in the West Indies and done well amid a sickly Perth Scorchers campaign in the Champions League. But in late January, following the Big Bash League, Beer injured his shoulder in a training mishap, ruling him out of contention for the forthcoming India Test tour thrusting Agar into the Warriors side for a match against New South Wales in Blacktown. It was to be an influential outing.
While the selectors were keeping one eye on the Blues' Steve O'Keefe, Agar would earn rave reviews that reached the national selector John Inverarity. Figures of 3-103 from 37.3 overs do not sound like much, particularly when lined up next to O'Keefe's match haul of eight wickets. But the guile, variation and natural ability shown by Agar was considerable, best illustrated by a sharp-spinning ball that utterly confounded the young left-hander Scott Henry. It would not be long before Agar was boarding a plane to India as a developmental member of the touring squad.
Two weeks in the subcontinent gave Agar a valuable grounding, and also the chance to become acquainted with members of the team. "I got a lot out of it, I definitely learned a lot, especially off their spinners, you have to be very patient and bowl a lot of good balls to get wickets," Agar said. "All the same principles apply wherever you bowl. If you're very accurate and you put enough balls in the right areas you should get wickets."
Agar did not quite manage to surge past Xavier Doherty and Nathan Lyon to earn a permanent place on the tour, but his bowling in the nets and warm-up matches stuck in the mind of Inverarity, a former tall slow left-arm bowler himself. Further evidence of his promise would arrive on his return home in Western Australia's Sheffield Shield victories in Brisbane and Adelaide, where Agar also contributed valuable runs.
On the Australia A tour of England that preceded the Ashes, Agar had the chance to impress another two influential figures. The tour manager Rod Marsh was a selector at the start of the tour, and the batting coach Darren Lehmann would join him on the panel, at the expense of the deposed Mickey Arthur, by the end of it. Like Langer, they were struck by his subtlety, his rhythm. While much attention was taken by Fawad Ahmed, and Lyon showed his own strong form, Agar beguiled quietly but steadily. To them he looked a natural, and a tantalising approximation of the young Vettori.
"It's all just happened, there hasn't been too much technical work, coaches have been good that way and have just let my action and everything take care of itself," Agar said of his style. "It's more the game sense and game awareness that has been tinkered with, and just experience really. Justin Langer's been really keen for me to just stay the way I am and keep bowling. He just says 'keep bowling, stay loose, stay loose', that's his advice to me, so that's what I've tried to do."
If the comparison with Vettori seems hasty, it has been made before. Nor is Agar uncomfortable to be mentioned in the same sentence. He did so himself, earlier this year: "Of left-arm spinners Dan Vettori is the one I need to try to emulate. His subtle changes in pace and his accuracy are what get him a lot of wickets, so if I can be anything like that it'd be really good."
By choosing him at Trent Bridge, Australia's selectors are gambling that Agar is ready to do so now.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here