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.
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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