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From Test No. 2 to going home: the bizarre handling of Ashton Agar

The left-arm spinner was given an almost-impossible task due to his lack of first-class cricket

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
Ashton Agar in his delivery stride, Australia vs South Africa, 3rd Test, Sydney, January 8, 2023

Ashton Agar during his comeback Test at the SCG  •  Getty Images and Cricket Australia

How does Ashton Agar go from being Australia's second spinner in the Test team in January to being sent home from the Test tour of India halfway through?
Tony Dodemaide, one of Australia's three selectors alongside chair George Bailey and coach Andrew McDonald, explained the decision in Delhi.
"From a pure selection point of view, it's not so much why one person isn't selected, it's about what the alternatives are," he said. "And in the calls we had to make, we felt that there were better alternatives. In the first Test with Todd [Murphy], we decided to go with the two and two structure of quicks and spin. And then for the three spinners between [Agar] and Matt [Kuhnemann] in the second Test, we just felt that Matt's style would be better suited…it was a very close call though."
There is plenty of evidence to say those calls were correct. Todd Murphy took seven wickets on debut in Nagpur and has looked every bit Australia's second-best red-ball spinner behind Nathan Lyon, while Matthew Kuhnemann did a commendable job for periods in Delhi and took the wicket of Virat Kohli.
The question isn't so much why Agar was not selected in the first two Tests. The question is why was he selected against South Africa in Sydney? The odds were heavily stacked against him and now he's had to face leaving a tour surplus to requirements, having arrived as a Test incumbent. Agar handled the situation with class when he was interviewed on arrival back in Perth.
"Obviously, it's not an ideal situation but you just try to make the best of it," he told Channel Ten. "I'm 29 now, and I've been through plenty of ups and downs in the game and we're in a fortunate position, so it's nothing that stresses me out too much.
"It was clear messaging from [the selectors]. They communicated really well with me and it's a clear path forward. With that message it's chin up, walk tall and just try and improve. So that's just what I'm going to do."
The messaging might have been clear to Agar, but it hasn't been made clear publicly. Australia's selectors are known for being a rational and pragmatic group and they have made plenty of excellent choices together as a trio over the past year. But this has not been their finest hour.

Australia's spin cycle

Calm, composed and consistent. That has been the mantra of the Australian team and the selection panel ever since the start of the Pakistan tour last year.
But consistency has not been evident when it's come to Australia's second spinner over the past 12 months. Mitchell Swepson had been pre-ordained as the partner and eventual successor to Lyon. He toured with Australia to India in 2017, enjoyed excellent success at Sheffield Shield level and was a regular in touring squads across a five-year period.
A legspinner complementing an offspinner was the ideal combination. Swepson was finally granted his chance to partner Lyon in the second Test in Pakistan and although he didn't set the world on fire, there was enough evidence to suggest he had potential at Test level and the attack as a combination with both Swepson and Lyon in it were just a handful of dropped catches away from taking 20 wickets in each of the final two Tests.
But in the next Test series in Sri Lanka there was a distinct shift in thinking. The flat surfaces of Pakistan, where it was thought legspin would be effective, were a world away from extreme spinning conditions of Galle.
Suddenly wristspin was less desirable as Australia's selectors wanted to get more specific in terms of picking players with skills that suited the conditions rather than just the next-best spinner available.
Swepson bowled well in the first Test in Galle but Travis Head bagged 4 for 10. Fast fingerspin was the flavour of the month. Agar was on the tour and was a good chance to play but he suffered a side strain. Such was the desire for a left-armer, Jon Holland went from not being initially picked in the Test squad or the Australia A squad that toured simultaneously, to almost playing in the second Test.
However, his lack of preparation caused him significant finger soreness and the selectors stuck with Swepson. Australia were beaten by an innings. Swepson took 3 for 108 while Sri Lanka left-arm spinner Prabath Jayasuriya took 12 wickets on Test debut. The dye was cast. Australia needed a left-arm orthodox for India in 2023.

Australia's left-arm obsession

The reasoning was sound. Steve O'Keefe took 12 wickets in Pune in 2017. Ravindra Jadeja has been near unplayable in India over his career. Axar Patel scythed through England and New Zealand in 2021. Even New Zealand's Ajaz Patel took 10 wickets in an innings in Mumbai.
The problem is Australia's selectors only really have three left-arm orthodox spinners to choose from in Agar, Holland and Kuhnemann. Agar had played in Bangladesh in 2017 alongside O'Keefe who has since retired. Holland played on Australia's tour of the UAE in 2018 but Australia did not visit the subcontinent again until 2022. Kuhnemann is the only other to play any regular first-class cricket in that time, and even then he had limited opportunities for Queensland behind Swepson.
When the squad for Pakistan was announced in February of 2022, Agar was chosen as the third spinner behind Lyon and Swepson. Bailey was asked why Agar was picked ahead of Holland and Kuhnemann.
"What we like about Ash is the incredible all-round skill set," Bailey said. "I think his bowling will continue to get better. What we've seen is that the way he bowls, he is pretty adaptable to red-ball cricket. We see Ash as ahead of [Holland]."
Yet, batting and fielding aside, in the primary skill of bowling there was no evidence that placed Agar ahead of Holland or Kuhnemann in terms of their career first-class numbers and those numbers only widened when isolated to the four-year period between 2018 and 2022.
There was a theory among the selectors that first-class numbers in Australia had no connection to bowling in the subcontinent and vice versa. Such a theory completely ignores the fact that Jadeja averages 21.78 with the ball in Test cricket in Australia, striking at 54.2.
Agar's resemblance in style to Axar, and his batting and fielding capabilities, made him the most attractive prospect. Although he didn't play in Pakistan or Sri Lanka it was clear he was being set for India.

All-format curse

Agar has had plenty of T20 success in recent years. He was Australia's T20I player of the year in 2021 and he has built an impressive T20I record having developed his short-form skills through playing a considerable amount.
Prior to getting selected against South Africa in Sydney, Agar's previous Test came in September 2017. That was his 46th first-class match since debuting in 2013. Up until that point, he had only played 36 T20 games. Since that Test match, Agar has played just 18 first-class games in five-and-a-half years. But he has played 105 T20s in the same period. He has worked assiduously on his T20 bowling, becoming incredibly adept at bowling six different balls an over, varying his lengths, lines and speeds from ball to ball and forcing batters to go at less than seven runs per over with five men on the rope.
The problem is none of that translates to long-form cricket, where spinners need to land their stock ball with incredible consistency to far more attacking fields. It is clear Australia's selectors conflated Agar's T20 and first-class form together.
Despite touring Pakistan and Sri Lanka with the Test squad, Agar played just one first-class game between October 2020 and November 2022 but the selectors remained confident he could play an important role in India. He featured in the Prime Minister's XI game against West Indies late last year alongside Murphy but did not bowl anywhere near as well as the offspinner. He then played a Shield game at the Gabba where he took 1 for 108 but did make 72.
The selectors remained unperturbed. When Mitchell Starc and Cameron Green were simultaneously injured in the Boxing Day Test and the prospect of a turning pitch in Sydney awaited, Agar was called into the squad having played five T20 in the BBL since the Shield game at the Gabba.
McDonald was careful to state at the time that Agar had been selected not because he was necessarily Australia's second-best red-ball spinner, but rather because he complemented Lyon as a left-arm orthodox.
He went wicketless in Sydney as the surface failed to deteriorate. But his lengths and lines lacked consistency, which was completely understandable. The selectors had confidence he would turn it around by India, despite being sent back to play five more T20 games before boarding the plane.
In the meantime, it was noteworthy that while the selectors had full faith in Agar for the Border-Gavaskar series, Australia's premier limited-overs legspinner Adam Zampa was overlooked due to his lack of red-ball cricket, much to his frustration.

India indecision

The closer the Nagpur Test got the less convinced both Agar and the selectors were of how effective he could be. The selectors were desperate to pick a left-arm spinner as India were set to have six right-handers in their top eight. But Agar's almost exclusive diet of T20 bowling over the previous few years had made it difficult for him to find the red-ball rhythm and consistency during the training camp in Bengaluru. Agar is one of the most honest and popular members of the Australian group, and he made his own doubts known to both the selectors and his team-mates.
The selectors finally overcame their fear of picking two offspinners in the same team, having conceded that Murphy's superior record to right-handers was overwhelming evidence he should be selected, and Agar was left to run the drinks.
When Kuhnemann debuted in Delhi, having flown in only five days earlier, Adam Gilchrist described it as a "pretty big insult" to Agar on SEN radio.
But it was clear to see in the Delhi nets that Agar wasn't ready to play. The evening before the Test he bowled alone on the edge of the square under the guidance of bowling coach Daniel Vettori. Even there he struggled to hit a cap that had been placed on a length as consistently as the other spinners in the squad.
It was notable too that he was the only one of Australia's spinners to bowl no-balls in practice, regularly delivering from a foot-and-a-half in front of the line. It is a well-worn trope of elite cricketers that no-balls in practice do not equate to no-balls in games. They are usually right. Except when you practice from that far in front of the line, the good length you are grooving becomes a short length in a match. It is the difference between a left-arm orthodox testing a batter's front foot defence and getting cut for four.
Agar was honest when he got off the plane in Perth. Except for the occasional Sydney conditions that may call for two spinners, Agar's next realistic prospect of Test cricket is the two-match tour of Sri Lanka in February 2025.
"It's been pretty hard for me recently, to be fair," Agar said. "I've played maybe three red-ball games in three years. It's hard to expect that part of my game to be in tiptop perfect shape."
He will play a fourth for Western Australia while he is home, one more than he would have played if he stayed in India, highlighting the pragmatism of sending him back. He could have had three in a row had he not travelled which is the sort of sustained red-ball cricket that he needs to have a fair of chance of success.
It's unlikely any of this has had an impact on the series scoreline, as Australia's batting has been the major weak point, but it's a situation the selectors could have done without, and one they could have avoided.

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo