Agar absence the latest selection mystery
The Ashton Agar express has traversed one of the most remarkable journeys in Test cricket.
It started with his dramatic emergence a decade ago when he was considered for a Test debut after just two Sheffield Shield matches, to his even more dramatic debut at Trent Bridge a few months later to his extraordinary and perplexing fate as the sixth of five spinners in India.
Agar has suffered the cruellest of blows in the past two weeks.
A month after being recognised as Australia’s second-best spinner through his call-up at the SCG, Agar has now been overtaken by not one but two unheralded debutants.
How badly must he have bowled in the Nagpur nets to drop so far so quickly?
How baffling is it that Matt Kuhnemann, a workmanlike left-arm orthodox who has never been accused of match-winning potential, has jumped the queue so rapidly?
Kuhnemann was steady on his first day on the job in Delhi where he picked up a couple of excellent wickets but there was little to suggest that he would have a consistent impact at Test level nor threaten to become Nathan Lyon’s long-term successor.
Now maybe Agar is not in the top echelon of Australian spinners, and maybe he has been sandbagged by the different demands and tempo of white-ball cricket, but do the Australian selectors seriously believe he is incapable of having an impact on the most spin-friendly surfaces on the planet?
In fact, white-ball bowling, with its requirement to attack the stumps in a faster and flatter trajectory than in first-class cricket, might have prepared Agar perfectly for Indian conditions.
Have the selectors taken note of Ravi Jadeja’s approach?
How he has bowled fast, flat and at off stump, and simply waited for natural variation to claim the edge or pad? He is Agar in a pirate suit.
Even Lyon learnt from his first Test woes by bowling quicker in Delhi with an emphasis on side-spin rather than his trademark overspin.
That change brought immediate impact and another five-wicket haul.
Forced to swallow their pride with the recall of Travis Head after his baffling and ill-conceived first Test omission, facing the forced exit of David Warner after their reluctance to make a hard decision on him during the home summer, and surely embarrassed by taking three injured front-line seamers on tour who continue to wear sub vests on the sidelines of the old Feroz Shah Kotla ground, the national selectors are having a nightmare.
The Agar dilemma is just one of several selection mysteries though he is surely used to the vagaries of fortune.
I first met Agar at a University Cricket Club preseason session at McGillivray Oval in September 2012.
He had just shifted from Melbourne as a WA recruit and introduced himself with a shy grin: “Hi, I’m Ash,” before wandering off to rifle a few 80m outfield returns from a left arm that still resembles a rocket-launcher.
He was 18, had a full head of hair and a future that would soon resemble a roller-coaster ride.
A month later Agar was off to South Africa as part of Perth Scorchers’ ill-fated Champions League campaign, returned unscathed to make a decent fist of his first couple of WA appearances and was called up to India – ostensibly as a net bowler – where a debate soon occurred as to the merits of getting him to partner Lyon in the first Test in Chennai.
Selection chairman John Inverarity asked WA coach Justin Langer for his views and got this memorable response.
“I don’t know if he can bowl but he bats like Brian Lara,” Langer said.
Both parts of assessment played out with Inverarity and co resisting the temptation to promote the teenager in Chennai but, famously, he lived up the second element by thrashing a record 98 from No.11 on debut at Trent Bridge later that year.
Agar then became the rarest of sporting cliches – a genuine overnight sensation – before his bowling crumbled to the extent that he was out of the team and out of mind within two more Tests.
Lyon has not missed a Test since then, even refusing to fly home for the birth of a child once to ensure no other candidate usurped his place, while Agar has knocked on the door enough times to be allowed in for five Tests to go with 20 ODIs and 47 T20Is.
That is 72 times he has represented his country, a fair effort for a decade’s labours, but while his Test entry will forever remain the biggest story of his career, his Test absence this week is the most mystifying.