Leaning onto the railing of the elevated slope that overlooks the practice nets, where Glenn Maxwell had just hefted an Ashton Agar loosener, an Aussie journalist threw a stink eye. He turned to a fellow journalist and quipped: “You think he’s gonna do a Sodhi?” He was obviously alluding to New Zealand leg-spinner Ish Sodhi, who on Tuesday, had run the Indians ragged. His mate guffawed: “Not like this mate,” as Maxwell heaved him straight for what could have been a boundary in an actual game, and which almost took down non-striker Peter Nevill.
Agar, one of Australia’s two specialist spinners, was in the middle of a wretched spell, erring on the shorter side all too often. And when he tried to rectify his length, he over-compensated by bowling full tosses, almost lulling Maxwell into an exaggerated sense of infallibility. There was no drift or loop or any of those niceties you associate with old-fashioned left-arm spinners. Each time he erred, he hurried back to his mark and then hurried through his action. And the more conscious he became of his waywardness, the more flatter his trajectory became. Maxwell, meanwhile, gleefully tore into the freebies that came his way. Agar, his spindly silhouette flailing, walked back almost on the verge of sulking.
In contrast, a net bowler, who was bowling alternately with Agar, troubled Maxwell more, his slider once rapping him on the pads and conventional ball taking his outside edge. By this time, our Aussie friends had stopped bothering about Agar and had drifted on to discussing pithier things in life—like the menu list of their hotel and the choice of drinks in their bar. Agar, though, kept plugging away, determined to get his bearings right.
For he, and fellow spinner Adam Zampa, will be under intense scrutiny throughout the series. Their selection, at the expense of veterans Nathan Lyon and Xavier Doherty, was widely dissected and debated in the country, and both so far haven’t quite demonstrated any spark to suggest the selectors’ foresight. In his only T20I so far, which came in Johannesburg early this month, he was plundered for 25 runs in two overs and missed the practice game against the West Indies in Kolkata. He wasn’t any inspiring in the Big Bash League either, picking up just three wickets in eight matches.
Australia A tour
It was perhaps his returns in the Australia A’s tour to India last year that might have prompted his inclusion. In the triangular series which also included South Africa, he snared 12 wickets at 12.08 each with a frugal economy rate of 3.81, which was enough to convince the selectors and Darren Lehmann of his utility. Shane Watson, too, is hopeful of the 21-year-old coming good. “Poor fella was pretty crook for those couple of days in Kolkata. He’s starting to get a little bit of colour back now. A couple of days’ training and he’ll be ready if he is required,” he said.
He also pointed out to his usefulness with the bat—in the BBL he managed a decent total of 124 runs in six innings with a strike rate of 127.83. “He showed in that Ashes series in 2013 certainly wasn’t just a one off. He’s a very impressive batter the way he hits the ball, hits it incredibly clean and his bowling, he’s only a young spinner so he’s only going to continue to get better the more confidence he gets in his craft so I’ve always loved Ashton. He’s a really impressive young guy and I think, and I know he’s got a hell of a lot of talent as well. So like it does, especially with all-rounders, it takes a little bit of time to find both aspects of your game. And he has played quite a lot of games in these conditions,” Watson pointed out.
Like Agar, Zampa too impressed in the A tour. Though he picked up only five wickets in the three games, four of those came in one match, against India A and his scalps included those of Unmukt Chand, Kedar Jadhav and Parvez Rasool. He continued his upward climb to national reckoning with 12 wickets in 10 BBL matches, the sixth highest wicket-taker in the recent edition. “He is a very skillful young leg spinner having played lot of T20s back home. He has the perfect game for T20s because he is someone who can bowl defensively as well as bowl aggressively depending on the match situation — which is great in these conditions,” observed Watson.
Watching Zampa bowl, blonde hair, the restful approach to the crease and the snappy helix of the elbow to the load-up, brings back memories of Shane Warne. But the comparison stops there, for the 23-year-old hardly purchases the alluring drift or the kinky fizz off the surface like Warne. He is clearly not as gifted as the great man, but if the surfaces do take turn, he can pose queries to batsmen.
Moreover, they have part-timers Steve Smith and Maxwell to cushion them. “When the ball is turning, Maxwell’s a pretty good option. He’s got a lot of experience in subcontinent conditions playing in T20 tournaments. Look, I think we have the spinners who can do well over here in conditions which are turning. The ball is gonna turn here as we watched it last night (India-New Zealand match),” he said.
But the strip in Dharamsala wouldn’t generate as much turn as the Nagpur one. If the qualifiers were an indication, it has been slower than the usual bouncy and pacy ones here—understandably as the winter was so harsh and sunlight insufficient for the grass to regrow. The surface, according to the groundstaff is pretty hard, and hence wouldn’t deteriorate dramatically as the match progresses. Watson, however, predicts some turn. “ I saw a few of the games that were played here and they definitely turned a bit and it seemed like there was obviously a lot of moisture around as well so sometimes wickets do turn even if they’re not incredibly dry because of the moisture that’s around. But I’m predicting the wickets are definitely going to turn here in some way,” he said.