Ashton Agar is a terrific young man who I hope has a great future in the game as a left-arm orthodox bowler and decent lower-order batsman. But his remarkable experience of becoming a household name during the Ashes in 2013 was followed by a long period of treading water. And I was not the least bit surprised. His story is a striking example of how the glare of the spotlight can change the equation when you are trying to create a cricket career.
Ashton had played hardly any first-class cricket when he was thrown into the Test team and caught the attention of the nation by scoring a record 98 as the No. 11 in the first Test at Trent Bridge. He said after the day's play: 'It's a dream come true ... Forever I've dreamed of playing Test cricket for Australia and for my debut to start the way it has, I'm over the moon.' But what he did not realise and was totally unprepared for was that suddenly the expectation and demands, on the ground and off it, would become enormous.
I captained Ashton in his first few games for Western Australia. He bowled beautifully. He was accurate, had variation and could operate both aggressively and defensively. His batting was similar. He performed like any young guy coming into a new level of the game, without fear and with genuine excitement.
After just three first-class games the Australian selectors invited him on a national team tour to India to be a net bowler and gain experience from being around the team. It sounded like the right thing to do, but the alarm bells went off for me immediately. I knew he would bowl really well, I knew the selectors had doubts over Nathan Lyon, despite investing eighteen months of hard work in him, and I had a sneaking suspicion they would see Ashton as the bolter who could fix everything.
Unsurprisingly Ashton turned heads while with the team in India. I remember getting a message from the assistant coach Steve Rixon saying, "How good is this Ashton Agar? I think he should play the first Test in India." I thought to myself, "No way! Please don't make this mistake!" Ashton was nowhere near ready. In my opinion he needed three or four seasons of first-class cricket to learn and grow and have some idea of what he would be in for if he was to play Test cricket.
While walking down Kensington High Street with his girlfriend to do some shopping they were set upon by paparazzi. The two of them ended up locking themselves in the hotel room
The selectors did not pick Ashton to play in India but he was thrown into the side for the first Ashes Test not long afterwards. I felt it was a huge mistake. Like in India, playing in the Ashes is akin to being in a cauldron. There are a multitude of distractions. There is so much hype and expectation. There are functions to go to, people to meet and huge interest from the media. There was no way this young fella could have been ready for that. For him to come out and score runs in his first match was a great achievement but it also created a perfect storm.
It's hard to comprehend how Ashton's life was turned upside down in the space of one day. I talked to him about it when he came back to Perth afterwards. He said he could not believe the interest in him following that innings.
While walking down Kensington High Street with his girlfriend to do some shopping they were set upon by paparazzi. He said his girlfriend tried to run away, only to be chased by the photographers. He said he had no idea what to do. The two of them ended up locking themselves in the hotel room. Even as an experienced cricketer, that kind of attention is extremely hard to handle. But Ashton was a nineteen-year-old with hardly any cricketing experience. Suddenly he was being pursued as though he was a movie star.
Both at the time and in the weeks and months that followed Ashton's ill-timed entry into international cricket, his manager, Jason Bakker, did his best to try to protect him from the many distractions that could divert him from concentrating on cricket. Commercial offers and opportunities came flooding in, but Bakker was careful not to add to the already huge burden of trying to keep playing at the top level. It is a good illustration of the value of having a manager who has an understanding of life in the spotlight and the demands of first-class cricket.
For some time after the Ashes, Ashton was on a high while the public raved and the media loved him. But the wickets began to dry up. The harder he tried the worse he performed. He became frustrated and had too little experience to draw from to help him to change course. Eventually he got suspended in a match for showing dissent to an umpire. Ashton went from Ashes superstar to possible has-been in an alarmingly short time.
In my opinion the whole episode was very poorly handled. The duty of care to this young Australian cricketer was pretty much ignored. If everyone associated with making the decision to pick Ashton had just been patient and let him develop he would have held on to his youthful zeal, grown gradually in confidence, expanded his knowledge and been much better off in the long run.
He could have made the regular mistakes that young guys do and worked his way through them away from the spotlight. He should have been given space to learn about bowling, learn about life and enjoy the maturing process. I believe Ashton will come through this chastening experience and become a fantastic player. But I worry it will happen a lot later than it otherwise would have.
I remember getting a message from Steve Rixon saying, "How good is this Ashton Agar? I think he should play the first Test in India." I thought to myself, "No way! Please don't make this mistake!"
Ashton has a good head on his shoulders. He is intelligent and has good people around him. But my concern for young guys finding their way so publicly like he did is that they do not carry mental scars for the rest of their careers or throughout life. With the right help it is possible to come out of such situations a better person and a better cricketer. But for some people the negative effects can be enduring. Psychological damage can be deep and your outlook on the game can be changed forever.
Examples such as Ashton Agar and even Michael Clarke and others make me grateful for the path I travelled to get into international cricket. I have often said that I wished I had been picked earlier for Australia and learned on the job, making mistakes and progressing that way. But the more I have learned about life in the spotlight the more I feel lucky to have had the time to grow up at my own pace. Even after ten years of first-class cricket it was a very confronting adjustment to make when it all started to happen for me.
This is an edited extract from Winning Edge by Michael Hussey, published by Hardie Grant Books