Agar over Swepson for Bangladesh Tests

Ronan O'Connell Columnist

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    Ashton Agar’s greater accuracy and superior batting should see him picked ahead of leg spinner Mitchell Swepson for Australia’s first Test against Bangladesh later this month.

    The 23-year-old Swepson was drafted into Australia’s squad for the two-Test tour on Saturday as a replacement for injured pace spearhead Mitchell Starc.

    Starc will miss the series due to a foot injury, while fellow express quick James Pattinson has also been withdrawn because of a back complaint, with swing bowler Jackson Bird his replacement.

    Bird is very likely to sit out the first Test as Australia follow the selection model comprising two frontline quicks and two specialist spinners, which worked well during their impressive Test tour of India in March. Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins are automatic selections for the pace roles, while Agar and Swepson will compete to partner first-choice spinner Nathan Lyon.

    Australia’s spin department has been weakened as a result of the decision to omit quality left-arm tweaker Steve O’Keefe as a punishment for off-field indiscretions. O’Keefe’s unrelenting accuracy was invaluable for Australia in India as he took 19 wickets at 23, giving up a miserly 2.46 runs per over, which made him more economical than either Lyon or Indian star Ravi Ashwin.

    It is accuracy rather than sharp spin that is the key to success for slow bowlers in Asia – as much can be gleaned from the enduring success of finger spinners Rangana Herath and Ravi Jadeja. Neither Herath nor Jadeja put heavy revolutions on their deliveries as this is not necessary on dry Asian pitches, which typically offer plenty of help to tweakers in the form of unpredictable degrees of bounce and spin.

    If a slow bowler keeps landing the ball in the right area, eventually one will surprise the batsman by turning more or less, bouncing lower or higher than expected. Asian pitches do not offer the same rewards to more attacking and less accurate spinners.

    Leg spinners tend to fall into this latter group – they get far more revolutions on their deliveries, causing them to dip and turn more, but typically cannot maintain anything close to the same accuracy as a good finger spinner.

    Fine players of spin know that a leggie normally will offer them at least one release ball per over. This makes wrist spinners far easier to combat on dry pitches than finger spinners like Herath, Jadeja and O’Keefe, who so rarely drop short or overpitch.

    (Image: AFP, Saeed Khan)

    This has been a significant issue for Swepson during his brief first-class career – an inability to maintain pressure on the batsmen. His wicket-taking prowess is supreme, as evidenced by his outstanding strike rate of 48.6 from his 14 matches. But Swepson bleeds runs, which is not unusual for a leggie, particularly one so inexperienced.

    In the last Shield season he was enormously expensive, giving up 4.35 runs per over, slightly more than his career mark of 4.04. Agar, by comparison, conceded just 3.11 runs per over last season, which mirrors his career average.

    Like fellow left-armer O’Keefe, accuracy has always been the greatest strength of the West Australian. Even when he was vaulted into the cauldron of an overseas Ashes series as an ill-prepared 19-year-old, Agar still gave up only 2.95 runs per over across his two Tests.

    What Agar doesn’t possess is the same level of penetration as Swepson. On hard Australian decks there is no argument Swepson is the more dangerous bowler thanks to his ability to coax life out of any surface. Similarly clear is Agar’s ascendancy on dry pitches.

    While Agar’s first-class record – 114 wickets at 40 – is decidedly ordinary, what that doesn’t show is that he is a far better bowler away from the spinners’ graveyard that is the WACA. Even Australia’s two best slow bowlers, Lyon and O’Keefe, both have averaged more than 50 in first-class cricket at the WACA, which is the worst venue for spinners in world cricket. Agar also averages 50-plus in Perth, compared to a respectable 33 across every other first-class venue where he’s played.

    Last summer he showed just how effective he can be on a parched surface as when grabbed a 10-wicket match haul against NSW on a spin-friendly SCG track. Agar also enjoyed a fine tour of India two years ago for Australia A.

    In his sole first-class match on that tour Agar took 3-94, including the wickets of Indian superstar Virat Kohli, and two players with recent Test experience for India – opener Abhinav Mukund and keeper-batsman Naman Ojha.

    Agar then went on to dominate the 50-over tri-series between Australia A, India A and South Africa A in Chennai. The 23-year-old was the standout bowler of that tournament, taking 12 wickets at an average of 12 from four matches. With his height and renowned accuracy, Agar is perfectly suited to exploiting the variable responses of the Test pitches in Bangladesh this month.

    His languid batting offers him another major advantage over Swepson, who averages just 11 with the blade in first-class cricket. Were Australia to pick Swepson ahead of Agar, it would leave them with three genuine number 11 batsmen in Swepson, Hazlewood and Lyon, plus Cummins who looked uncomfortable against spin in India.

    That would be the weakest tail Australia have fielded in recent memory. Australia will miss the lower order input of Starc, who averages 24 with the bat in Tests in Asia and made crucial runs in India this year. His absence should all but ensure Agar gets the nod ahead of Swepson for the first Test in 19 days from now.

    Ronan O
    Ronan O'Connell

    Ronan O'Connell has been a journalist for well over 13 years, including nine at daily newspapers in WA. He now traverses the world as a travel photojournalist, contributing words and photography to more than 30 magazines and newspapers including CNN, BBC, The Toronto Star, The Guardian, The South China Morning Post, The Irish Examiner and The Australian Financial Review. Check out his work and follow him on Twitter @ronanoco

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