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Agar hopes Top End trip will land him a lucky break

With a fresh attitude - and a brand new fishing rod - Wes Agar is heading to Darwin to reignite his white-ball game

On his arrival back home from the Caribbean last July, basking in the warm glow of his elevation to international cricket and buzzing at the prospect of further opportunities ahead, Wes Agar could barely wait for the Australia summer to start.

Eight months on, most of which was laid waste by injury and illness, the end of his hellish season could not come soon enough.

With World Cups looming in both the T20 and ODI formats over the next year or so, the big-hearted fast bowler who shared the new white ball with Mitchell Starc in the West Indies concedes he's now "a fair way down the pecking order" by dint of his lost summer.

But true to his perpetually upbeat disposition, Agar is hopeful an off-season stint in Darwin coupled with technical tweaks to his bowling action and a refreshed philosophy about the game and his place within it will help mend the frustration of a forgettable 2021-22.

"It was a very hard summer for me," Agar told cricket.com.au this week as he prepared to head to the Top End and take part in Northern Territory Cricket's Strike League limited-overs competition.

"Reflecting on it now, I came back from the Caribbean and did have some high expectations but sometimes that's just not how the world works.

"You're going to have setbacks in your career, and for the first time in the seven years or so I've been in the professional system I had to deal with some injury setbacks, selection setbacks and performance setbacks.

"When all three of those hit at once, after having such a big high just months earlier, it was a real 'hit-you-in-the-face' kind of moment.

"But it's taught me a lot of good lessons about appreciating cricket a lot more and enjoying the game.

"I think at the professional level you can get lost in trying to play for your next contract, or playing to perform personally and sometimes you lose sight of just having fun, which is why you started playing as a kid in the first place."

Agar's agony effectively began the moment he landed in Adelaide after his heady international debut, where the absence of regular Australia limited-overs quicks including Pat Cummins and Kane Richardson saw him called up for the month-long campaign in the Caribbean.

Having received his ODI cap from older brother Ashton in a heart-warming ceremony at Barbados's famed Kensington Oval, Wes returned home hellbent on maintaining the momentum he had steadily built over the preceding years.

A break-out 2019-20 summer in which he was South Australia's leading wicket-taker and Dansie Medallist as the state's premier men's cricketer was followed by further development in his white-ball bowling the following season when he was the most potent force for Adelaide Strikers (in BBL) and SA (Marsh One Day Cup).

However, COVID-19 protocols in place a year ago meant rather than returning from the West Indies and slotting straight into pre-season with the Redbacks, Agar spent two weeks confined to an Adelaide hotel room with his only training outlet an exercise bike parked next to the bed.

"I was really motivated to get fit and have a big summer, and then spent two weeks basically on a bike in quarantine," he recalled.

"I can't say it was or wasn't because of that, but I went into a practice game not long after getting out of isolation and hurt my left quadricep.

"That was the start."

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Mindful of his new status within the rebuilt Redbacks bowling group and keen to establish his place at summer's outset, Agar pushed through the pain but after the season-starting one-dayer against Western Australia he went for scans that confirmed a four centimetre tear in his left thigh.

While his desire to keep playing might have been admirable, it also proved misplaced and extended his rehabilitation period to the point he targeted the start of KFC BBL|11 in early December for his full-throttle return.

"I went into the Big Bash with really high hopes having got myself fit for that, and started playing well but, with the team dynamic, there was a few games I wasn't selected so I was up and down and really wanted to push my case again when I got a chance," he said.

"At training I was going quite hard, and it was the last ball of a session that I stretched out and as I did, I felt a little pinch in my side and sure enough that was a side strain.

"So I went back into another rehab process, which is quite a long one for that injury, then when I got back to bowling I thought I was a bit better than I was and probably went too hard in one of the training sessions and re-injured it."

After bowling less than 50 overs in top-level competition since season's start, Agar then targeted SA's final Marsh Sheffield Shield match of what loomed as another winless campaign for the Redbacks as a belated chance to salvage something from his summer.

His return came in a practice game where he bowled three-over spells at good pace and claimed a wicket which had him confident of playing his first red-ball match for more than a year, but a new issue suddenly arose.

The 25-year-old couldn't figure out why he felt fatigued despite bowling in short bursts, and why he was unable to fill his lungs despite all the fitness work he'd undertaken during his various rehabilitation programs.

"That night I started getting the shivers and the sweats, so I did a test that confirmed COVID-19 so I missed out on selection for the final Shield game against New South Wales," he said, noting SA went on to win that game and record their first Shield victory for more than two years.

"So that was the end of my season, and I look back to almost a year ago when I was on a tour of the West Indies playing for Australia and now I'm sitting in my lounge room thinking 'okay, I've probably been knocked down the pecking order a fair way' and I'm trying to think how do I get back?

"It's been a tough process, firstly to understand it and get my mind around the fact that's the reality of circumstances, but secondly to accept it and manage it as well as find a path leading back to where I was ten months ago."

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The first steps along that journey were to identify and change the philosophy he took into last summer, which had only served to compound the frustration he felt when his aspirations came to nought.

In particular, Agar recognised his inability to contribute meaningfully to SA led him to feel he was not only letting himself down, but also younger members of the Redbacks bowling group such as Jordan Buckingham and Tim Oakley who looked to the new Australia representative for leadership.

"If you're not performing and doing well, you can get pretty down on yourself so it's about understanding that growing as a cricketer is a continual process rather than having to be 'on' all the time, like I did when I first came back from the Caribbean," Agar said.

"I was very outcomes-driven last year, and I've realised that's not really a big factor in whether you're bowling well or not.

"So I've worked a lot on what success actually looks like, and if I can tick those boxes this season and in training and in my off-field life, I'll know I'm moving in the right direction and that I'm going to have on-field success in performance."

Next step was technical tweaks to his bowling action in a bid to recapture the form that saw him finish equal second-highest Shield wicket-taker (behind then Queenslander, Cameron Gannon) in 2019-20 and claim 29 wickets at a strike rate of 19.6 across both domestic white-ball competitions a year later.

In consultation with Redbacks assistant coach Luke Butterworth, Agar has been ironing out a few kinks including a propensity to "swing out" his back foot on delivery, which limits his ability to get close to the stumps and more consistently find the edge of rival batters.

"We've tried to straighten some things out and make sure my energy's going towards the target," Agar said.

"I've done some cone work, some knee-drive and hip-drive work and allowed my body to stay in a smaller channel through the crease.

"I'm trying to train the muscle memory so when I do get into games and the cones aren't there, it's repeatable.

"Then, when I'm trying to bowl flat stick and I'm trying to knock stumps out or ruffle some feathers, I don't have to worry about where my legs and arms are going.

"I'm not your out-and-out swing bowler and I'm never going to be, I rely more on my pace and movement off the wicket.

"And I think this will help my pace as well because my energy is going forward rather than left and right, up and down."

The final phase will play out in Darwin from later this month when Agar takes part in the six-week Strike League program of T20 and 50-over matches.

His decision to sign with Northern Tide – coached by former Australia representative now SA assistant coach, Mark Cosgrove – came after his closest mates in the Redbacks squad (Henry Hunt, Lloyd Pope and Liam Scott) revealed they were all pursuing off-season playing commitments.

Pope (Kent League) and Scott (Surrey League) are currently in the UK, while Hunt – who has regularly played in Darwin during southern winters – is part of the Australia A squad on tour in Sri Lanka.

Not keen on a UK stint, and with new SA recruits Harry Conway and Ben Manenti having completed their brief stay at his Adelaide Hills home before their own rental premises became available, Agar decided the Top End offered a great chance to work on his white-ball game away from pressure and scrutiny.

"When you're playing a lot of state cricket, you tend not to play many Premier Cricket games and you might get maybe two white-ball opportunities a year at grade level," he said.

"So it's hard to really look and focus and develop those skills, and this is a real tunnel-vision opportunity to concentrate on my white-ball cricket for six weeks.

"I've had experience now playing at the top level in the white-ball format and I think that's where my best chance of playing for Australia is in the near future.

"It's probably also the form of the game I enjoy most at the moment.

"I really enjoy the cat and mouse of T20 cricket and one-day cricket, where you're setting fields and you can double-bluff and play games with the batter.

"And I really want to understand my game a lot better and understand situations of white-ball games away from the pressure of a Big Bash or a One-Day Cup match.

"But I haven't crossed out red ball at all.

"I'm very keen to crack back into the Shield squad for South Australia and push my case in that format.

"It hurts when you're not playing and you're watching other people out there when your team's doing well and you're not a part of it, and I think feeling that sting has really made me understand I need to set some things in place to be as professional as I can."

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Not that Agar's upcoming Darwin sojourn will carry a total work focus.

In keeping with his philosophy to enjoy the ride rather than fret over the destination, he's purchased a new fishing rod he hopes to christen in the warm waters up north as opposed to his usual mid-winter days spent hunting salmon off Waitpinga beach on Adelaide's Fleurieu Peninsula.

"It's a 12-foot surf rod that I got this week, just in case there's nobody in Darwin that wants to take me out on a boat, and I can stand a bit back from the shoreline and cast out," he said, beaming his trademark smile.

"The rod's the first thing I've packed for the trip, so that's another thing I'm really looking forward to - catching some decent fish."