AUSTRALIA has spent the past four years trying to work out what Ashton Agar is made of and the riddle is just as complex now as when he first took the cricket world by storm.
Agar’s long-awaited second life as a Test star begins on Sunday in the first Test against Bangladesh, and exactly like his memorable debut at Trent Bridge, he is once again diving straight into the deep end.
Selectors and captain Steve Smith believe Agar is the man to help Australia ultimately conquer the final frontier that is winning in India.
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However, that mission is still four years away, and the 23-year-old is under enormous pressure in Dhaka to prove he is the man for the here and now, particularly given one of the stars of this year’s improved Indian tour Stephen O’Keefe has been left at home.
Agar’s 35-match Sheffield Shield record of 96 wickets at an average of 39.68 is far from flattering, but selectors and West Australian coach Justin Langer argue those numbers are largely irrelevant when his home ground is the pace-friendly WACA.
Shane Warne was picked on instinct not averages, and the gut feel selectors have always had about Agar’s natural skill and match-winning abilities have grown stronger over the past 12 months to the point where they’ve gone all-in on him leading Australia to an important victory in Bangladesh.
“We go back to his first Test, it’s still one of my favourite memories (Agar scoring 98 batting at No. 11). Talk about watching Gladiator, or Braveheart or Rocky Balboa, when I watched Ash batting with Hughesy (Phil Hughes), that’s some of the best entertainment I’ve ever seen,” Langer told The Sunday Telegraph.
“He’s a great package for any selector. That’s why we’ve been so interested in him for so long here in WA. His left-arm orthodox is developing rapidly, he’s probably one of the top two or three fielders in Australia and his batting.
“If guys like Shane Warne, Murali and Harbhajan Singh had a tough time playing at the WACA, then Ashton has done a really good job for us.
“He took 10 wickets in a game last year in Sydney in conditions that were conducive. While he’ll be playing against guys in Bangladesh who have been brought up playing spin bowling, he’ll get conditions that are conducive.
“He’s tall, he spins them, his accuracy is getting better. He’s been bowling more in the last 12 months than he has in a long time so I hope that means he’s prepared and ready to go.”
Agar suffered a major come down after his whirlwind Test start in 2013 lasted just two matches, and Langer says the long road back has been character building.
“For most people it’s a natural reaction. You spend your life dreaming about having a baggy green cap and then you’re there and there’s no greater feeling. But then to have it taken away, at the time it’s hard to see past the end of your nose,” said Langer.
“But he’s a real student of the game, a real student of life actually. He realised it was a tough time and he’s worked really hard to get himself back to where he is now. From that point of view, he’s shown some great character and some courage.
“He’s gone away and got better. It’s an awesome achievement for him.”
Agar’s magical 98 on debut doesn’t change the fact it’s with the ball that he must make a name for himself.
O’Keefe’s unceremonious dumping has been in part put down to an assertion that after a boom 12-wicket man-of-the-match performance in the only Test Australia won, in Pune, the Indian batsmen worked him out as the series wore on.
It’s a harsh assessment given O’Keefe finished with 19 wickets at a very professional average of 23, and his ironman 77-over haul in the third Test in Ranchi had helped keep Australia alive in the series.
Right up until the fourth Test Smith was able to rely on O’Keefe’s consistent contributions from one end, and the heat is on Agar to show the same kind of consistency.
“I think he’s come a long way over the last year particularly. He’s been bowling very well in the nets. His lengths have been exceptional so if he can get those right in the game I’m sure he’ll have a big impact for us,” said Smith.
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“He’s got a lot more consistent. And a lot more accurate and I think in those conditions accuracy is the key.
“Ashton has obviously been on the radar for a long time and someone we see as having a pretty bright future. We saw this as an opportunity to give Ashton another opportunity and hopefully he takes it with both hands.”
Source: sports dailytelegraph