Ashes to Ashton, a new hero rises

David Penberthy in the Sunday Mail, 13 July 2013

ASHTON AGAR--APA FEW years ago some mad television executive came up with a hare-brained idea for an edgy new addition to cricket coverage, a boundary rider who would conduct a quick interview with batsmen on the fence after they were dismissed.  The idea did not last long and the interviews were very quick indeed. When David Hookes was given out LBW and was storming back to the pavilion he was asked: “You can’t be happy with that Hookesy”, to which he gave a pithy two-word reply: “Piss off.”

Getting out is rarely pleasant and, over the years, there have been plenty of cricket bats which have ended up being used against lockers, bags and panes of glass by batsmen who were angry at the umpire or themselves. If anyone could give a lesson in how to keep your cool when you have thrown your wicket away, it is Ashton Agar, the 19-year-old who went from complete unknown to national hero in the short space of his quick-fire 98 runs on debut for Australia – the highest score in the history of the sport by a number 11 batsman.

The lesson this awesome young bloke has given is much broader and deeper than that. It goes to what it means to play for your country, what it means to be part of a team, what it means to bring enjoyment to others by so clearly enjoying what you do. This kid is a breath of fresh air in a team which for a long time now has been extremely hard to love. While no Australian who draws breath would ever barrack for a Pommy victory in anything, I know plenty of people who have been virtually death-riding our team because of their general unpleasantness and, until recently, I was one of them.

The installation of the likable and laconic Darren Lehmann as coach has helped change that, not that there was anything wrong with Mickey Arthur as a bloke, more so in his inability to engender a team ethos, or control or challenge the crappy behaviour of some of the players.

The fantastic performance by Agar in the first Test against England, not so much as a sportsman but a human being, has injected a long-overdue dose of warmth and likability back into Australian cricket and Australian sport generally. The last couple of years have been something of a bad patch for us, not just in terms of results but in terms of the conduct of many of our stars. Maybe it’s the result of extravagant salaries – certainly, in cricket, the meaning of playing for a team and a nation has been perverted by the fact that players can earn much more by shopping themselves around like beef cattle to be auctioned off to different “franchises”, to use that deplorable marketing term.

Some of it is just swagger and ego, as in the case of some of our male swimmers, who did the opposite of doing the nation proud at the London Games last year, both in the pool and while on the pills. Aussie Rules is having a shocker. We have a marquee club which may or may not be the latter-day equivalent of East Germany and the AFL has vacillated on how to handle the issue, its chief executive off for what seemed an eternity on an overseas holiday, with no leadership to fill the void.

Until Ashton Agar came along, the two biggest stories in cricket of the past year had involved Shane Watson’s refusal to do his homework — a classic bit of Gen Y petulance — and the recidivist ratbaggery of Dave Warner in belting England batsman Joe Root or launching a boozed-up rant on Twitter at journos who didn’t tickle his fancy. All these blokes on million-dollar deals could learn much from the no-name turned household name Ashton Agar, the kid who almost cried when he was handed his baggy green, who smiled his way to a near century and was still smiling when he holed out just two runs short.

This was the most fun I have had watching cricket in years. To their eternal credit, even the English loved it and were urging him towards a ton. Aside from reminding us all what sport should be about, there’s a couple of other frivolous points to make in closing. While Agar’s mum was not a refugee, she is a Sri Lankan woman — and considering the awesome genetic qualities she bestowed upon her three sons, Tony Abbott might want to rethink his “Stop the boats” mantra.

This is not only a great multicultural success story. It’s also a testament to the educational power of a cherished Australian institution — backyard cricket. Those shots of the Agar boys steaming in on the back driveway with the wheelie bin behind the stumps as automatic wickie are totally heart-warming. Don’t be surprised if the next time Ashton Agar hits a six he climbs the fence to get the ball himself and apologises for almost breaking one of the windows. Or politely refuses to walk if he gets out first ball.

Go Australia.

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