Before dawn at Melbourne Airport, a teenager strolls through customs and into the arms of his parents. He could be any backpacker - two years out of high school, home after a big overseas adventure - except for the smart suit and giant kit bag with his name emblazoned across the side. His mother, Sonia, thinks he looks skinny, and has brought him an almond croissant - a treat from his favourite cafe. There are no cameras, just a handful of people in the arrivals hall who recognise the tall, athletic young man with the smile that was beamed around the world from Nottingham, where Ashton Agar stepped into Test cricket's record books and into the imagination of an Australian sporting public that needed someone to love.
Life has changed a bit, but not too much, since that sun‑drenched July day at Trent Bridge when Agar, then just 19, produced the highest ever Test score from a No. 11 batsman - 98 runs from 101 balls - and caused the cricket world to hyperventilate.
Cricket Australia and Agar's manager fielded hundreds of interview requests from around the globe, including some from Sri Lanka, Sonia's birthplace. Undeterred by the fact that Sonia, husband John and younger sons Will, 18, and Wes, 16, had flown to England to watch Ashton's surprise debut, a camera crew landed on their neighbours' doorstep in Melbourne. Weeks later, Will, school vice-captain at De La Salle College, looked up from his work during maths class and saw his brother staring back at him from a poster on the wall. "That was a bit odd," says Will, grinning. Justin Langer, Agar's coach at Western Australia, who is as protective of his daughters as he was of his wicket during his Test career, said Agar could marry one of his girls.
But not for a moment, as their son turned famous before their eyes, did Sonia and John worry about him. They didn't wonder if the sudden attention would go to his head, or how he would cope when the not-so-glamorous realities of being a professional sportsman set in.
"I knew he could handle all that," says John. "He's played five years of national junior age competitions, he lives in WA and has handled state cricket comfortably. He has been up to the Centre of Excellence [Cricket Australia's academy in Brisbane]. He was a leader at school and he's had to look after himself from a young age ... He's a very independent, mature fellow, anyway."
When we meet, Agar, now 20, is home in Melbourne for one precious week before joining his WA teammates in Darwin for a training camp, and he is loving the normality of it. He came home from England feeling slightly sick from a virus he picked up towards the end of the Ashes, but when he walked through the door the first thing he did was jump on Wes (Will was away at school camp), and now all three brothers are out the front playing a fierce game of cricket.
"It's been a good time, to be home with my brothers, have some of Mum's cooking, play a little bit of front-yard cricket now that I'm feeling better, see some of my friends," says Agar. He has spent part of the day at his old school, where he tells students not much younger than him that he didn't feel any pressure when he walked out to bat at Trent Bridge because he didn't think of his English opponents as superstars, just regular cricketers.
"He doesn't get starstruck," says Sonia. She describes her eldest son as a quiet achiever who is interested in nature and indigenous cultures, and played the didgeridoo at school. During games of cricket, he sometimes looks up to identify the species of bird overhead then switches back on to focus on the next ball. "He was never a loud, showy kid at all," Sonia says. "And he always had a ball in his hand."
"It's funny," Agar says. "People ask how my life has changed. It hasn't, really, apart from the fact that more people know who I am now and have seen me play. That's the biggest difference in my life before Nottingham and afterwards. It's been pretty normal.
"I think it's important to remember where you come from, who you were before a little bit of fame. Being home, being with my brothers, going back to my school, it keeps you grounded and makes you understand how lucky you are."
John Agar taught his boys to hit the ball straight, between the side fence and the citrus trees lining the driveway. The bowling run-ups started across the road and taped-up tennis balls were released, at full pelt, about eight yards from the batsman. Today, the game is transposed to the front yard, where a dug-up footpath runs across the pitch and the lilly-pillies along the front fence are in constant danger. The game goes on and on until you have to squint through the dusk to see the ball.
"They talk about 10,000 hours of practice before you become an expert at something," says Agar. "I don't know if it's 10,000 hours, and I'm not calling myself an expert, but I've had heaps more practice than most of the other kids because I would have a couple of trainings a week then I'd have my two brothers to play with and we would play for hours - literally, hours - every night. It has to help."
Agar abandoned fast bowling to become a spinner in the under-12s at McKinnon Cricket Club. The Australian selectors picked him, remember, for his bowling. When he was 17, he had a growth spurt that allowed him to deliver the ball from a great height then drop it below the batsman's eye level and spin it. It's a skill that takes years to master, that demands patience from the bowler and everyone around him. "What sets a finger spin bowler apart is if they are able to put revs on the ball so it drops, bounces and turns," says Australia's chairman of selectors, John Inverarity. "Ashley Mallett had it, Graeme Swann has it. Ashton showed very good signs of that. He's got it in his DNA."
But it was Agar's batting in Nottingham - and his refreshing, unflappable attitude - that was most enthralling. He is no one's idea of a No. 11, the position reserved for the worst batsman in the team. He has a stylish backlift and sweet ball-striking ability that reminds the effusive Langer of the great West Indies batsman Brian Lara. "That wasn't just a No. 11 having a bit of luck," Inverarity says. "He is a beautiful striker of the ball."
From McKinnon, Agar went to Richmond Cricket Club when he was 16. By then he was on the "pathway" for elite junior cricketers. On average, it takes four years to graduate from Australian under-19 level to a state contract list, for those who make it at all. But Richmond captain Allan Wise, a former fast bowler for South Australia, was struck by Agar's rare combination of natural exuberance and "headstrong" career focus. When WA offered him a contract and the prospect of playing first-class cricket sooner than he would have in Victoria, Agar knew what he had to do. "He was steadfast," says Wise. "As a captain and a coach, you always take the development approach. You think about trying to get them to a level to play first-class cricket then, when they get into that system, hopefully they can go on and become Australian cricketers - that's the natural line. But he was strong in the opinion that he was ready to play."
Wise, a consultant in financial education to the Australian Cricketers' Association, cautions first-year players about the pitfalls of sudden fame and wealth at the ACA's annual induction camps. He says Agar is more balanced than most.
"Of the young, starry-eyed cricketers who are there, a couple might make a genuine living out of the game, then there are a couple who might set themselves up for life after cricket as well," Wise says. "It can be very fluctuating, they can spend their first contract buying the flashiest car and the best house then, two years later, the rug gets pulled out. But Ashton seems very stable in his cricket and I think he will take all that in his stride. He isn't naive. Everything is done with a smile but he is also very aware for someone his age of how everything fits into the bigger picture."
Greg Chappell, the former Australian captain and now the governing body's national talent manager, asked Agar what he would be prepared to sacrifice for cricket as he was heading into his final year of high school. Agar gave him an unexpected response but one that suggested he had his priorities sorted. "Actually," Agar told Chappell, "this year I'm going to have to sacrifice cricket for my studies." Somehow he managed to combine the two, preparing a year 12 English oral presentation on why he should be allowed to skip practice exams to tour India with the Australian under-19s. Unfortunately, he had to change topics after developing stress fractures in his back, which meant he hardly played any cricket that year. "That gave me time to focus on school, freshen up. It helped grow my passion for cricket even more. Once I got into my university course (he scored 90.55 in the ATAR and has deferred a law degree at Perth's Murdoch University), all eyes were on cricket and doing as well as I could."
Agar's success came when the Australian team was struggling, and public expectations of him shot from non-existent to unrealistic in a few hours. Then he had to contend with being left out of the side after two games. "That's Test cricket. It's going to be hard sometimes, I'm ready for that," he said at the time.
For spinners, it can be incredibly hard. Thirteen of them have played for Australia since the incomparable Shane Warne retired in 2007. Bryce McGain, the Victorian leg spinner who played one Test against South Africa in 2009, believes it was a brave call to pick Agar for the Ashes, even if it was too soon to expect him be the main spinner at that level. But he also thinks he will blossom into a fine long-term performer.
Agar is undaunted, and doesn't ever want to forget how he felt on the field at Trent Bridge. "Once you play at that level, you realise how big of a deal it is, how proud you really are," he says. "I'm going to keep trying to play the best cricket I can, and if I'm playing really well that gives me the best chance of getting selected again, hopefully next summer or whenever that may be. I understand I'm 19 [he turned 20 on October 14], but I've never liked to use that as a barrier. I believe I'm good enough to play at the level now. But I still know I have to get a lot better and that comes from playing a lot of first-class cricket and learning from the people around me."
The Agar household is quieter after Ashton leaves for Perth then Darwin then India for a Twenty20 tournament. Will, a talented artist who wants to study architecture, is preparing for year 12 exams. With the family missing its most famous bowler, Wes spends his savings on a bowling machine and parks it in the driveway. He has just made the Victorian Metro under-17 squad and is getting ready for a series in Barooga. During a family weekend at Sorrento before Ashton left, a jogger spotted the young Australian cricketer and called out to wish him luck for the summer. It was a gentle reminder of how Agar's life has changed, and of the possibilities ahead.