Prince of spin ready to step up

Ashton Agar’s upbringing was typical enough. Evenings after school were spent in the backyard in suburban Melbourne, bowling to his younger brothers Will and Wesley, and making them bowl to him.
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Agar loved Shane Warne as much as any Australian boy who wanted to bowl spin, but he was also fascinated by spinners from distant places.

”I’ve always loved watching the Sri Lankans and Indians bowl the best, just because they are quite natural, they bowl a bit of a different pace. I have always wanted to be a bit like that so maybe, subconsciously, I have modelled myself on them,” says Agar, the teenager who has turned the heads of the national selectors with his lanky brand of left-arm orthodox spin.

”In regards to off-spin, I loved watching Harbhajan Singh, I thought he was a genius. And I love watching Rangana Herath from Sri Lanka, [Ravi] Ashwin from India. Those three.”

Agar, 19, is about to embark on a season-long stint in the UK that coincides with the Ashes, as one of six talented young cricketers granted Hampshire Academy scholarships. He will also play for Australia A in England, and won’t be far from an Ashes call if a second spinner is required, given Nathan Lyon is the only one in the initial squad.

It’s no surprise that Agar is attracted to a sub-continental style of spin. His mother, Sonia, emigrated to Australia from Colombo, Sri Lanka, when she was 12, though the family has not been back. His father, John, had a distinguished grade career with Prahran.

Neither stood in his way last year when the chance arose to avoid the queue of spinners in Victoria and sign with Western Australia.

From the moment WA teammate Michael Beer hurt his shoulder towards the end of the Sheffield Shield season, Agar was placed on the fast track.

Less than a month after his eye-catching debut against NSW, he had been dispatched to India for work experience with the Test squad and to make up the numbers in a tour match.

”Unfortunately for ‘Beery’ he hurt his shoulder, and he was probably next in line to play for Australia at the time. Ever since that happened, things have changed massively for me.”

For a surreal couple of days before the India tour spun out of control for Australia, Agar was in the mix for selection in the Chennai Test. It didn’t happen, but it made him think.

”I was aware that anything could happen. It was sort of put that way to me,” Agar said.

”I was there to keep learning, and I definitely took a lot out of it. I guess I’ve matured quickly from that. It was hard, because they [the Indian batsmen] just played me better,” he said.

”They used their feet extremely well and got up the wicket, then pushed back, they used the crease brilliantly. They were hitting good balls for four or six sometimes, so it’s like, ‘What more can I do?’ You just realise you have to find a way to get those players out, so it was really good for me to experience that.”

Agar is bright and articulate, and has placed on hold a law degree at Murdoch University in Perth. He has long, loose limbs and bowls from an awkward height for batsmen.

He says he tries to be patient, without being boring. ”I like fishing, I guess you have to be patient for that,” he says.

”I try to bowl different balls, but when I’m bowling well I’m quite accurate. But I try to attack at the same time, and be hungry for wickets.”

A note of caution is advisable; many a young spinner in the post-Warne age has suffered from being promoted too soon.

Still, observers from national selector John Inverarity down, have been captivated by his talent. Off-spinning elder Ashley Mallett thinks Agar will become ”very good, very soon”. And WA coach Justin Langer thinks his physical attributes and competitive temperament are unusual in one so young. Apart from gathering 22 wickets in his first six first-class games (including three lower-order scalps for 107 against India A), Agar made crucial runs for WA – his unbeaten 71 upsetting Tasmania.

”I remember him bowling in the nets at the MCG before a Boxing Day Test, he got ‘Punter’ [Ricky Ponting] out and gave himself a little fist-punch, so I love his competitive instinct,” Langer says.

”He’s such a natural athlete, unlike a lot of young players who seem to be so coached. He is so loose, he reminds me of how a lot of champion athletes move. You see that in his batting and fielding, as well.”

Should leg-spinner Fawad Ahmed rise to represent his adopted nation once he becomes eligible, emerging spinners like Agar and Victoria’s left-arm spinner Jon Holland might be afforded an extended first-class apprenticeship before they are thrust into Test cricket.

But when he’s asked whether he is ready, Agar doesn’t hesitate. ”Yeah, absolutely. I think I have experienced now some of the toughest conditions, and played against probably the best player of spin in [former Indian opener] Gautam Gambhir, so I think I would definitely be ready to play Test cricket,” he says. ”But whatever happens, happens … I’m just trying to play the best cricket I can and it’s out of my hands from there.”

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Harris sure he’ll be ready for Ashes tour

Ryan Harris is confident he will be fit well before the Ashes, but admitted Cricket Australia was nervous about him going to the Indian Premier League from which he has returned with a sore Achilles.
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Harris on Friday received encouraging results from a scan of his heel.

The soreness filled Harris with dread given his history of breaking down, but he hopes to be out of action for only a few weeks, and has not given up on playing during the Australia A tour of the UK that precedes the Test series.

“The scan showed nothing so it’s basically tendonitis of the Achilles and I just have to keep rehabbing and get it nice and strong and be ready to go by England hopefully,” Harris said.

“I’m still aiming to play a couple of Australia A games, definitely, then there’s two tour matches before the first Test. There’s going to be plenty of time to bowl, and if I have to bowl in the nets to get the workload up I will.”

Harris is the second fast bowler in a week to return injured from the IPL – Ben Hilfenhaus, who missed the Ashes squad, has knee tendonitis.

Cricket Australia would have preferred Harris to stay home for a few weeks after the domestic season because there had been a spike in his workload after his comeback from a shoulder injury. But because he was not injured, he was cleared to play in the IPL.

“They didn’t tell me not to go. Going over to another competition before a big series like England, of course they’re going to be nervous but it was very important for me to go and keep bowling. I’d had enough time off, and if I’d had this soreness before I went there’s no way I would have gone,” Harris said.

It’s exactly a year since Harris last played a Test, but the renewal of his Cricket Australia contract and inclusion in the Ashes squad speaks of the high regard in which he is held when he’s fit.

The selectors have been prepared to rest Harris between high-impact bursts at Test level in the past, but he has a more ambitious outlook.

“I will always say I will aim to play five Tests. It’s obviously very tough to play five especially with my history, but if I went over there aiming to play two out of five or three out of five, that’s not great thinking,” he said.

“If I’m feeling OK I’m sure they will let me play as much as I can. The other thing is I’ve got to get back in the team yet, there’s some pretty good bowlers in there at the moment.”

James Faulkner, the young allrounder who withstood a fierce performance from Harris to make 89 in last month’s Sheffield Shield final, said the Queensland quick would be enormously important to the Ashes campaign.

“Ryan has a very good record for Australia and he was quite tough to face in shield final,” Faulkner said. “He’s always at you, he’s relentless in the way he approaches his bowling.”

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Footy pearls – before Swine

Some years ago, somewhere in the month of September, the ABC had several sublime hours of spring-time radio.
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John Harms and Paul Daffey had the microphones and it was grand final day in country footy leagues around Australia. Harms is a great character – the spirit of geniality and a fine sportswriter in his own right, he is passionate about the idea of footy as an expression of community.

Daffey, a more taciturn character, is to grassroots footy what David Attenborough is to the natural world. His knowledge of it is encyclopaedic. And so, when people from all over Australia rang in with grand final results, they were met by Harms’ infectious pleasure at co-ordinating a festival of footy and Daffey’s unfailing expertise concerning the various clubs and competitions.

For the past 10 years or so, the pair have sought to defy media history – in which the drift is to the visual and the electronic – by producing The Footy Almanac in which every game of the AFL season is written up by a spectator. As an initiative, The Footy Almanac is bold, quixotic and wonderfully egalitarian, but I think Harms and Daffey have struck an even richer vein with their latest production, Footy Town.

Not all AFL games are interesting. Sport, even at the highest level, can be disappointing and even the most talented sportswriters can struggle to bring such occasions bubbling to life. Footy Town proceeds on a different assumption – 50 men and women from around Australia have been invited to dig into the rich loam of their memories and source their love of the game. In two words, what this book has that the general footy media doesn’t possess, despite all its glitzy posturing to the contrary, is humour and characters.

Murray Bird umpired in the Southern Queensland Australian Football Association with a character known simply as The Swine. “The Swine was bare-footed when I met him – at my first night at umpires’ training at Crosby’s Park. We were both struggling along at the back of the pack. I put out my hand to introduce myself. ‘What are you? Desperate for f—ing friends or something. I’m The Swine and no one likes me’.”

What made The Swine special was that he volunteered to umpire the lowest grades of the game – what he called “shit footy”. That was his mission and, in the words of the song, The Swine did it his way. Umpiring a game between the Moorooka Roosters and the Wynnum Vikings, The Swine copped one too many sprays from the Moorooka captain, known as Ivan the Terrible. When The Swine responded with the first 90-metre penalty in the history of the game and Ivan shouted that he would be writing a letter of complaint to the league, The Swine obliged by dictating the letter for him.

The Swine rarely lost control of those he called “the animals”, but once, in a match at Jindalee, a player ran amok, dropping opponents at will. Desperate times call for desperate measures and only the other umpire beheld what actually happened, how, running through the middle, The Swine caught the offender with a left elbow to the jaw which put him down and out.

This book overflows with characters and humour like a good glass of beer overflows with froth. David Enticott, the minister at the Rosanna Baptist Church, was seduced into playing veterans’ footy with the Southern Saints Football Club. For the minister, this meant entering a relationship with the coach, a fearless, wafer-thin defender known as Stripper.

The catch was that the games were on Sundays, as were the Rosanna Baptist Church’s weekly services. After being late for a couple of matches, the minister was pulled aside by the coach. Said Stripper: “Big Dave, love having you in the team, but if you can’t get to the game on time then I’ll have to start you on the bench. Can’t you get Mass to go faster? You’re the priest. Leave out a couple of prayers. No one will ever know.”

The stories flow like grog at the wedding of a publican’s daughter. Vin Maskell charts his relationship with his son through a shared passion for old scoreboards. Barry Dickins recalls the terrible anticipation of a kid waiting to hear the team announced and find out if you’re “in”: “If you were in, you felt immortal like a smile in the kind dark.” Damian Callinan played at Cabarlah in country Queensland. “The ground was rock hard and wore its few tufts of grass like an alopecia sufferer who is past caring.”

Mark Fine, from SEN radio, describes Footy Town brilliantly: “It’s like going to the local footy, chatting to the bloke on the gate and the girls in the canteen, then slipping over on your way to the bar.” This book, easily the best of its kind I’ve encountered, should be required reading for all AFL employees. The roots of the game are not to be found in sports administration degrees or marketing manuals but stories such as these.

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Tagger

5 THINGS … WE JUST MADE UP …
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1 Everyone’s been calling Milney an idiot for years, but Scott Watters does it and it’s a big story. Typical bloody media.

2 If Collingwood is looking to give any more new contracts to blokes who haven’t played a game, I’d be happy to take a cheque, internet transfer, or even pop by and pick up a bag of cash.

3 It’s funny how when players say they want more free time in the pre-season to pursue “other meaningful activities besides football”, the first thing everyone thinks of is drugs.

4 Then again, there’s always the possibility they’d use the time creatively. Like by putting on balaclavas and staging a fake armed siege on a teammate’s house.

5 Brad Scott must be running out of people to have a fight with if he’s blueing with girls.

ARMCHAIR FOOTY BINGO

Finding it hard not to chuckle when you hear Melbourne players say Mark Neeld’s coaching better than ever? Laying awake at night pondering whether Jack Watts was a bigger whipping boy with or without the beard? Let the goal umpire review make a hash of it while you have a game of Armchair Footy Bingo! Rack up more points than there are New Zealanders who reckon they’d have less trouble with sets shots than Ahmed Saad, and you win.

This week’s targets:

Maintaining his reputation for innovation, GWS coach Kevin Sheedy asks the AFL for permission to embroil the club in a drugs scandal in a bid to start winning games like Melbourne and Essendon – 2 points.

Damien Hardwick’s wife takes over as coach of Richmond, immediately improving the Tigers’ performance, not to mention their tackle count. Fnarr, fnarr – 4 points.

Having admitted he’s not surprised people are saying he should be sacked, Michael Voss says he’s also not surprised it gets dark at night time or that children like ice cream. 6 points.

Scott Pendlebury’s radical claim that Collingwood players were cheating against Essendon sparks a revolutionary outpouring of honesty from within Magpie ranks, with coach Nathan Buckley saying he wishes he’d stayed at Brisbane, Eddie McGuire admitting Joffa’s a dickhead and the rest of the club’s fans are even worse, and Ben Hudson saying that in 37 clubs and 46 seasons in the game, he’s never come across such a bunch of dim-witted bogans in all his life – 10 points.

SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION

Six steps from Damien Hardwick to Henny Youngman:

1 Damien Hardwick is a football coach in charge of a sleeping giant that’s got feral fans who seem to be quite proud of being feral but just the same thank goodness Tagger doesn’t come with a picture byline, like the photos that were taken by …

2 Linda McCartney, who was married to Paul and part of Wings and didn’t eat meat and took lots of pictures but before that she was an Eastman although that story about her grandpa inventing Kodak film was a myth, a bit like the myth that Walt Disney drew …

3 Mickey Mouse, the cartoon character who looks nothing like a mouse and whose name is slang for something inconsequential which is a big word for Tagger who should stick to Mickey Mouse bits of trivia like the Mickey Mouse Club being the springboard to fame for …

4 Ryan Gosling, the actor who was in that movie where he drove really fast and whose name makes you think of geese, or maybe even Jim Goose from Mad Max, who certainly didn’t have goose bumps when he went up in flames, just like that song by …

5 Nicki Minaj, the rapper who doesn’t like Lil’ Kim, unless writing a song called Stupid Hoe is a compliment, or maybe it was about a dopey gardening tool that might even annoy that funny Costa bloke, who’s not as funny as …

6 Henny Youngman, the dead comedian who was born in Liverpool and moved to New York and learned the violin but became a star telling one-liners, and always made people laugh when he told that one about his wife, just like Damien Hardwick.

FOOTYHEAD SAYS

The weekly serve from the bloke who’d probably just get a haircut if he needed an alice band to keep his hair out of his eyes:

“The Rah Rahs were so happy after their biggest quarter ever they had a bugler and sang the song twice. Meanwhile, Sheeds was happy his mob had competed with an AFL team, which no one had called Melbourne for ages.”

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Games success a balancing act

Illustration: Jim PavlidisFINAL WORD
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Australia estimates that it will have to win between 14 and 17 gold medals at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics to fulfil its mission, and says it already knows, more or less, the identities of those prospective winners. But it also knows that it is unlikely to get more from the government for its cause in the interim years than the $120 million annuity announced this week.

It knows that commercial and philanthropic funding for sport has fallen from around 20 per cent of the total at the time of the 2000 Sydney Olympics to less than five per cent now, and that until sport has fully leached the Lance Armstrong effect from its system, that also is unlikely to grow. And it knows that Great Britain, still basking in the afterglow of London 2012, is likely to spend around three times as much as Australia in pursuit of more honour and glory in Rio.

”We know it’s not going to be easy,” Australian Sports Commission chief executive Simon Hollingsworth said this week. ”It’s going to be challenging. But we believe we can do it.”

The truth is that, in the three years between now and Rio, Australia has to make up its mind about its hitherto sacred Olympic sporting vocation. Since the euphoric high of Sydney, its Olympic spoils have steadily and inexorably declined. In Sydney, it was 58 medals, including 16 gold. In London, it was 35 medals, including a meagre seven gold. Measured by overall medals, Australia finished sixth, by gold medals 10th.

It knows already that the competition between sixth and 10th is fiercer even than the competition in the top five, which tends to have a natural order. Yet Australia’s bald ambition, reiterated this week, is to return to the top five. Further, incorporating paralympics, Commonwealth Games and world championships, it is intent on a ”decade of dominance”.

To this end, it is streamlining the Australian Institute of Sport, and more than ever, it is targeting winnable medals. In this round, there is more money for sailing, yachting, canoeing, rugby sevens, golf, triathlon and diving, but less for swimming and athletics. It is all a matter of scale; swimming is still more lavishly funded by government than any other sport, and athletics is in the top five. The ASC denies that it is putting all its eggs in one basket. ”But we do need to prioritise,” Hollingsworth said.

This business of picking winners inevitably poses philosophical questions. Viewed through one lens, it is cynical, a matter of identifying sports and events Australians can win at and trying to culture them: sailing, but not martial arts, for instance, and jumping, but not running.

Reflexively, it creates ”losers”, those in less winnable pursuits, who may feel disenfranchised. It is also entrenches the notion that Australia can only ever measure its sporting worth by its tally of Olympic medals, though the Olympics themselves comprise an arbitrary and ever-changing selection of sports, ranging from soccer to archaic.

Might-as-medals is shallow self-assessment. In a country that likes to think of itself as mature and a middle power, the punching-above-our-weight trope looks dated. All that is gold does not glister. But this is government money, doled out in beans, whose counters expect in return something that can be bitten into while the cameras flash, and entered in a ledger and flaunted in an annual report.

Alternately, it might be thought that Australia still is not concentrating its resources as it should. Professionalised sport is not quite coin-in-the-slot, but money does make a radical difference. Extravagances of scale make it certain that Australia will be out-spent by every other country in the top 10 in the prelude to Rio, so it can be argued that Australia’s focus should be narrower too.

The commission says that by its calculations, Australia will need to win medals in at least 14 different sports if it is achieve its goal, so it cannot close too many doors. But it will at least have to be more efficient, even ruthless. In London, Australia had the third largest team, behind only Great Britain and the US. The US’ return was a gold medal for every 11.5 athletes, Great Britain’s one for every 18, Australia one for every 60. In Rio, the South American countries will swamp the Games, further stiffening the task. Again, Australia will have to decide for itself what matters most as a country, to give as many as possible an Olympic experience, or as few as is economically prudent an enhanced medal chance.

Plainly, it is not the sports commission’s remit to think small. It makes no apology for this. ”The bar keeps getting higher,” commission chairman John Wylie said. ”We’re conscious that it is a tough target. But the only way to achieve success is to set yourself tough targets.”

Refreshingly, Wylie says the commission will not beg more government money, has schemes to raise funds independently – including a dedicated TV channel – will make no excuses if Australia falls short of its goals, and is happy to be held accountable. On your marks …

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