January 2023 - Ashton Agar was declared Australia’s second-best spinner and was picked for the Sydney Test against South Africa: A statement of intent from Cricket Australia selectors. Seemed a perfectly logical decision as well. Right from his accuracy to the ability to contain the right-handers - pretty much in the Axar Patel mould - he was destined to be Australia’s trump card in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
But as luck would have it, a month later, he found himself on a plane to Perth in the middle of the series as the selectors preferred Todd Murphy and Matthew Kuhnemann to partner Nathan Lyon for the Test series. Unsure about what the future held for him in the red-ball format, Agar found himself in a catch-22 situation.
"Obviously, it's not an ideal situation but you just try to make the best of it," Agar told Channel Ten then. "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.”
Times like these would make you question your credentials. If he was not good enough to be playing on the turning tracks of India, was he really good enough?
You bet, he is!
In his comeback game in Chennai, as colours were splashed on the clothes, the left-arm spinner spun a web around the Indian set-up to dismiss Virat Kohli and Suryakumar Yadav off consecutive deliveries.
Besides, he was responsible for strangling the Indian batters in the middle overs which caused the likes of KL Rahul and Kohli to take undue risks when they simply could have played their normal game. Instead, they allowed that pressure for Adam Zampa to dictate the course later and push the Indian team further down the barrel.
From a tactical and strategic standpoint, the 50-over format is a different beast altogether and has zero resemblance to the longest format of the game. But cricket is as much a mental game as it is about tactics and strategy and it is to the credit of Agar’s mental fortitude that he followed that Test snub with a special performance of his own.
The effort is special because Agar always tended to take the fall. Even though in the last couple of years he was one of Australia’s best spinners in the shortest format of the game, when they changed the strategy to go with four bowlers instead of five, it was Agar who had to be dropped from the squad. But there was never any resentment or contravention, rather a smile on his face.
"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 had said last year.
There are plenty of positives for Australia to take away from this series. Not least because they won it 2-1, but in a World Cup year, having several spinners doing what they did was always going to add value to the set-up. For Agar, who came into the series after a five-wicket haul in the Marsh Cup final, it is even more crucial because being in the conversation is paramount for him at the moment.
“There was obviously plenty in the pitch for me and as soon as the first ball did that, it was a great indication of how I had to go about for the rest of the innings, put the ball in the right place and let the pitch do the rest,” Agar told Star Sports after the match.
As of now, Australia don’t have an ODI series scheduled till the end of the Ashes. While that itself is an indication of the ODI format’s paucity at the moment - we are in a World Cup year, for God's sake - and it would serve Agar as a reminder to hone his skills and keep him relevant in the long run.
If anything, his perseverance tells you that if you keep on trying and upgrading yourself beyond the prescribed limit, the limited set of talents wouldn’t be a hindrance to your growth as a sportsman. The Western Australian embodies everything excellent about the workmanlike character and it is time for the world, and more importantly Australian cricket, to recognise the value he brings to the table.
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