Agar into the Australian Test Squad: how did that happen?

Regular readers of this blog will have read my rants about the work of Cricket Australia’s National Selection Panel. I have griped for years, even before I had this blog, that form in red ball cricket seems to count for little at the Cricket Australia Selection table and have even been left to ponder whether Cricket Australia ought just fold the first class competition for all of the relevance it has to the selection of the test team. I am sad to say that again this morning I find myself griping and pondering the same things again after the elevation of Ashton Agar to the Australian squad for the 4th test in Sydney.

Agar’s stat line in first class cricket this year does not make for happy reading: 7 wickets at 45.14 in 4 games is, frankly just not good enough. Add that lack of form to a first class career stat line of 62 wickets at 44.00 with a strike rate of 81 balls per wicket and the head scratching that started when pondering Agar’s selection on current form starts to draw blood.

If there were no other spinners playing in first class cricket in Australia at the moment then this selection might make more sense. However there are other spinners plying their trade around the country who appear to be vastly more qualified to play in Sydney against India. The three main contenders are:

  • The form leg spinner: Fawad Ahmed has been in excellent form for Victoria this season with a stat line of 18 wickets at 30.72 and a strike rate of 51 balls per wicket. His first class numbers, 95 wickets at 32.16 with a strike rate of 54.3 balls per wicket, make for much more pallatable reading than those of Agar and he has been in the Cricket Australia system before.
  • The best left arm orthodox bowler in the country: Steve O’Keefe is the best left arm orthodox bowler in Australia. No ifs, no buts, no maybes. 141 wickets at 25.81 with a strike rate of just under a wicket every 10 overs in a first class career makes for excellent reading. This summer he has done his job for New South Wales with the ball with 9 wickets at 28.44 gives him the best average of our sample of bowlers. Again he has been in the Cricket Australia system before too which has to be in his favour.
  • The young leg spinner: Cameron Boyce, seemingly, has been anointed as Australia’s next leg spin hope given his selection for T20 honours this year where he performed excellently. His first class record is worse that Agar’s however he seems to be following the currently accepted path to the top team via the shortest form of the game so his non-selection is a surprise.
In the context of these three contenders is there a cogent argument for Agar’s elevation to the team? I am struggling to find one. Of course my search for a cogent argument has been focused on the immediate cricket reasons for his possible selection: I neglected to include the fact that he has a significant profile in the game begat by his 98 runs on debut and the fact that he looks like the lost member of One Direction.

Surely though this selection can not be all about profile? Darren Lehmann does not strike me as a coach who would accept such a selection. Then again Lehmann was at the helm during the disaster, 98 runs aside, that was Agar’s debut 2 tests so he must have played some role in his return here.

I just do not understand it and am left again to ponder why Cricket Australia continues to pay for the Sheffield Shield to be run when it does not use the form coming from that competition to reward those players playing in it.

For what it is worth, I think there is zero chance that Agar will play in Sydney and have no doubt he will be released to his BBL team during the game. That is cold comfort one suspects to those others who are more deserving of selection, particularly Steve O’Keefe.

The Nathan Lyon Conundrum: the second inning fallacy

I wrote earlier in the week about Nathan Lyon and the obscene haste with which Fawad Ahmed seems to have been pushed forward as his replacement. I received a large number of comments with respect to that post but a common refrain was that Lyon was not a performer under pressure in the second innings of matches. I found this to be an interesting argument and sought to look deeper at it.

Simply put: I consider the argument that Nathan Lyon is not a performer in the second innings of matches, when he is supposed to be winning games for Australia, is an absolute fallacy. What follows are my reasons for this view:

Venue

Nathan Lyon has played 22 test matches for Australia. Those test matches took place at the following venues for the following results:

Lyon #1

Considering the venues in question, it can only clearly be said that the Indian venues and possibly Sydney and Adelaide are what might be termed spinning wickets or even wickets on which a spinner would be expected to win a game for his team. Simply, Lyon has not played a plethora of games at “spinning venues” to date.

How much is Lyon actually bowling?

Obviously comparisons will be made between the various spinners in the game at the moment. Here are the statistics on current spin bowlers playing test matches for their respective countries presently and their records in the second innings. I have filtered this table to only include performances since the retirement of SK Warne:

Lyon #2

The results of this analysis are obvious: Nathan Lyon only bowls some 14.54 overs in the second innings of matches. This, when compared to his fellow spinners, is arguably consistent with significant underbowling. The best bowlers of this period have consistently, in the second innings of said matches bowled, on average, more than 10 overs an inning more than the Australian spin bowler. Simply: if he is not being given the overs to bowl how can he be expected to take wickets?

The 4th Innings: that is the real question

The problem with the blanket statement that Nathan Lyon is a non-performer in the 2nd innings of matches ignores that quite often a bowler will actually be bowling in the 3rd innings of the game rather than the 4th innings. If the question is one of performance under pressure by Nathan Lyon then surely the 4th innings of matches needs to be considered and, further the target that Lyon has had to bowl at. The following table is instructive:

Lyon #3

There are some compelling points that come from this table:

1. The last 3 tests Lyon has played have seen the opposition team, India, run down small targets. He has bowled a high proportion of overs in those innings in obvious losing causes. He can not be blamed for this.

2. If you exclude the last 3 tests in India, Australia’s record when bowling in the last innings of a test match to win it is simply outstanding with only one loss to the South Africans in Capetown the only blemish. It is compelling that in that game Lyon was only given 3 overs over 50.3 on a seaming wicket and that Australia was trounced by 8 wickets.

3. I concede that there are some games in this list that Australia has won where I would have expected Lyon to play a bigger role in the win. However, there are reasons for this: for example the game against Sri Lanka in Hobart was one dominated by fast bowlers and in which Lyon played a key roll in keeping one end tight whilst the fast bowlers where rotated.

4. The draw against South Africa in Adelaide is a game that sticks in the mind of many. I think people need to look again at this game though because Lyon is the only spin bowler in a game that took a wicket. Indeed the spinner from South Africa, Imran Tahir, had game comparable to that of Bryce McGain’s first test and has not been sighted since for the Proteas.

So where does this leave N Lyon?

The fact is that at venues where one would expect Nathan Lyon to lead the Australian bowling attack to victory, particularly in India, he has never been given enough runs to actually bowl at to do so. In games that Australia has won and he has bowled a large number of overs in the final innings of the game he has, to be frank, played a significant positive roll in those victories whilst not always being the match winner. That, of itself, is admirable given that he is bowling for captain who does not bowl him anywhere near as much as his contemporaries from other countries.

To suggest that Nathan Lyon is not a “pressure bowler” and does not bowl well in the final innings of games is not supported, in my view, by the objective evidence. Of course many people will have a subjective view and that is based on their own experiences watching him play. I simply ask those of you with that different view to take a look at the numbers above and reconsider!

I think Australian cricket has, continues to, do Nathan Lyon a disservice by the seemingly constant pressure being placed on his position. He can only bowl when he is asked to and within the construct of the match situation given to him by the other ten players on the field. To say that he has done anything other than his job and that he is anything other than a solid international spinner is just a fallacy.

Postscript: the tables created for this post have been done by me from score cards retained on the Cricinfo website. Any errors are my own and I apologise for the bad formatting!