Ashton Agar wrapped tape around his fingers, his last preparation for what was supposed to be routine training, when his world was knocked off its ashes.
It was the day before Australia’s opening game of the recent T20 Men’s World Cup, a match that Agar rightly expected to play, having been one of the national team’s few consistent players during a rocky 12-month trajectory in cricket with 20 about.
After rising to third in the ICC’s T20 bowling rankings and missing just one of the previous 15 Australian matches, the 28-year-old was ready for a tournament billed as one where the conditions would be well suited to his bowling .
But as the Australians prepared to sweat through another afternoon in the sweltering heat of mid-autumn Abu Dhabi, coach Justin Langer broke the news that hardly anyone had seen it coming.
Agar was out.
“I was devastated,” he recalls. “I went in expecting to play and then all of a sudden I wasn’t selected. That hit me really hard.
“I played the two warm-up games, everything was cool and going well… and then ‘JL’ (Langer) just pulled me aside and said, ‘We’re going with the gears and that means you’re not playing’.
“I was like, Damn it? He caught me very wary.
“(Training started and) I bowled for a long time and tried to hit a few balls real difficult. I just couldn’t talk much.”
It is a measure of Agar’s maturity and the support network around him that he now sees that tournament as an entirely positive experience, despite being sidelined for all but one of seven Australian matches en route to a first T20 world title.
He admits it could have been three weeks of soul destruction if he had succumbed to the temptation to sulk and lock himself up as his World Cup dream unraveled.
But the man who was plucked from obscurity as a teenager and thrown into Ashes cricket knows better than anyone the pitfalls of getting lost in selection.
“I could have gone one way or the other,” he says. “It was either sitting miserable and being bitter, or just giving as much as possible to the team, training really hard, walking around the guys and just immersing myself in the whole experience of being part of a World Cup – and that’s exactly what I did, and I’m so glad I did.
“I had the time of my life; I played a lot of rounds of golf, the games were a lot of fun, I developed a lot as a bowler and I feel like I gave as much of myself to the group as possible. And I took care really made sure I enjoyed the celebrations…it was really cool.
“To be honest, I’m proud of how I got over that and progressed.
“And to the credit of the guys – and I really want to make this clear – the group was so good to me too. The guys were flocking around me and they knew I was going to be in pain at that point.
“Once your friends are behind you… you hope for the best for them too. It’s hard to remain bitter in an environment where people are trying to lift you up.
“There was definitely a moment of self-pity, and you feel bad for a day… and then you figure out what’s important and move on.”
Another important ally was Agar’s wife, Madeline. The couple tied the knot last May but have since been apart more than half the time, that’s the life of international cricketers and their husbands.
“She’s just my best friend, you know, so it’s exactly what any best friend would say to someone — it’s total support,” he says of his calls home at the time.
“First of all, she just listened to me and was absolutely understanding and supportive. She will always support me.
“And then she supported my vision of moving forward and having fun, just pushing me to do that. So that was fun.”
After deciding to actively enjoy the World Cup experience, Agar has since returned to the form that made him one of the top-ranked T20 bowlers in the world. Of the top 25 wicket-takers in this season’s KFC BBL, only Afghan spin wizard Rashid Khan has a better economy than Agar’s 7.06 and he will be a key figure in Perth’s pursuit of a fourth Big Bash title in the coming week.
But Agar doesn’t want to settle down; he thinks deeply about the game and its next evolution, assuming that a spinner’s stock ball will soon disappear from the T20 format, so he has taken on the challenge of introducing more variations to his bowling.
While constantly looking for improvement, he also possesses an innate confidence that has not been tainted by his World Cup heartache, giving him an air of calm certainty as he stands on top of his goal and prepares to take it on against the best in the world.
“Once you bowl the ball with a little bit of fear or apprehension, it’s not going to be the best version of you,” he says.
“I think when I was younger I might have been a little more intimidated. But now I know the worst that can happen is I get hit before six. I also know I have every chance of taking the next ball a wicket to take .
“That just comes after years of really hard practice and working on all the different balls I bowl and have a really good base that I can always fall back on.
“My cricketing talent has probably developed a lot over the years and I think it helps if you’re at the top.
“If you really believe in that gut feeling you get and go for it, it’s a lot of fun. It’s quite exciting sometimes.”
Just as the 2021 World Cup loomed over as a pivotal moment for Agar, the next 12 months could well be career defining. While Australia’s Cup defense on home soil is only 10 months away, he could return to the longest format on three consecutive test trips across Asia, and he also hopes to secure a first Indian Premier League deal at next month’s players’ auction .
But his World Cup experience is a timely reminder that if 2022 doesn’t work out as planned, some things are more important.
“Over the past few years I’ve kind of trained myself not to look too far ahead at all, because that takes away everything you’re trying to do right now,” he says. “And that only puts a limit on what you can achieve right now.
“The squad is sometimes very fickle and you don’t have a lot of time in the game, so I’ve decided that I want to play it the way I want to play it.
“I want to make sure I’m having a good time; there’s no point in staying behind and then one day looking back and thinking: Oh my, I wish I was a little braver or more aggressive.
“I’m not interested in just surviving. I want to have a good time.”