Ten out of eleven Test playing nations could not even imagine having a bowler of the calibre of Mitchell Starc in their ranks and not pick him in the first Test of a series in England. Australia gave this scenario more than just a thought and went ahead without him in the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston.
Australia cricket team is renowned for their ruthless and pragmatic decision-making, when it comes to selection. Given the dominance they have had on world cricket for a considerable period, one cannot question their approach. The management decided to play Peter Siddle ahead of Starc on a flat-ish wicket at Edgbaston arguing that Siddle guarantees them control through which they can tie one end up and keep attacking from the other end. With the match figures of 39 overs, 80 runs for two wickets, the old workhorse Siddle was the most economical bowler in the match. The economy rate of 1.93 in 27 overs in the first innings ensured that the English batsmen could not run away with the match even after being ahead. Siddle thoroughly provided the control that was expected of him by the team management.
At the end of all the processes and what-ifs, only the results counts and Australia found themselves on the right side of the results too. Two obvious factors ensuring their victory were Steve Smith’s brilliance and James Anderson’s injury. A third important factor from my point of view was the toss. Australia had the call of the coin on their side that ensured that their premier spinner bowled on the fifth day pitch that he utilised to full effect.
Come the second Test at Lord’s on Wednesday, Australia can find themselves in a very different position. On seamer friendly conditions, they might need a fast bowler who can provide something more tangible than control – wickets. The baton of providing control can be handed over to Pat Cummins who did a terrific job in the home series against India.
A modern day great
Starc is a blow hot or blow cold kind of bowler. There is no middle ground. Thankfully, for Australia, blow hot has dominated blow cold. Of all the currently active bowlers who have taken 100 or more Test wickets, Mitchell Starc stand at fourth on the number of balls taken per wicket – 49.9. He leads the pack if we just look for currently active bowlers who have taken 200 or more wickets.
A cricketing cliché summaries the English batting prowess on paper - they bat deep. The have a decent tail that has bailed out the head on many occasions in the recent past. Given the performance of their lower order batsmen, it becomes difficult to demarcate where the head ends and the tail begins. The recent performance of Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow in Tests has made the bifurcation even more difficult.
In terms of numbers, the English top five have a batting average of 29.17 in Tests since 2018 while the bottom six have averaged 23.19. The difference asks for another one of the old cricketing clichés- not much to separate between the two.
Starc’s ability to demolish the tail with his toe crushers adds on to the argument of his inclusion in the XI. He has a strike-rate of 34.6 against batsmen batting at six or lower. These numbers are the third best among all the active bowlers with 50 or more wickets of batsmen from positions 6 to 11.
If a situation like the first Test arises, where the ninth wicket pair added a crucial 65 runs for England in the first innings, Starc can be the answer for Australia to gun down any sign of lower order resistance.
Starc has the ability to run through the opposition in a hurry. Recent demonstration of his ability was the 50-over World Cup played in the same conditions. His five-for against New Zealand and four-for against England at Lord’s in the World Cup also provides the impetus to ascertain the pragmatic Australians.
During the recent episode of a podcast on Fox Sports, Brendon Julian, the former Australian left-arm pacer provided arguments in support of Mitchel Starc’s inclusion in the Lord’s Test.
Julian suggested that at Lord’s, a left-armer bowling down the slope always makes the batsman feel that the ball is coming in towards him, but is often deceived if the balls holds its line.
If Australia find themselves bowling first at Lord’s, Starc will be the weapon they need to utilise the first hour before batsmen settle in. Given Australia is already 1-0 up; they can afford to go on an all-out attack and deny England any opportunity of coming back in the series.