“When he’s at his best he’s brilliant. When he’s not, he’s not so much.” It may not look like it when reading that quote in isolation, but Tim Paine was being supportive of Mitchell Starc when discussing his fortunes at the start of 2019. By that point, Australia’s all-format attack-leader for four years had endured a rugged summer. Despite forever looking a world-beater with those long limbs, hooping swing and fierce pace, the machine was malfunctioning too often against India, stuck on 199 scalps after an expensive one-wicket display on the SCG, he was – as it is said in Australia – under the pump. Big time. A return of 10/100 against Sri Lanka to finish the season helped, as did another potent World Cup, but this week is his moment to finally influence this Ashes campaign; to run amok and beat England in England.
Except that’s not how this day went. Not only did he end the day wicketless, Paine did not throw the ball to the left-armer at all in the 128 minutes the final session ran for before the close. Pat Cummins went out of his way to run up to him before stumps were called to offer a consoling shake of the hand, surely mindful that Starc has talked in the past about how hard he has found it to ignore external criticism from former players – not least Shane Warne.
Days like this are the reason why he has been wearing an orange vest for the last month. If armies only advance at the speed of their slowest soldier, a similar conclusion was drawn about economy rates in England when Australia planned this tour. It was sound logic, Paine and Justin Langer upfront about their desire to dry up runs as a corrective for what happened in 2015 when Australia’s attack – with Starc at the helm - couldn’t. Edgbaston was deemed a triumph on that basis, Peter Siddle identified there by the coach as the most vital seamer.
But Starc beat him out for the final bowling spot here, selected for a combination of factors that included his freshness, the traditionally zippy Old Trafford surface and – although it was never cited – the way he was able to topple Ben Stokes in the World Cup. Paine was forthright when discussing the 29-year-old in Derbyshire last week, where he skittled a skittish tail a couple of times, noting that he had learned his lessons about bowling in this country. By not picking Mitchell Marsh to join him in the XI, it was a show of faith that Starc was bowling with sufficient rhythm not to go for bulk runs. But it was when he did on Friday that England were able to stitch together their most productive partnership of the series.
A brief new-ball spell ahead of Cummins didn’t work on Thursday evening but Starc looked destined to get some reward early in his work on Friday. In his third over, he found a consistently dangerous length to Rory Burns, beating him three times in the space of five balls. That was better. We know that bowler. But strangely, that approach was binned in favour of attacking the left-hander’s stumps, eight runs materialising from his next set.
The cruder of Starc’s detractors assert that he never knows where the ball is going when it leaves his hand. But is that possible at this level? Granted, with a more fluid action than someone like Josh Hazlewood there are more moving parts by nature – more needs to go right – but he had to know what he was doing when changing up so quickly. Alas, he was taken straight out of the attack. The next 16 overs went for just 37 runs and when he came back for a second crack, Nathan Lyon had gotten himself into a fine contest with Joe Root.
Another part of the case for Starc is that he, by bowling left-arm over the wicket, helps deliver Lyon some helpful footmarks to bowl into later in a Test. But in this spell, his job was different - to keep the game tight so that the off-spinner could apply maximum pressure on the home skipper. Instead, he went for 22 runs in a two-over burst with runs coming all around the wagon wheel. Sure enough, they came more readily from Lyon’s end too. The crowd were involved and the game was quickly being played on different terms. Starc did fight back commendably – obliterating Root’s box with a ball that spat off the seam – but that was the last he was seen for the rest of the day from the time Cummins replaced him.
And replace him he did, sending down a magnificent ten-over spell either side of tea that went without reward for wickets but was emblematic of how pace plus accuracy is the real special sauce rather than speed alone. It isn’t desirable for Cummins to bowl shifts this long, of course – he never has in Test cricket – but it’s he who the captain wanted on, rather than Starc. Then when he was done, Hazlewood came next, who completed an fine shift of his own, removing both set men with gorgeous deliveries before castling Jason Roy. It’s because of that pair that there is enough time for Australia to still win the whole thing this weekend.
Yes, a handful of ropey overs does not make a match - Starc has every chance to return on Saturday, do as his reputation demands by cleaning up the tail, building a head of steam and blasting England out the second time around. Nobody could ever seriously doubt his credentials as a match-winner; he’s all-but won Tests on his own for Australia. But he might need to, otherwise, he could be back in that orange vest for a winner-takes-all bout in South London. It's a cruel game like that.
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