Ashton Agar has the ability and temperament to become an elite Test all-rounder. He’s just not ready yet for the challenge of a series in India.
The young spin-bowling all-rounder was included in a 13-man squad for the third Test against Pakistan on Tuesday along with fellow tweaker Steve O’Keefe. That squad suggests Australia will play two spinners at the SCG.
Given Pakistan play spin much better than pace, such a selection could only be designed to give the selectors a better look at their slow bowling options ahead of the upcoming four-Test tour of India.
It is hard to get a sense of just what the selectors have planned for Agar. Do they see him as a specialist spin option or as a potential batting all-rounder?
After being selected in the squad Agar told the media he believed he was capable of batting in the top seven for Australia.
The Australian selectors have shown a willingness to make bold calls this summer. So it wouldn’t surprise me if at Sydney they include Agar as a fifth bowler batting at seven, pushing Matt Wade up to six even though the keeper can’t buy a run.
The other way Agar could get a game is as one of two specialist spinners, with Australia resting one of their pace trio and including all-rounder Hilton Cartwright at six to offer seam bowling support.
It remains to be seen whether veteran off spinner Nathan Lyon will keep his spot. He looked very likely to be dumped before finishing the Boxing Day Test with a flourish, snaring three crucial wickets on the final day as Australia rolled Pakistan to secure a thrilling win.
Up until that innings, Lyon had been mired in the worst form trough of his career, averaging 67 with the ball in five Tests this summer.
That day five burst may have saved Lyon’s place. Looking ahead to the tour of India, Australia’s best spin combination has always shaped as Lyon and O’Keefe, who bowled well together in the first Test in Sri Lanka before the latter was injured.
But Lyon seems to have been put on notice by the selectors and it won’t be a shock if he is left out of the side at Sydney with both Agar and O’Keefe playing. That would be a better option than including Agar as a batting all-rounder. At this stage of his career, Agar undoubtedly is a better bowler than a batsman.
A well-rounded cricketer, he is a very promising finger spinner and a gifted strokemaker. He is, however, short of Test standard in both disciplines. Right now Agar would be a bits-and-pieces Test player in the mould of Mitch Marsh – not quite good enough to play as either a specialist bowler or frontline batsman.
This won’t be the case in the future, I would wager. Given sufficient time to develop in the Sheffield Shield Agar will become a quality specialist spinner, with his fluid strokeplay a mere bonus. It is three-and-a-half years since Agar’s extraordinary Test debut, when he clattered 98 against a strong England attack.
Yet he is still only 23 years old, an age at which few non-Asian spinners are ready for Test cricket. Agar’s development will likely be even slower than the average spinner because of the amount of time and energy he spends honing his batting.
It is unlikely we will begin to see the best of Agar for at least another three to four years. That doesn’t mean he needs to wait that long before being given a proper run in the Test team.
But India is the most difficult place in world cricketer for an Australian Test spinner, let alone a rookie.
Right now O’Keefe is comfortably a better bowler than Agar and there would be no need to play two left arm spinners in the same XI in India. Agar is not even the second best left arm tweaker in Australia, with Victorian Jon Holland having averaged just 20 with the ball over the past three Shield seasons.
And if Australia are looking for a batting all-rounder who bowls spin then Glenn Maxwell is a superior option to Agar. Maxwell averages 40 with the bat in first-class cricket, is an underrated off spinner and has vast experience in Indian conditions, albeit in the shorter formats.
Australia’s biggest weakness at present is their lack of runscoring at numbers six and seven.
It is almost three years since the last time a number six batsman scored a Test ton for Australia. Meanwhile, keeper Matthew Wade and Peter Nevill have contributed a paltry 489 runs at an average of 20 in Australia’s past 20 Tests.
It would be an almighty risk for Australia to promote Wade to six and have Agar at seven. Agar had a fine Shield season with the bat last summer, making his first two first-class tons. Yet he still only averages 27 with the bat in first-class cricket and has averaged just 19 in the Shield this summer.
Agar’s time as a Test player will come. Rushing him will be a mistake.