During Australia’s hot run in T20Is there’s been a heavy focus on Aaron Finch, Glenn Maxwell, David Warner and Steve Smith’s batting impact.
Yet their spin twins Ashton Agar and Adam Zampa have been equally valuable.
Australia are on the verge of taking the number one ranking in T20Is after winning nine of their past ten matches with Agar and Zampa running amok. Together in that time, they’ve taken 23 wickets at 17 with an incredible economy rate of 6.17 runs per over.
Agar and Zampa are repaying the faith of Australian coach Justin Langer, who quickly began playing two frontline spinners in T20Is when he took on the job.
Under former coach Darren Lehmann’s leadership, Australia showed scant respect for the role of spin in T20Is despite slow bowlers dominating the slowest format.
While leading domestic and international T20 sides were stacking their attacks with spinners, Australia were stuck in the past. They ignored what was happening in the T20 sphere and rigidly maintained their old-school, pace-heavy approach. That hurt Australia.
During the Lehmann era, Australia were a middling T20I team that never threatened to become elite. In both the 2014 and 2016 T20 World Cups Australia failed to even make the final four.
So pace-oriented were Lehmann’s T20I sides that, during his nearly five years as Aussie coach, only one frontline spinner took more than eight wickets for Australia in that format. That bowler was Zampa, and even he was treated very poorly.
Despite owning a sensational record in that period – 17 wickets at 15, with an economy of 6.0 – Zampa was regularly omitted from the Aussie T20I side under Lehmann’s watch. It made no sense.
Lehmann and his selectors were so pace-obsessed that, in one of his final T20I matches as coach, they picked an all-pace attack against Sri Lanka in Geelong and promptly lost to their underdog opponents.
Then Lehmann resigned in the wake of the ball-tampering scandal and in came Langer. The West Australian adjusted Australia’s T20I bowling tactics and soon settled upon Zampa and Agar as his spin duo.
That pair set about fixing a major and longstanding weakness of the Aussie side – the inability to consistently choke the run rate in the middle overs. Teams around the world had long been achieving just that by deploying two or even three frugal spinners in the period after the powerplay and before the death.
The impact of having spinners who can blanket the opposition in this phase is greater than it would appear on the surface. The added value is that it often makes a team’s quicks more effective because batsmen are aware it will be tough to score off the spinners and so take greater risks against the fast men.
If Australia’s opponents can only score at 6.17 runs per over against Zampa and Agar, as has been the case in their last ten matches, they are forced to go after star quicks Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins. Being able to manipulate opposition batting strategies in this manner is a joy for captain Aaron Finch. He has control in the field. That control, in a large part, is gifted to him by Zampa and Agar.
After undervaluing slow bowling for so long in T20Is, Australia suddenly have an elite spin combination. In the ICC T20I bowler rankings Zampa sits fourth, while Agar is tenth but will leap as high as sixth once these standings are updated due to his haul of 5-24 yesterday.
What makes this pair work so well in tandem is their contrasting approaches. Zampa is a natural wicket-taker. He bowls an attacking line, entices batsmen into big shots with his loop, and can spin the ball in both directions.
Agar is a natural container. He favours defensive lines and a flat trajectory.
His variations are more subtle than Zampa’s, yet similarly effective. Agar doesn’t possess mystery deliveries – he has no carrom ball or doosra. Yet he typically bowls six slightly different balls in one over, denying the batsmen a chance to easily line him up.
Agar uses the full width of the crease to constantly alter his release points. A slower, spinning delivery bowled from close to the umpire will be followed by a fast, skidding delivery released from the return crease.
Aside from his terrific accuracy, Agar’s greatest attribute is his ability to alter his pace significantly without an obvious change in action. A loopy 85kmh delivery looks much the same, out of the hand, as one of his spearing 105kmh arm balls.
While Agar doesn’t often befuddle batsmen, he also rarely is collared by them. The same goes for Zampa, who is very economical for an attacking bowler.
Together they enhance each other and make Australia a vastly stronger team.