What will perhaps be forgotten about Ashton Agar’s surreal 98 on Test match debut was that when he arrived at the crease, with Australia 117-9, England were all over Australia. All over them. The ball was reverse swinging, turning out of foot holes and spitting like a viper. England had taken five wickets for just nine runs in 5.1 overs. Considering the haste of the collapse preceding Agar’s arrival at the crease it seemed almost inevitable that Australia would be bowled out within minutes.
Alastair Cook was probably thinking about his batting, Mitchell Starc was probably thinking about his bowling, the ground-staff were probably readying the equipment they needed for the interval clean-up, fans may even have decided to leave their seats and beat the rush to the bar.
But this was no normal day. This was a day when the script of logic was torn up and replaced by a script so wonderful, William Shakespeare would’ve shaken his head in disbelief at reading it.
Ashton Agar, 19 years old, on Test match debut—an Ashes Test match—batting at Number 11, scores 98.
It was not the innings of a Number 11. It was not even the innings of a Number 7, or even a Number 5. It was the innings of a proper batsman in a rich vein of form. Agar cut, drove, pulled and flicked with sumptuous timing, his head was balanced and level, his feet twinkled into position and the ball was seemingly at his every command. As hyperbolic as they may have been, comparisons were made with Brian Lara, Kevin Pietersen and Yuvraj Singh.
Yet this wasn’t like watching a batsman in a rich vein of form, because, well, he wasn’t. Agar batting at Number 11 and Australia being nine down created the illusion that the end was permanently imminent. Every bowling change, over and ball seemed as if it would be the last. He would run out of luck, get a good ball or just miss a straight one. You just thought he couldn’t carry on for much longer.
But he did. And my God how he carried on. The runs continued to flow as England’s accuracy continued to dissipate. With every passing minute the distinction between Australian fans and English fans became increasingly blurred. It was an innings that at its vertex snapped national ties and broke down international barriers. There were not Australians or English, there were just Agarians. Quite suddenly, a whole stadium supported a man, a 19-year-old man, willing and urging him onwards. Most of the people in the ground and watching on TV hadn’t even heard of Ashton Agar until 9:30 yesterday morning, but he had them captivated.
With every passing run imaginations ran wilder. How many could he score? Could he break Tino Best’s record? Could he score a hundred on debut? Surely not.
Well, no, not quite.
It seems, at 19 years of age Ashton Agar is too old for fairy tales. He was out, hooking Stuart Broad off his nose and caught well by Graeme Swann in the deep. The collective sigh of disappointment was audible; it was like air rushing out of an enormous balloon.
But the disappointment was short-lived. For on his way off the field Agar removed his helmet to reveal an angelic grin from ear to ear. It was a grin so large it would have swallowed a country, or a cruise liner or Dwayne Leverock. A grin that betrayed both Agar’s blissful innocence at the enormity of what he had just done, but also a grin that told us those two runs didn’t really matter. Although minutes later, when warming up for England's second innings he went over to his family and apologized for not getting to his century. He had, with the obstinate support of Phillip Hughes, turned the match on its head in the most spectacular fashion.
Here was a kid, thrown in at the deep end, who after a testing first day yesterday, came out on Day 2 and batted without a care in the world. His dad, interviewed later, said, “Ashton has two mottos, ‘no fear’ and ‘play with freedom’". Well, we certainly know he can walk the talk!
Days like today and innings like Agar’s are Test cricket at its very, very best. In an era where so much of cricket seems dictated by money and greed, Agar’s smile as he took off his helmet displayed cricket’s purest, most original purpose: joy.
Yesterday Ashton Agar was a nobody. Today Ashton Agar was magical.