Qantas Tour of Bangladesh 2017
Enhanced Agar's new spin on Test call-up
Four years on from his memorable Ashes debut, the WA tweaker says he's a vastly improved bowler
19 June 2017, 04:28 PM AEST
Even at the height of his fleeting Test cricket fame, Ashton Agar understood that his bowling – the reason he was plucked from the periphery before making headlines with his batting – was letting him down.
Summoned from Australia's second XI to take the place of Nathan Lyon as specialist spinner in the 2013 Ashes series opener at Trent Bridge, Agar (then aged 19) went wicketless in three of his four bowling innings before being punted for the third match at Old Trafford.
For the past four years he has nursed a Test bowling average of 124, the third-highest by a specialist bowler to have delivered at least 500 balls in the Test arena for Australia, as well as a burning wish for a chance to trim that inflated figure.
That opportunity seems set to arrive in Bangladesh later this year, now that the 23-year-old has been named as the second specialist spinner (alongside Lyon) for Australia's two-match tour scheduled from mid-August.
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Agar has been in and around the Test set-up numerous times since his most recent appearance at Lord's in 2013, notably added to the squad for the final Test of the 2014-15 summer against India and as part of the 16-man touring party to India earlier this year.
However, the likelihood he'll need to retrieve his Baggy Green cap for the first Test against Bangladesh starting August 27 stems from recent history – Australia has employed two specialist spinners in eight of the nine Tests they've played in Asia since Agar's debut.
The exception coming against Pakistan at Abu Dhabi in October 2014 when Lyon was abetted by part-timers Glenn Maxwell, Michael Clarke and Steve Smith, and Australia lost by 356 runs.
Agar's expectations are amplified by the improvements he has made to his bowling since his debut series when he admits he was aware of shortcomings in his technique even as he suffered at the hands of veteran England batter Ian Bell and young talent (now Test skipper) Joe Root.
"I've simplified things a lot, my action is far more solid than it was then," Agar told ABC Radio Perth last weekend following his inclusion in the touring party for Bangladesh.
"I could really feel it slipping then, that was very frustrating for me.
"I knew I wasn't absolutely bowling at my best, but I just had to try and find a way to get through that.
"My action is far more solid (now).
"I'm definitely getting to be a far more consistent bowler I believe and I'm a more experienced bowler.
"I know what to do in situations a lot better than what I would have back then."
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Integral to Agar's evolution has been a sharper focus on training.
With fellow 'extras' on this year's India tour – batsman Usman Khawaja, seamer Jackson Bird and uncapped leg spinner Mitchell Swepson – Agar regularly undertook lengthy fitness and fielding drills in the enervating sub-continental heat.
That was in addition to countless net sessions, where he and Steve O'Keefe – whose role as number two spinner has now fallen to Agar – working closely with former India left-arm orthodox bowler Sridharan Sriram who has become part of the Bupa Support Team for recent tours to Asia.
As a result of that opportunity plus his relationship with Alcohol. Think Again Western Warriors and Perth Scorchers coach Justin Langer, the young allrounder has improved markedly in both fitness and focus.
"My training has been a lot more focused and intentional, and being really professional," Agar said.
"You see the great athletes in all sports, they prepare really well.
"They have great self-belief and they back themselves out on field.
"To perform well on the field you have to prepare really well off the field and I've definitely stepped that up, I've tried to get a lot fitter over the last year, and just with my skills and my preparation it's been very focused and intentional."
While Agar's enhanced training regime has granted him greater confidence, the fact that he currently plays half his domestic first-class matches at the WACA Ground where spinners historically struggle remains a non-variable.
He was the fourth-most successful spinner in last summer's Sheffield Shield competition with 16 wickets (fewer than Victoria left-armer Jon Holland, New South Wales off-spinner Will Somerville and South Australia leg spinner Adam Zampa) at 27.81 apiece.
But even with a first-class career average of just over 40, chair of national selection panel Trevor Hohns believes Agar's bowling has evolved to the point he is now preferred at Test level to O'Keefe, who captured career-best figures of 12-70 in the first Test against India at Pune last February.
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“Ashton has continued to impress us with his form and we believe his bowling is at a level where he deserves to be playing on the highest stage," Hohns said in naming the squad last Friday.
"He will work nicely in tandem with Nathan Lyon and also brings a great all-round package to the team.
“Whilst Steve O’Keefe bowled well in Pune, he did not maintain this level in the remaining matches of the series and we believe the timing is right for Ashton to enter the set-up and test his all-rounder ability."
Even with a return to Test cricket now within reach after a four-year separation, Agar concedes that he is still not the finished product.
But he knows that conditions at Bangladesh's Test venues in Dhaka and Chittagong - where local left-arm spinner Shakib Al Hasan is by far the leading Test wicket taker – will offer him far greater encouragement than the fast and bouncy WACA.