Having last played Test cricket for Australia back in 2017, the Sydney Test witnessed the return of Ashton Agar to the Test arena. Agar had last year been named in the squad for the two-Test series in Sri Lanka, but missed the same with a side strain.
Here, with more than one eye on the India tour, the management decided to draft Agar into the XI on a SCG track they felt demanded playing two specialist spinners.
Agar has been a regular in the Australian white-ball set-up for a good part of five years, but back home, his inclusion in the red-ball scheme of things wasn’t a popular one. The reason being his rather grim record in the Shield where he’s not just struggled but has been among the worst spinners in the entire competition.
Since the start of the 2019/20 season, a total of 18 spinners have taken 10 or more wickets in the Sheffield Shield. Among them, only Lloyd Pope and Tom Andrews have taken their wickets at a higher average than Agar’s 61.3.
This was reason enough for people to be unhappy about his selection, but Agar making the cut ahead of the likes of Swepson, Kuhnemann and Murphy — who’ve all been leagues above him as performers in the Shield — despite having only played a total of three first-class games across the preceding two years fully justified the general public’s frustration.
By merit, then, Agar deserved to be nowhere near the Test side. However, the management saw things differently based on the past.
In their eyes, right in front of them was the perfect sub-continent package: a left-arm orthodox spinner capable of being deadly accurate, who also had the ability to score runs down the order. It is a package that is enticing by itself, but factor-in the presence of Nathan Lyon, and the description of Agar comes off as the perfect partner for the off-spinner. Essentially, the Jadeja to Lyon’s Ashwin.
Agar is not a vicious turner of the ball by any means, but on raging turners, accuracy is a far more a valuable trait than the ability to rip the ball (see: Axar Patel).
So in a way, you could see where the Australian selectors and management were coming from when it came to the Agar selection.
What the SCG Test told us and showed us, however, was that the management’s idea of Ashton Agar the red-ball bowler, and Ashton Agar the actual red-ball bowler are polar extremes.
Picked as the fourth specialist bowler in a 7-4 combination, Agar finished with match figures of 22-5-58-0, going at just over 2.60 runs per over.
On the surface, the numbers don’t seem bad. At all.
If someone were to pass a verdict on how Agar fared solely based on the numbers above, they’d say he fared ‘okay’, considering he kept things tight despite not getting on the wickets column.
This was partly true in the first innings, where he went at just over 2.00 runs per over and largely kept the runs under check. In fact, across the 84 balls he bowled in the first dig, Agar conceded just one boundary. Impressive for any type of spinner notwithstanding venue, conditions or opposition.
But as is the case in everything in life, the devil is in the detail.
The key number from the figures above is not the 58 runs he conceded, or the 0 wickets he picked. Rather, the 22 overs he bowled, which constituted just 14.76% of all the overs Australia bowled in the Test.
3 of those 22 came in the final 20 minutes, when the result was already decided and Cummins merely wanted his secondary spinners to get ‘practice’, so essentially, in a match in which he was picked as the fourth specialist bowler, Ashton Agar bowled a mere 12.75% of the 149 overs that were sent down in the contest, being a spinner.
It would, of course, be pretty funny to spread the conspiracy theory that Cummins has an inherent NSW bias and detests Western Australian cricketers, which is why he couldn’t bother to throw the ball frequently to Agar. And make no mistake, there’ll be a section of people who’d probably instantly buy it.
In reality, however, that Agar pretty much ended up being used as a part-timer was fully down to how much he underwhelmed every time the ball was thrown to him.
On Day 4, Agar was introduced into the attack by Cummins as early as the 22nd over of the South African innings.
The left-armer couldn’t have asked for a better scenario to bowl: South Africa were reeling at 44/3, still trailing Australia by 431 runs, and he had the opportunity to bowl to two right-handers, Bavuma and Zondo, both of whom were new to the crease. It was the kind of match-situation Agar would have bitten your hand off for if you’d offered it to him pre-match.
What unfolded across the next 7 overs, however, was the exact opposite of what Agar the spinner was dubbed to be.
In a 42-ball stretch either side of Tea, Agar was completely all over the place. The left-arm spinner struggled immeasurably to find his line and length, and ultimately bid adieu to the spell barely landing any delivery in areas that tested the two right-handers.
Given time was of utmost importance for Australia, Cummins decided he’d seen enough. Two overs post Tea (36th over), the skipper took Agar off the attack, only to not bring him into the attack again until the 73rd, when Australia were in the midst of ‘getting through overs’ to speed up the process of taking the second new ball.
Agar bowled two more spells in the first innings and, overall, drew a shockingly low 3.5% false shots, by some distance the lowest among all Australian bowlers — Travis Head included.
More than that he was toothless and innocuous, however, it was the dire lack of consistency in his bowling that was alarming. This was not the Agar that was promised. Nor the one we were used to seeing in white-ball cricket.
In Agar’s defense, rust and nerves were obvious mitigating factors. He had, after all, just played one red-ball game in the preceding year and here at the SCG was thrown into the deep end.
Coming back into the Test side after a five-year gap is itself a tough proposition but Agar, on this occasion, was expected to walk in and deliver as part of a four-man attack. Tough. One bad innings can hence be excused.
The beauty of Test cricket is that it provides you with an instant second chance and so minutes after his lousy first innings outing, the 29-year-old had an opportunity to make amends.
All he needed to do was to improve on his first-innings showing and on this occasion, he had the added benefit of a rough patch to aim at, outside the left-hander’s off-stump.
Realizing the potential damage the rough patch could cause to the two left-handed South African openers, Cummins gambled on Agar — he threw the new ball to the Western Australian.
For the second time in as many innings, then, the stage was set-up perfectly for Agar. Hazlewood had delivered a probing first over filled with oohs and aahs and in came Agar to deliver the second, with a rough to aim outside the off-stump of Erwee and the crowd firmly behind him.
The anticipation reached its peak, Agar began his short run-up aaaaaaand…….delivered a full-toss.
Over the course of the next 11 deliveries, he would go on to bowl another full-toss, concede a total of four boundaries and bowl himself out of the attack.
All Agar had to do was better what he did in the first innings — a pretty low bar. Somehow, even with a rough to aim at, he managed to do worse. And this time around, there were no mitigating factors.
How could Australia trust Agar in India?
Agar got the nod at the SCG because the management saw him as a realistic contender to play as a second spinner in India. In their eyes the Sydney Test was a trial, even if they wouldn’t like to admit it. But after his horror showing, the question needs to be posed: on what basis can Agar be selected to play in India?
Until this particular encounter, Agar’s shtick was that he was Mr. Relentless and Mr. Consistent. That his impeccable accuracy would prove to be a point of difference in the subcontinent, even if it doesn’t in conditions back home.
But the SCG debacle has shown that Agar is as prone to inconsistency as any other spinner, thereby severely weakening his case to partner Lyon.
Of course there is every chance Agar, for all we know, could have had a genuine off-game at the SCG, but even then, there is no basis to back him: after all, with a FC average of 61.3 since 2019, he’s statistically been the second-worst spinner in the country, with batting his only saving grace.
And if the management are indeed willing to accept that ‘getting it wrong’ at times, is part and parcel of spin bowling, would it then not be better to back Mitch Swepson, someone with a similar / lower floor but an infinitely higher ceiling?
Not only has Swepson, in the 4 Tests he’s featured, rarely bowled as loosely as Agar did in Sydney, he’s already partnered Lyon four times and fared reasonably well: it was he who broke the game open in the first innings in the first Galle Test.
Or if they are adamant that left-arm finger-spin is what will do the trick in India, Matthew Kuhnemann, who since 2021 has taken 36 wickets at 34.9 and was with the ‘A’ side in Sri Lanka, still comes off as the better option.
Agar edges both Kuhnemann and Swepson when it comes to lower-order batting, but if you’re aiming to win away in India, it goes without saying you’d be much better off picking the second spinner based on how good the individual is in his primary skill.
Under Bailey and Cummins, Australia had got pretty much every selection call right — up until SCG. They made a blunder in Sydney, but the misstep could prove to be a blessing in disguise if it results in them ultimately making the right call come the first Test against India in Nagpur.
Injury nightmare casts long shadow over Australia's WC aspirations
Loss to West Indies reveals a chink in India's armor
Ashton Agar’s bouncebackability makes him a special cricketer
Bastab K Parida
Australia’s India diaries – one filled with travesty and not tenacity
Matt Kuhnemann, the O’Keefe regen that looks up to Jadeja
Aakash Sivasubramaniam,Anirudh Suresh
Amidst crisis, Sri Lanka welcome World Champions Australia
What does Mitchell Swepson’s elevation to Test cricket mean for Australia?
Takeaways minimal as ‘benign’ Pindi wicket provides underwhelming start to tour
Pace to ace – Batsmen have their work cut out in the collision of two pace giants