The Ashes: The world according to Ashton Agar

Maybe it is because he's primarily a bowler, or more importantly thinks of himself as a bowler first, that Agar could be as blithe about his century-on-debut-that-almost-was.

Updated: July 17, 2013 15:29 IST
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After Shane Warne. Those three words might be the biggest albatross that Australian spinners from 2007 onwards have had to bear around their necks.

A succession of men have come, been measured against one of the greatest spinners in the game's history, unsurprisingly found wanting, and then continued to struggle. Initially, every new Australian spinner excited no little curiosity. Beau Casson, Bryce McGain and the like were eagerly awaited - and it sometimes seemed, just as eagerly obituarised once they failed.

Until finally, the group of spinners Australia took along with them on tours became sideshows, with an exciting, if highly injury-prone, crop of fast bowlers emerging. Consequently, when the Australians arrived in India before their four-Test series earlier this year, the inclusion of Ashton Agar didn't exactly send scribes and fans hunting for his biography. He was a teenager, a left-arm spinner - and that was about it.

Agar played in both Australia's warm-up matches, against a Board President's XI side and an India A side. Against the BPXI in a two-day match, Wisden India reported that he troubled Ambati Rayudu, who was clearly the most impressive batsman on either side and the highest scorer in the match.

Agar had more wickets but less effect, in the following three-day match against India A. On the field that day, he was less impressive than Xavier Doherty and Nathan Lyon, and in both matches, he batted at No. 11. But something about him seemed to have impressed Michael Clarke and the Australian management enough that his stay was extended, and Clarke even said then that Agar was "going to be a very good bowler".

While the jury may still be out on how good a bowler Agar will be, he's at least guaranteed himself a decent run in the playing XI after his astonishing debut. That this has come about because of batting rather than bowling is a surprise, but for anyone who watched his stroke-play and the poise he showed against a quality attack, his cementing a spot cannot come too soon.

Maybe it is because he's primarily a bowler, or more importantly thinks of himself as a bowler first, that Agar could be as blithe about his century-on-debut-that-almost-was.

In a Test match that saw the epic in James Anderson running in over after over on the fifth morning; the unexpected in Australia's never-say-die-spirit coming to the fore; the absurd in Stuart Broad being Stuart Broad and providing enough material to fill books with a moment's straight-faced look; and even the schadenfreude moment of seeing Graeme Swann's sanctimonious words come back to haunt him - the most memorable image was that of a teenager's smiling face and nonchalant shrug of the shoulders when he walked off, out for 98 on debut.

Most of the rest of the world sighed while the man for whom they were sighing, smiled.

Perhaps one day, Agar will react differently to missing a landmark, but on July 11, his smile was as spontaneous as it was heart-warming. It was a smile that reminded you of the reason you took to the sport in the first place - whether as player, fan or journalist. A smile that spoke of the unmixed joy of playing. Cricket may be big business today, but most people connected with the sport who make a direct living from it - whether cricketer, reporter or administrator - first chose to do what they do because they fell in love with the game.

It's a fact of life that there are times when the most interesting job becomes mundane. Accomplished batsmen obsessed with their craft will have occasionally got bored of hitting a cover drive at practice. A report will sometimes be written in sleepwalking mode by writers who normally revise copies for misplaced commas. Coaches who find a passion not just in work-ethic but also in imparting knowledge will, on the rare day, wind up a drill early.

And then along comes a man who hasn't quite left boyhood yet, and eases the dreariness away with a shrug. You may have started out besotted with the game, but it's moments like these that keep you so.

Agar's response after the knock was that he was "happier to have scored the 98 than sad about missing the 2". That set the seal on the idyllic aspect of his innings. It's been drummed down forever that it's the team that matters first and not the individual, that team goals come before individual records. While that may be an enshrined cricketing commandment, who would actually prefer a duck in a winning cause over a brilliant hundred - cause be damned? And yet, that's exactly how Agar reacted and how he expressed himself.

You didn't expect him to, but given the manner in which he handled his dismissal and the questions about his disappointment, it might not even have been surprising if Agar had gone into a philosophical-evolutional tangent and expounded on the fact that a century was an artificial construct, made special by an accident of evolution because human beings had ten fingers and toes. If we'd had eight of each and used that as our base, his score would have been 142. And if we used the binary system, it would have run to seven digits. So it didn't really mean anything that he was on 98.

But with Agar, the most valid math term right now is neither binary nor decimal, it is simply exponential. That's how he has grown from the development player asked to stay back in India to the man who could potentially be the one to last long after Shane Warne.

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