Australia’s leaders are finally convinced that Mitchell Starc will not let opposition teams “off the hook” in Test cricket by dropping too short or floating too full, the result of searching discussions in England that were a part of his peripheral role in how Tim Paine’s men retained the Ashes.
Starc has been confirmed to play in the first Test of the home summer against Pakistan at the Gabba, matters simplified by James Pattinson’s ban for personal abuse of an opponent in the Sheffield Shield but also the result of significant development in the left-arm bowler’s game. Starc had long frustrated captains and coaches alike when handed the red ball in Tests, despite a powerful record in limited-overs formats.
While Starc’s Test record is far from poor, his economy rate has not compared favourably with those of Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, allowing opponents a precious release of pressure at key times in the past, especially overseas. Head coach Justin Langer revealed an exchange alongside Ricky Ponting with Starc in England, while he was one of the dominant performers in the World Cup, about what he lacked in Test matches by comparison.
“Yes, Yes…100%. It has been an issue in the past,” Langer said when asked whether he was more confident Starc would not simply be used to reverse the ball and knock over the tail. “What I’m most impressed with with Mitchell Starc is we talked to him, I remember one of the conversations, at Hampshire with the white ball – Punter [Ponting] was there, I was there – we were saying ‘Mitch, if you hit that length more often you are actually a scary commodity because you come from so high, you are so fast. If you bowl a bit full or a bit short against good players you keep letting [them] off the hook, but hitting that length more regularly you are a nightmare’.
“What has most impressed me – his white-ball cricket has always been world-class – is how hard he has worked. He worked really hard with Troy Cooley in the Ashes when he wasn’t playing.
“He bowled beautifully in that fourth Test when he wasn’t playing – the ball didn’t reverse swing there but he bowled really well. I just love his development, it’s what we see in a lot of the players, his maturity through that period when he wasn’t playing. He took 10 wickets in the last Test against Sri Lanka, I just love his development and can’t wait to see him bowl in this Test.”
Langer acknowledged that though Starc would never be a run miser in the fashion of South Africa’s Vernon Philander or Hazlewood, he had shown an eagerness to learn and improve as a Test bowler that would help the whole attack this summer and beyond. “He can bowl yorkers at will, he can bowl a good bouncer, it’s about getting more consistent at hitting that first-class length,” Langer said.
“He’s never going to be a Philander, or in a sense Josh Hazlewood who will bowl the same ball every ball. That’s his strength, but the more consistent he can hit that back-of-a-length delivery – five, seven metres, I’ll let the bowlers talk about whatever it is – he’s a nightmare to face and he’s getting better and better at it.”
Starc provided a great insight into the challenges of growing and developing as a fast bowler by noting that while his methods were becoming more nuanced, the mental cues that helped extract his best displays needed to be carefully managed too. He arrived at the Gabba for an early season Shield game this season and, thinking too much of what he had tried in England, delivered a flat, ineffective display. That gave rise to a simple message on his wrist band “f**k it, bowl fast”, that balances the tactical and technical advancements by ensuring Starc still attacks the crease.
“That came after the Gabba Shield game actually,” he said. “It just did not feel like things were clicking well after coming back from England. I felt a bit slow and I did not have that good feeling I’ve talked with Andre [Adams, New South Wales coach] a lot about. So throughout the England tour I had by bowling cues on my wrist and it worked pretty well and kept things pretty clear. But just a little change in mindset when I got back and it’s worked the last few weeks so I’ll probably kick on with it.
“There’s been a little bit of chat around being really clear minded, but a lot of the bowling stuff’s been a feeling based thing and feeling the good stuff, feeling the positive stuff in terms of the action and a lot of it was taking the result of the other end out of it and just controlling what I can control there.”
This evolution has run alongside Starc, Hazlewood, Cummins, Pattinson and others – including the yet to debut Michael Neser – accepting the need for a squad mentality where the same three or four bowlers are not being asked to turn up and play match after match. This not only adds to Australia’s depth and versatility, it also allows for each of the fast men to enjoy longer careers than if they were to simply be bowled into the ground.
“Everyone wants to play every game, don’t you,” Starc said. “But right from the beginning the whole bowling group especially bought into that squad mentality. The fact we’ve all grown up together and played a lot with and against one another led to that being such an easy thing for the group to be of that mentality.
“As much as you want to play every game, you’re still hoping your mate does really well and the team does really well at the same time. Of course, you want to play, but I think it was the fact that I’m older and a bit more mature, the toys weren’t thrown out the cot. The schedules along with everything else, it becomes a slightly easier pill to swallow now we’ve all bought into that squad mentality.”