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'Valued' Ashton Agar at peace with sporadic appearances in Australia's T20 side

"I feel like I'm playing on skill now. I don't want to be a survivor, that's no fun"

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
'It was really strongly communicated to me that I was absolutely valued and it wasn't that I was dropped'  •  Cricket Australia via Getty Images

'It was really strongly communicated to me that I was absolutely valued and it wasn't that I was dropped'  •  Cricket Australia via Getty Images

Ashton Agar believes he has never bowled better in T20 cricket than the last couple of the years. The numbers back it up. Yet he knows it won't be enough to ensure a starting place for Australia. And he is okay with that.
Agar was the fall guy when Australia made a last-ditch change of tactics heading into last year's T20 World Cup, swapping five specialist bowlers for four to go with a deeper batting order. It all worked out gloriously in the end as Marcus Stoinis and Matthew Wade - the new finishers - ripped the semi-final away from Pakistan and then the revitalised Mitchell Marsh starred in the title-clinching chase against New Zealand.
Heading into the tournament, left-arm spinner Agar had been almost ever-present and very consistent alongside legspinning mate Adam Zampa. He did get one outing in the UAE when Australia got clever with their match-ups against England only to see the top order blown away on a lively pitch. Not that England were ever under pressure in the chase, but Agar was the only bowler to escape punishment. That, though, was the sum of his on-field World Cup.
"There's definitely no frustration at all," Agar tells ESPNcricinfo from Sri Lanka ahead of the T20I series. "If anything it's been a really good thing for my [game] and how I look at international cricket.
"It was really strongly communicated to me that I was absolutely valued and it wasn't that I was dropped, it was a team set-up. I knew I hadn't done anything wrong. As long as you know that it's absolutely fine. You know when you've been dropped and aren't playing well and shouldn't be in the side. It wasn't about that."
The next few weeks in Sri Lanka, the homeland of his mother and a country Agar is visiting for the first time, should allow him an opportunity of a regular starting place in the T20I and ODI sides (a Test comeback is not out of the question if Australia go for three spinners) with Zampa on paternity leave. He has been confirmed as the one frontline spinner for the opening T20I in Colombo as Australia retain their World Cup balance.
And that's the upshot for Agar. Regardless of how well he does on this tour and the rest of Australia's lead-in to their title defence on home soil, he could well be back carrying the drinks come the middle of October.
"Over the last couple of years I've played really well, it's been my best cricket," he says. "I know that they are happy with the way I've been performing. I know where I'm trying to improve. And that's all that matters.
"I'm certainly not heaping that pressure on myself. I've played enough T20s now to know I'm a valued member of this squad. There's really no point thinking like 'I have to do something', if you are doing that you are honestly trying to control the future and that's just way too hard. International cricket is hard enough. It would be a really miserable place if that's the sort of pressure you heaped on yourself."
Agar's approach and attitude was praised by captain Aaron Finch at the start of the tour. "What he's shown with his disappointment of missing out [is] his ability to bounce back and take his opportunities every time he's had them," he said. "Shows the character of the person, shows what kind of a team man he is."
Agar's T20I figures are very impressive. He has 46 wickets from 43 matches, an average of 21.15 and economy rate of 6.50. Narrow that down to the last two years (since January 2020) and it is 29 wickets at 17.55 going at 6.15. That includes a hat-trick against South Africa and Australia's best T20I figures of 6 for 30, against New Zealand. They are numbers that stand up against the best.
"It is nice. I'm really proud of that," Agar says. "It's an important feature in T20s to be able to stifle the run rate. That's often how you bring about wickets. That's what's worked really well with me and Zamps. Some games I'll be the one who goes for very few runs and he'll get the wickets, or he'll be the one going for very few runs and I'll get the wickets. It's about communicating that on the day and that's how our partnership really blossomed; first of all we are really good mates, but we communicate really well out on the field. I do take pride in that."
Agar pinpoints increased work in the powerplay over the last two years as adding to his skills and in more recent times he has started to give the ball more of a rip which he feels has improved his wicket-taking threat and not damaged the economy rate.
"I did that quite well in the last series against Sri Lanka in Australia," he says. "I was certainly getting more revs on the ball, more purchase, and it's a little more attacking. Even though you are hitting the same lengths you are giving yourself a better chance of taking wickets rather than bowling quick, back of a length, not going for any runs. And bowling a lot more in the powerplays has been fun, for Australia and [Perth] Scorchers. Being able to be used at different stages of the game, not just through the middle, makes you far more versatile."
Versatility was taken further in February when he was briefly experimented with as an opener against Sri Lanka. That would appear an unlikely route to be repeated, but batting is an important part of the Agar story (even before mentioning the famous 98 on Test debut). When Agar was part of a five-man attack - the balance favoured by Justin Langer from his time at Scorchers - it meant he had an important role to play in the lower middle-order, often around No. 7, and that was a part of his game that did not click.
His T20I strike rate currently sits at 101.83 but Agar is confident that is also evolving after some technical tweaks in last season's Big Bash. The sample size is relatively small, but there is some evidence: 30 off 17 balls against Hobart Hurricanes; 29 off 25 against Sydney Sixers and 22 off 17 against Sydney Thunder.
"It's trending in the right direction," he says. "Batting at No. 7 and 8 is a pretty tough spot. You come in with a few balls left and are expected to strike in the high 100s if not 200. Doing that a few times in the Big Bash gave me a lot of confidence and making adjustments that really worked.
"What he's shown with his disappointment of missing out [is] his ability to bounce back and take his opportunities every time he's had them. Shows the character of the person, shows what kind of a team man he is
Aaron Finch on Agar
"You do all the technical practice…but the hardest part in the middle is to slow your mind down and focus on what's important: watching the ball," he goes on to explain. "That's important in any format and it's really hard in T20 cricket where the crowd is going nuts, you need to hit a six and the bowler could potentially bowl one of three different balls. Think that's been the biggest challenge. That's what I'm trying to work on."
Whatever happens over the next few months and whatever role Agar plays as Australia aim to make it back-to-back men's T20 titles at the MCG on November 13, he sounds like a cricketer at peace with where he sits.
"I feel like I'm playing on skill now," he says. "I've got no real interest in trying to just survive in international cricket. I want to do really well, I want to have a good time doing it and I want to play on skill. I don't want to be a survivor, that's no fun.
"When you are in the middle [that means] looking at each ball as another opportunity to do something really good for your team, rather than getting stressed about getting hit for a couple of sixes and just looking to get out unscathed. That's just a miserable way of playing. Think that's really helped me enjoy playing international cricket over the past year. It's been way more fun."

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo