Cruel But Fair

There’s a bit of debate in the press about Ashton Agar’s omission from the Second Test XI and the last-minute inclusion of Matt Kuhnemann. Some are suggesting Agar was poorly treated and should have played.

Respectfully, I question that.

Selectors often make mistakes. Omitting Head for Renshaw in the First Test was one, although I doubt it would have altered the outcome of that game. Bringing Agar on the Indian tour instead of Kuhnemann in the first place was, I suspect, another mistake. In both cases, however, the selectors have tried to rectify their errors in the Second Test by including Head and Kuhnemann. Correcting mistakes is what they should be doing. It’s their job.

Why did they bring Agar, then, if they weren’t going to play him?

Completely fair question. It’s difficult to speculate when one isn’t privy to the inner workings of the Australian squad, but that’s never stopped me before so let’s get into it:

Agar has been kept in and around the squad for a couple of years. I’ve always assumed the selectors were hoping he would develop into a threatening bowler who could make some useful runs down the order.

Trouble is, it hasn’t happened.

Like some other players like Michael Neser and Glenn Maxwell before him, Agar has been denied the chance to play much first-class cricket because he’s been kept on the bench for the Test team. It’s the Black Hole of Broken Dreams for many an aspiring Test cricketer – you’re not quite good enough for the Test team but good enough that you’re kept in reserve and thus can’t play red ball cricket for your state. Neser finally managed to get out of the Black Hole, managing a Test debut and six Sheffield Shield games in 2022-23, but Agar has remained stuck in limbo.

More importantly, when he does play, he doesn’t take wickets.

Agar played two ODIs for Australia vs England in November 2022, going wicketless in both. Then he took 2-107 across both innings for the PM’s XI against the West Indies a week later. Agar’s had just a single Shield match in 2022-23, when he took 1-105 across both innings against Queensland in early December 2022. He was finally given a Test guernsey when he played in the Third Test against South Africa in January, but didn’t take a wicket in either innings. Not the sort of returns that demand a Test call-up. And he took only 6 wickets in 10 Big Bash games for the Perth Scorchers (average 45.16, strike rate 37). Agar did take 7 wickets across two Tests in Bangladesh, but that was five and a half years ago.

Based on these returns, then, Agar probably shouldn’t have been taken to India in the first place.

Why Kuhnemann, then? Well, he can turn the ball, for a start. I don’t mean to be overly harsh on Agar, but I don’t remember ever seeing him actually spin the ball. Plenty of slow bowlers have done well in white ball cricket by bowling flat at the stumps without getting much turn (remember the likes of Xavier Doherty? Johan Botha?) but in Test cricket in India, a bit of spin is surely required. Kuhnemann is new and inexperienced, but he’s three years younger than Agar. He’s taken 4 wickets at 38.25 in two Shield games for Queensland this summer, but it was probably his 16 wickets from 18 games in the 2022-23 Big Bash (average 26.50, strike rate 21) that made the selectors (belatedly) sit up and say to themselves, hang on a tic, we’ve actually got a better option here than Agar.

And I suspect that’s exactly what happened. It’s their job to pick the player they think will give Australia the best chance, so they did.

According to the ABC, Selector Tony Dodemaide is reported to have said Agar’s “red-ball game” was not where the spinner “wants it to be”. Sometimes it’s that simple. He wasn’t bowling well enough.

Was it tough on Agar? Sure. I feel for him. I’m sure I wouldn’t have the mental and emotional fortitude to deal with the vicissitudes of elite sport. Sadly, though, this is Test cricket, not tiddlywinks. Retired spinner Nathan Hauritz claims Agar was ‘unfairly treated’. Fairness has got nothing to do with it, I’m afraid. Hauritz went on to say of Agar, “If you’re going to take this guy over, you’ve got to play him.”

No. You don’t.

Now if only the selectors would take the same practical, hard-nosed approach to David Warner and force him into retirement, we might manage an opening partnership in double figures.

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