But for one unexpected, unbelievable occurrence, it could be reasonably argued that the first two days of the 2013 Ashes series went according to the prognostications of most objective pundits. England, widely seen as the better team, was largely expected to have the better play. And they did, until the drinks break of the first session of the second day when everything changed.
Peter Siddle drew first blood on the first day when his 5/50 helped dismiss England for a seemingly paltry 215. But the hosts were well on their way to bundling out the visitors for substantially less when they had them nine down for 117 with Jimmy Anderson at his irresistible, ball bending best.
But then 19-year-old Ashton Agar, presented with his Australian cap the previous morning by Glen McGrath, strode to the wicket to provide highlights aplenty and reduce the highly vaunted England attack to a state of confusion and impotence. He finished with 98, two short of what would have been the first, and is likely to be the most entertaining knock of the entire series.
Nobody could have expected yesterday’s display. Agar, it is to be remembered, was picked as a left-arm spinner. No one expected him to blast 98 from 101 deliveries, the highest score by a player batting at 11 in the order, with 12 well-stroked fours and two languid hits for six.
He added 163, also a record, with Phillip Hughes, and lifted Australia from the misery of giving up a substantial lead on a surface already showing signs of turn, to a position of hope and a lead of 65.
The left-hander’s high back-lift hinted of positive intent; his solid defence and ability to score all round the wicket indicates a level of skill that has no business coming from a batsman who is last in the order. He skipped down the pitch to drive Graeme Swann through the covers, and lifted him over long on against the spin.
When the pacers bounced him he hooked; when they took the ball up to him he drove down the ground. Once, when Anderson bowled a full delivery on middle and leg he flicked him through mid-on, lifting his left leg in a manner that recalled Michael Vaughan’s flamingo shot. This was amazing batting from a batsman misplaced at #11, and it would have still been amazing were he batting at five.
No grizzled veteran could have played in such a manner. No other player in a side beset by the multitude of distractions that has plagued Australia in recent times would have had the clarity of mind to play with such freedom and such fearlessness. It required a fresh-faced 19-year-old, untouched by recent happenings and with nothing to lose. If he felt a ball was there to be hit, he hit it, unconcerned that his side was one careless stroke away from giving up a potentially crippling lead.
Having flattened the rest of the batting so easily, England may have been guilty of thinking the innings was all but over when Agar joined Hughes. If so, it was a big mistake. Agar’s first-class record shows that from 10 games prior to this one he has 336 runs at 33.6 with three half-centuries – not bad for such a young career, but nothing to cause anyone to think he could put on such an exquisite show. He will not be underestimated again.
Some years ago, in 1954 to be exact, another teenaged left-arm spinner made his debut for the West Indies against England at Sabina Park in Jamaica. Batting at nine he made 14* and 26, and though he was picked mainly for his bowling, and though his scores were not hefty, he impressed everyone with the manner of his stroke-play.
It was recorded in “The Cricketer” magazine that he batted with “exemplary coolness” and that “he played easily with no small power for one of his years.” If Agar goes on to accomplish even half as much as the great man did, then Australia will be well served for years to come.
Australia could still go on to lose this game. They have to bat last on a surface already showing signs of turn and Swann appears to be in prime form. Anderson’s magic swing bowling was in evidence in the first innings and Cook and Pietersen seem intent on building a sizeable lead.
Of course, it could all go wrong for them upon resumption, and the Australians could well work themselves into a winning position. But if it doesn’t turn out that way and the hosts take the lead, Australia’s consolation will be that they might have unearthed a gem. As it was said of Sobers, it will be “surprising if we do not come to know his name well in years to come.”
Agar, by the way, did bowl a few steady overs.