Agar holds his own in harsh reality
Old Trafford 2015 felt a long way from Trent Bridge 2013. The passage of time can be measured best in the face of James Pattinson, gnarled features and deeper creases worn into an expression often pained by the injuries he has endured in the 26 months since. Steve Smith is now captain rather than urchin, and Darren Lehmann is no longer a breath of fresh air sweeping through the Australian team, rather a coach wrestling with a complicated future.
Ashton Agar, though, has not lost his youthfulness. The unaffected air he brought to that memorable Nottingham debut is still intact, the hair still casually scruffy, the limbs still long and languid. As the commentary box's resident Australian Tom Moody presented Agar with his ODI cap, it was possible to imagine very little having changed since Glenn McGrath did the same for his baggy green those two years ago.
On these pages, Tanya Aldred had captured the romance of Agar's Test debut and its accompanying innings of 98: "On Tuesday, Ashton Agar was a spinner for Australia A and Henley CC, on Wednesday he was a surprise debutant wheel-barrowed into a feeble line-up on the whim of a coach. Now he goes into the record books as the man with the highest ever Test score at No. 11 - 98 runs off 101 balls, 12 fours, two sixes - transforming a session, tipping over a match. And oh, what style! What languor!"
What a shooting star he was, burning brightly on that Thursday afternoon and then fading away as England worked out his embryonic left-arm spin a little more easily than they had his wristy, regal batting. An instant celebrity, he returned to the fringes of the national set-up and experienced the frustrations of finding out what his game really was. The Western Australia and Perth Scorchers coach Justin Langer tried to offer a combination of calm counsel and tough love.
At length, Agar has worked his way back into Australian contention, and at Old Trafford he walked out to field as less a bolt from the blue than a young man meriting his place on the back of some decidedly handy List A numbers. A Manchester pitch that promised spin and bounce had Smith introducing him to the bowling attack as early as the ninth over, after Jason Roy had made his latest sparkling start.
Immediately it was clear that Agar has learned a thing or two. After a dragged down first ball he was soon able to drop consistently onto that teasing length desired of orthodox spinners, while he also mixed his pace up to good effect. Where Roy had found the going simple against pace, now he groped at a delivery that drew him forward before ripping past the outside edge. It was not long before he tried to advance and sliced to short cover, where Glenn Maxwell juggled the chance before holding it. Agar's laconic celebration recalled his reaction to getting out for 98. It happens.
Better bowling would follow against England's captain Eoin Morgan. Spinning and dipping the ball from around the wicket, Agar was able to consistently land the ball short of where Morgan expected it, prompting a series of awkward, bunted strokes that could reap no more than singles. Eventually, Morgan tried to press further by advancing, but found drop and turn that left him hopelessly stranded. For an instant Agar readied himself to launch into a rather more dramatic marker of a wicket - England would have been an unsteady 103 for 3.
Behind the stumps, Matthew Wade is another man making his way back to prominence. Trent Bridge two years ago had been his first Test match out of the team after playing 12 of the previous 13 as the first-choice gloveman. Since then, he has done a lot of keeping for Victoria and become state captain, all the while seeming to improve his hard hands when keeping to spin bowling. Nathan Lyon in particular had paid for his errors. For the Bushrangers, Fawad Ahmed had benefited from apparent improvement.
This time, however, Wade's gloves took on many of the qualities of concrete. He did not merely fumble the ball, but parried it well out of reach of any recovery. The haplessness of the moment was summed up by how Wade had time to take an anguished swipe at the stumps with his ball-less glove well before Morgan could return to his ground. The innings and the match pivoted on that missed chance.
Agar continued to bowl well, but without the requisite reward. Morgan and James Taylor accelerated, and even if the innings did not reach the heights they threatened to take it to, their destructive middle overs left Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali with plenty of runs to defend on a pitch that offered still greater assistance to spin as the evening developed. They were better aided by fielding that began untidily but did not miss a chance quite so clear as Wade's. Some heedless batting did not hurt, either.
Australia's innings was all but exhausted when Agar walked out to bat at No. 8, joining none other than Wade in the middle. Run-making had by now become a difficult task, and there was little ease in Agar's 15-ball stay. Straining to have some effect on a steeply climbing run rate, he aimed a heave at Liam Plunkett that hung in the air for an age, Roy hovering uncertainly under it.
Misjudging its flight, he fell too far underneath and the ball spilled from outstretched hands. Breathtakingly, Roy arched back further, and clinched the ball in one palm before crashing heavily to the ground. Somehow, the ball was not jarred free. Not quite understanding how the catch had been taken, the crowd were briefly dumb then more expansively delirious. Agar was left to wander off, concealed by his helmet and unable to conjure a reprise of his former miracle.
International cricket will never again be as simple for Agar as that day in 2013, it is far too unforgiving for that. But he is back in the Australian team now and with a chance to make an ODI spot his own - a Bangladesh Test tour also beckons. If Old Trafford 2015 was nothing spectacular, there were still enough signs that Agar will become a spin bowler of substance, not just a No. 11 of novelty.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig