Positive spin: Agar finds fun again after Cup heartache
Dumped from Australia's T20 side on the eve of their World Cup campaign, Ashton Agar has retained a positive mindset and strong form ahead of a potentially career-defining 12 months
Ashton Agar was winding strapping tape around his fingers, his final preparation for what was meant to be a routine training session, when his world was knocked off its axis.
It was the day before Australia's opening game of the recent men's T20 World Cup, a match Agar was rightly expecting to play having been one of the national side's few consistent performers during a rocky 12-month stretch in 20-over cricket.
Having risen to No.3 in the ICC's T20 bowling rankings and missed just one of Australia's previous 15 games, the 28-year-old was primed for a tournament that was billed as one where conditions would be well-suited to his bowling.
But as the Australians prepared to sweat through another afternoon in Abu Dhabi's baking mid-autumn heat, coach Justin Langer delivered the news that almost no-one had seen coming.
Agar was out.
"I was shattered," he remembers. "I went in there fully expecting to play and then all of a sudden, I wasn't selected. That hit really hard.
"I played the two warm-up games, everything was cool and going well … and then 'JL' (Langer) just pulled me aside and said, 'We're going with the quicks and that means you're not playing'.
"I was like, What the hell? He caught me massively off guard.
"(Training started and) I bowled for a long time and tried to hit a few balls really hard. I just couldn't really speak much."
It's a measure of Agar's maturity and the support network around him that he now reflects on that tournament as a wholly positive experience, despite being sidelined for all but one of Australia's seven matches on their way to a first T20 world title.
He concedes it could well have been a soul-destroying three weeks if he'd succumbed to the temptation to sulk and lock himself away while his World Cup dream unravelled.
But the man who was plucked from obscurity as a teenager and thrown into Ashes cricket knows better than most the pitfalls of getting wrapped up in selection.
"I could have gone one way or the other," he says. "It was either sit there miserable and be bitter, or just give as much as I could to the team, train really hard, get around the boys and just immerse myself in the whole experience of being part of a World Cup – and that's exactly what I did, and I'm so glad I did that.
"I had the time of my life; I had heaps of rounds of golf, the games were really fun, I developed a lot as a bowler, and I feel like I gave as much of myself as I could to the group. And I really made sure I enjoyed the celebrations ... it was really cool.
"I'm proud, to be honest, of how I was able to get over that and move forward.
"And to all the boys' credit – and I want to really make this point – the group was so good to me as well. The boys got around me massively and they knew that I would be hurting at that time.
"Once your mates have got your back … you hope for the best for them, too. It's hard to stay bitter in an environment where people are trying to lift you up.
"There was definitely a moment of self-pity, and you feel like crap for a day … and then you work out what's important and you move on."
Another key ally was Agar's wife, Madeline. The pair tied the knot last May but have spent more than half the time since apart, such is the life of international cricketers and their spouses.
"She's just my best friend, you know, so it's just what any best friend would say to someone – it's total support," he says of his calls home at that time.
"First of all, she just listened to me and was absolutely understanding and supportive of me. She'll always support me.
"And then she totally supported my view of trying to move forward and enjoy myself, just pushing me to do that. So that was nice."
Having decided to actively soak in the World Cup experience, Agar has since returned to the form that made him one of the top-ranked T20 bowlers in the world. Of the top 25 wicket-takers in this season's KFC BBL, only Afghan spin wizard Rashid Khan has a better economy rate than Agar's 7.06 and he will be a key figure in Perth's push for a fourth Big Bash title in the next week.
But Agar doesn't want to settle; he thinks deeply about the game and its next evolution, theorising that a spinner's stock ball will soon fade from the T20 format, and he has consequently embraced the challenge of introducing more variations to his bowling.
While constantly seeking improvement, he also possesses an innate self-confidence that has been undimmed by his World Cup heartache, giving him an air of calm assuredness when he stands at the top of his mark and prepares to take on the best in the world.
"As soon as you're bowling the ball with a bit of fear or apprehension, it's not going to be the best version of you," he says.
"I think when I was younger, I might have been a little bit more intimidated. But now I know the worst thing that can happen is I get hit for six. I also know I'm every chance of taking a wicket the next ball.
"That just comes after years of practicing really hard and working on all the different balls that I bowl and having a really good foundation that I can always fall back on.
"My cricket smarts have probably developed a lot over the last few years, and I think that helps when you're standing at the top of your mark.
"When you really believe in that gut feeling that you get and go for it, it's a lot of fun. It's kind of exhilarating sometimes."
Just as the 2021 World Cup had loomed as a pivotal moment for Agar, the next 12 months could well be career-defining. While Australia's Cup defence on home soil is just 10 months away, three consecutive Test tours of Asia could see him return to the longest format, and he's also hoping to secure a first Indian Premier League deal at next month's player auction.
But his World Cup experience has been a timely reminder that if 2022 doesn't work out as planned, some things are more important.
"Over the last few years, I've kind of trained myself not to look far ahead at all because that takes away from everything you're trying to do in the present moment," he says. "And that only puts a limit on what you're able to achieve right now.
"Selection is really fickle sometimes and you don't have a long time in the game, so I've worked out that I want to play it the way I want to play it.
"I want to make sure I have a good time doing it; there's no point holding back and then looking back one day and thinking, Oh gee, I wish I was a bit more brave or aggressive.
"I've got no interest in just surviving. I want to have a good time."