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Agar, Swepson, Murphy - Who will partner Lyon on India tour?

Offspin, legspin or left-arm orthodox - this is the choice facing Australia as they evaluate their support spinners

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
Nathan Lyon and Ashton Agar could be in Australia's XI for the first Test against India  •  Getty Images

Nathan Lyon and Ashton Agar could be in Australia's XI for the first Test against India  •  Getty Images

Australia could consider playing two offspinners in the same Test team in India after uncapped 22-year-old Todd Murphy was named in their Test squad, but Ashton Agar remains the preferred option to partner Nathan Lyon despite a modest return to Test cricket in Sydney last week.
Australia's selectors named four spinners, including two offspinners in Lyon and Murphy, a legspinner in Mitchell Swepson, and a left-arm orthodox in Agar for Australia's four-Test tour of India starting in Nagpur on February 9.
Australia played two spinners in their last Test match, with Agar playing his first game alongside Lyon since 2017, while legspinner Swepson partnered Lyon in four of five Test matches in Pakistan and Sri Lanka last year.
Australia have had moderate success with two spinners in the same XI over the past 12 months, claiming two wins, two draws and one loss in Galle. Australia did win one Test in India on their last tour in 2017 off the back of playing two spinners, with left-arm orthodox Steve O'Keefe claiming 12 for 70 in Pune.
Part of the reason for Agar's return in Sydney, despite a very modest first-class record over 10 years and 64 games, was because Australia's selectors would prefer a left-arm orthodox bowler in India both to complement Lyon and replicate the success of O'Keefe in India, and the success of India duo Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel.
Australia's chairman of selectors George Bailey believes that Agar would be better for the run in Sydney ahead of the tour of India.
"Certainly in India, we would like to have the availability of a left-arm orthodox," Bailey said. "[It's] great that we have the opportunity to get Ash a game. He hasn't played a great deal of red-ball cricket and then in horse-racing terms I think he will be better for the run. [It was] great to have him around the group again and with a focus to sort of build his red-ball stuff up over the next little period until we get to India."
Agar has played just seven first-class matches since the start of 2020, taking just 17 wickets at 50.64 and striking at 109.5 with an economy rate of 2.78. He took figures of 0 for 58 from 22 overs in Sydney, and was bowled sparingly by captain Pat Cummins compared to Lyon's 55 overs for the match. But Cummins was pleased with Agar's efforts.

Could Murphy's emergence prompt Australia to play two offspinners?

While a left-arm orthodox spinner is preferred in India, Bailey conceded that Murphy's emergence has made the selectors consider playing two offspinners in the same side. Murphy has only played seven first-class matches in his short career for Victoria, Australia A and the Prime Minister's XI, all in the last two years, but has taken 29 wickets at 25.20, striking at 57.6 with an economy rate of 2.62.
"Absolutely, he's a chance to play," Bailey said. "[It's] certainly not a development tour. So he's earned his spot through his performances and what we think he can do, clearly.
"Whether he can play alongside [Lyon] is a question but they are different as far as offspinners go. So I don't think you're necessarily looking at the same type of bowler. We'll get across and assess the conditions and what we think we need once we hit the ground."
Bailey and his fellow selectors, Tony Dodemaide and coach Andrew McDonald, have been consistent in their messaging around picking a complementary spinner to partner Lyon in order to balance out the attack. McDonald stated on record prior to Agar's selection in Sydney that having a spinner who complemented Lyon by turning the ball away from the right-handers was more important than picking the next-best spinner.
That desire is exacerbated by the development of Travis Head as a part-time offspinner within Australia's XI. The idea of picking two specialist offspinners, along with the part-time offspin of Head, with only the part-time legspin of Marnus Labuschagne and Steven Smith to complement them, could leave Australia's attack unbalanced in spinning conditions, particularly given most of India's top six will be right-handers in the absence of Rishabh Pant.

The case for Swepson

Australia selectors have selected one legspinner in Swepson but have cooled on the idea of using him to complement Lyon. He bowled well at times without luck in Pakistan and Sri Lanka but took just 10 wickets at 45.80, striking at 89.2. He also didn't quite contain the run-rate in the way Australia would have liked while they attacked with reverse swing from their quicks at the other end.
There was a consideration to pick Australia's white-ball spinner Adam Zampa after he made a return to first-class cricket for the first time in three years in December. But Bailey confirmed that Swepson remains Australia's number one legspinner in red-ball cricket.
"Swep's on the tour because if we feel that we need a legspinner we think he's our best option," Bailey said. "I think Zamps has displayed a real keenness to be around the Test squad. And we just probably haven't seen enough red-ball cricket from him. And to be fair to Swep we've liked what he's given us when he's had his opportunities and [we'll] continue to invest in him."
But Australia's selectors are aware of the difficulties overseas legspinners have had in India, with Australia's greatest ever Shane Warne struggling in three tours of India, averaging 43.11 and striking in 81 with an economy rate of 3.19. But Warne played a pivotal role in Australia's 2004 series triumph in India, though he played more of a defensive role as the lone spinner in Australia's two Test wins in Bengaluru and Nagpur while Australia's three fast bowlers in Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Michael Kasprowicz did the bulk of the damage.

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo