Australia A Tour of England - Men's
Fun, pain and back again: The twisting path of Ashton Agar
During his six years in and out of the national side, the spin-bowling allrounder has fought an ongoing mental battle. Now he believes he's in as good a place as ever
June 10, Brisbane. As he settles into his stance and looks up at the bowler coming towards him, Ashton Agar is whistling. The time since his last appearance for Australia has stretched out to almost eight months which, for Agar, is a familiar window of a life spent in cricket limbo. For six years now, he has filled the role of bit-part player across three national sides, his 28 scattered appearances never eclipsing the insane Test debut that fleetingly put him front and centre of the cricket world.
"It came so quickly for me," he says. "I got to face some really big highs and a couple of lows really quickly."
But at the National Cricket Centre in Brisbane, two days ahead of flying out to the UK with the Australia A one-day squad, he finds himself content with all of that. It has taken him a while to reach this point, but for now at least, his mind is as free as his effortless bat swing. And so he whistles. He whistles because he knows none of it really matters. And he whistles because he knows it hasn't always been so simple.
Two weeks after his 22nd birthday, Ashton Agar walked to the middle of Blundstone Arena in Hobart on day one of a Sheffield Shield match against Tasmania. At 6-198, Western Australia were wobbling. Over the next four hours of play, across two days, Agar peeled off a maiden first-class century. He peppered the cover-point region with boundaries and clubbed a pair of sixes to the on-side. He reached three figures with a classical cover drive, and received a hug from his batting partner, Michael Klinger. He removed his helmet and held his arms aloft in triumph. It was an innings befitting a young man who was already reminding his state coach, Justin Langer, of Adam Gilchrist.
But all was not as it seemed.
"The day before that (game) … I felt terrible," he remembers. "I felt sad. I just felt like shit – that's the only way to put it.
"And then the next day I went out and batted the best I ever have."
It was a small but telling example of an issue that has nagged away at Agar at different times through his professional life. When he took a week away from the game last December, brows were furrowed, and questions regarding his well-being were inevitably asked (despite the prevalence of mental health-related issues in professional sport, missing matches remains an extreme departure from the norm). Western Australia coach Adam Voges hosed down concerns by pointing out the relentless travel schedule Agar had faced through 2018, as a playing and non-playing member of various teams.
"He just needs this week to freshen up and have some quality time at home," Voges added.
Publicly at least, it was left at that. Inside a fortnight, Agar returned to action with Perth Scorchers in their opening KFC Big Bash game. He played seven matches in the next three weeks until his momentum was halted by a badly broken finger. Surgery was required, which meant his season was over.
It might have been a blessing in disguise. Behind the scenes, Agar was dealing with issues regarding his mental health, just as he has been doing sporadically for the past few years (he stresses that his problems have been intermittent as opposed to chronic). An extended period out of the game gave him a chance to take stock. In Brisbane, as he considers another tour to the United Kingdom – the scene of his magical 98 on Test debut in 2013, when he was 19 and the realities of professional sport had yet to touch him – he feels "in a good place".
"I've had my own personal battles in the mental health realm," he says. "I'm not convinced that has everything to do with cricket … I think some people just can experience forms of struggles with mental health and it's something to be wary of personally.
"The root probably wasn't cricket. I can't put the nail on exactly what it was.
"All I know is that I left it too long, and it built up over time. You can feel it happening. You know it's happening over time and you just sort of ignore it. Then it builds up to something that's a bit too much, and it gets you."
Agar sought counsel in then WA player development manager Angie Bain. He recalls the Western Australian Cricket Association, and Langer (who was WA coach before taking the national post) as being "excellent" in their support, while he also leaned on his partner Maddie, and his loving, tightknit family – his mum Sonya, dad John, and two brothers, Wes and Will. This small clique was able to act as a collective sounding board while also reinforcing some important messages.
"It's really normal," Agar says. "It's not something to be worried about or ashamed of. It is what it is and you just learn to – not deal with it – you learn how to ride it, and just help yourself really.
"I've had times where I've definitely battled, but I wouldn't say it's something that has plagued me."
Last October, Agar was struck by the bravery and altruism of New South Wales captain Moises Henriques, whose revelations of his own mental health struggles brought the issue to the forefront of the cricket conversation in Australia.
"It's great that people like cricketers are opening up, because our voices get made public, and people who look up to us who may be struggling see that we're able to talk about it, maybe it'll give them confidence to help someone else or help themselves," he says.
"What Moises has been doing is incredible, the way he was recognised (with the inaugural Community Champion Award at the Australian Cricket Awards) was excellent. And that has made massive waves."
In June, the Australian Cricketers' Association launched a new well-being and education program for its players, aimed at providing educational opportunities outside cricket and thereby improving life balance and perspective. Agar knows how easily a professional sportsperson can lose sight of those things; considering the 25-year-old has been in 'the system' for his entire adult life, his broader life view is impressive. Perhaps even surprising.
"Sometimes you can feel a bit boxed in in professional cricket," he says. "You can get caught up in the bubble, which a lot of players and coaches certainly do. I think I probably have in the past as well."
June 24, Derby. It has been a busy week for Ashton Agar. Since flying to the UK with the Australia A squad, the following has happened: he was called into Australia's World Cup training session ahead of the Bangladesh game, because Langer wanted his batters preparing against a left-arm spinner similar to Shakib Al Hasan; his re-signing with the Scorchers was made public; and he took three wickets in Australia A's first-up win against Northamptonshire.
The cumulative effect has been an upbeat, optimistic outlook – even on a Monday morning as he battles a bout of hay fever.
"I'm in a good place," Agar says for the second time in a fortnight. "I'm really relaxed and happy about everything at the moment. I've come over here and I'm probably in an even better headspace regarding cricket, and selection and all that other stuff."
The positivity can at least partly be put down to his time away from the game. More than five months separated the Northamptonshire clash from his last appearance in a Scorchers shirt, back on January 9. In between, Agar put the enforced layoff to good use.
"I tried to grow a little bit outside of cricket," he says. "Tried to broaden my horizons, which has been really nice."
Two weeks through France and Italy were the perfect antidote to April's news that he had lost his Cricket Australia contract. In the time away with Maddie, there was no mention of cricket. Agar has a proclivity for the finer things in life, and so the pair immersed themselves in the history and luxuries of Paris and Florence, Saint-Émilion and Lake Como.
"It was the best holiday you could possibly go on," he grins. "It was such a great eye-opener in a beautiful part of world. A lovely side of life. I came back so refreshed."
The holiday also served to reinforce a rumbling feeling he had been holding onto for a while; that cricket is just a chapter in his story. A significant one, sure. A defining one, partly. But not the only one.
"Cricket is something that will end," he says definitively. "I don't want it to be a part (of life) that I think back on as 'the glory days' – I'm not interested in that."
With that train of thought foremost in his mind, he got in touch with Bain, whom he calls a "special person" for her ability to build strong, trusting relationships with players. He wanted her advice about life after cricket. Specifically, what areas she thought might suit his personality and attributes. They arrived at two conclusions. The first was media. Bain arranged for him to do some work with former Aussie Rules player Matthew Pavlich, who now works as a television news presenter in Perth. Agar quickly proved himself telegenic, and also spent time in a studio learning some behind-the-scenes ropes.
The second area they spoke about was mentoring young sportspeople. As one of only two teenage Test debutants for Australia in the past 30 years, it is an area on which Agar is particularly well equipped. He is also articulate and considered; traits that would doubtless serve him well in the field, once he pinpoints its precise location.
"I'm still trying to work out (if it's coaching or something else) – it's a unique space," he says. "It's getting harder and harder for young players, with a lot more scrutiny from the media and a lot more attention outside of the game.
"Young kids have the spotlight on them a lot earlier, so I think they need that support. I would love to do that … I think I'd be really good at it."
Agar played two Ashes Tests in 2013 and then vanished from the international scene for two years. He didn't play another Test for more than four years. The hangover that followed his overnight rise was managed in the relative backblocks of domestic cricket, where his mindset ebbed and flowed with his form. It was a crash course in the fickleness of professional sport.
"You get to the top level really quickly, then all of a sudden you're completely out of it," he says. "It's been like that – in and out, in and out – for my whole career so far.
"Also being away from family – I moved to Western Australia (from Melbourne) when I was 18 – all of these little things, these amazing life experiences that I've had, you're forced to learn quickly, do things for yourself quickly, and you learn how to deal with situations.
"The young guys coming into programs probably have no idea what that would feel like, and I feel like I'm well qualified to help them."
During his time with Australia's World Cup squad in Nottingham, Agar had a lengthy conversation with Langer. It was the first time in a while that they had caught up for any meaningful period of time. According to Agar, they have always gotten along well, and the 25-year-old felt comfort in sitting down with a man who has been an important figure in his development as a cricketer. The conversation invariably turned to selection, and the upshot was as it always is: just get better.
Agar was frustrated by his axing from the ODI team last year. He had been one of Australia's better performers during the five-nil humbling in England (his economy rate of 5.52 was the best from Australia, and he chipped in with 130 runs at 26), yet he felt that counted for little at the selection table. Injury meant he wasn't a chance for the World Cup squad, but he doesn't believe he was in the frame anyway.
This time, he has reacted to the rejection with a deliberateness regarding his training and mindset. In it all, he feels he needs to be true to himself; attempting to please others, he has learned, has its limits.
"I work really hard on my game, and I'm much fitter than I've ever been," he says. "I've worked harder on my mental awareness and strength. I do a lot to be the best I can be."
He has taken the 'just get better' advice and addressed it with the sort of specificity such a phrase might not ordinarily invite. With the role of 'closer' or 'finisher' in the limited-overs formats evolving so quickly, he knows there is value in keeping up; he has been studying the pace-setters – West Indian Andre Russell, and Indian Hardik Pandya. Both are devastating power hitters, and Agar believes he has the capacity to play that way as well.
"I think I can naturally hit the ball cleanly," he says. "But I think I can get better, and more consistently better – consistently hitting more sixes and fours.
"I've watched how (Russell and Pandya) play. I've looked at what they've done in the IPL, I've looked at how they set up, and I'm trying to practice a bit like them – going into the nets and giving yourself a situation where you have to get on with it from ball one.
"You can train really specifically for that. I've worked on how I pick my hands up, I've worked on the areas I'm good at hitting at, (and looked at) how I can get better in the other areas.
"D'Arcy Short is a great example. If you watch him at training you'll see he hits a lot of balls in the air, but he's doing it really intentionally; he practices hitting those balls for six and then he goes out there and he does it, because he's got that practice under his belt. So that's what I'm trying to work on.
"It's a lot of fun, and I want to get good at it; if that's the position I'm going to be coming in at, then I'm going to try and make the most of it."
It is six years now since Agar's famous Ashes debut at Trent Bridge. Throughout much of that memorable introduction, the disbelieving grin etched on his baby face only added to a feeling that pervaded the performance at the time; in cricket's oldest crucible, the 19-year-old first-timer had managed to capture the simple joy of the game.
In the intervening years, it is a feeling he has chased, and finally circled back to. He remembers playing cricket in the backyard with his brothers as kids. There were tears and triumphs, disappointments and dust-ups. Ultimately however, it was all in the name of fun. For a while, he lost that outlook.
"I was once told, early in my professional career – and I won't say who said it – they said, 'Cricket's not just a game anymore'," he remembers. "I thought about that, and at the time I probably agreed.
"Now I think about it, and absolutely it is a game. It's there to be enjoyed, and respected.
"I'm just trying, in my mind, to stay really young with the way I look at the game."
It is with that rediscovered sense of purpose and perspective that Agar is resuming his work.
He is whistling as he goes.
Australia A tour of the UK
Get live scores and all the latest news from Australia A's tour of the UK on cricket.com.au and the CA Live app
Australia A one-day squad: Travis Head (c), Matthew Wade, Will Pucovski, Peter Handscomb, Mitch Marsh (vc), D'Arcy Short, Kurtis Patterson, Ashton Agar, Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Josh Hazlewood (vc), Sean Abbott, Andrew Tye
Australia A four-day squad: Tim Paine (c), Marcus Harris, Kurtis Patterson, Will Pucovski, Travis Head (vc), Peter Handscomb, Matthew Wade, Mitch Marsh, Michael Neser, Jon Holland, James Pattinson, Jackson Bird, Josh Hazlewood (vc), Chris Tremain
July 7-10: Australia A v Sussex, Arundel
July 13-16: Australia A v England Lions, Canterbury
July 23-26: Australia v Australia A, Hampshire
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