England need their own Mitchell Starc

Ronan O'Connell Columnist

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    Australian quick Mitchell Starc is never likely to become a consistent Test bowler no matter how many times his many critics harp on the point. But he doesn’t need to be consistent, as we’ve witnessed in this Ashes.

    While Starc has been busy taking 14 wickets at 19 this series, I’ve continually seen cricket fans deriding him for his inaccuracy, a criticism akin to complaining that David Warner can’t bat for time like Matt Renshaw.

    Warner’s value is his unique ability to flay quality Test attacks, setting the opposition back on their heels, while Starc’s is his capacity for producing wickets in bursts, changing the course of a Test.

    Many cricket followers do not seem to understand Starc’s role within the brilliant Australian attack. Here’s a hint: it isn’t to bowl maidens. England have three quicks who can bowl very tightly in James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes. What they would kill to have is a guy like Starc because of the invaluable variety he adds to a Test attack.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but in Test history there has never been another bowler identical to Starc – a 197 centimetre-tall left-armer who swings the new and old ball at 150 kilometres an hour. He is a truly unique cricketer, and one who makes Australia a vastly better team.

    Starc has the rare gift of taking wickets against the run of play. He does so by producing deliveries that are unplayable or close to unplayable, even in conditions which offer zero assistance to fast bowlers. That is why Starc remains effective in conditions the world over while the likes of Anderson are often neutered when swing or seam isn’t on offer.

    (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

    In an era when so many cricketers dominate at home and labour away, Starc is one of only two Test bowlers ranked in the ICC’s top 20 who has a better average on the road (26) than at home (28). The second bowler is New Zealand’s Neil Wagner. Outside of that pair, the only other bowler in the top 20 who comes close to achieving this feat is Starc’s new ball partner Josh Hazlewood, who averages 25.8 at home and 26.2 away.

    To get a true indication of how good a Test bowler Starc has become, consider his stats since he was made a fixture in the Australian team two and a half years ago – 112 wickets at 24 from 23 Tests with a blazing strike rate of 42.

    In that period the only Test quick in the world to have taken more wickets than Starc is Hazlewood. Now compare Starc’s current Test record to those of Anderson and Broad after each cricketer had played 38 Tests:

    • Starc: 162 wickets at 27.5
    • Anderson: 130 wickets at 34.2
    • Broad: 114 wickets at 34.8

    Australia are fortunate to have a quality back-up quick in Jackson Bird, a reliable operator who has averaged 27 with the ball across his eight Tests and is dominating the Sheffield Shield with 25 wickets at 16 this season. But consider for a moment how much more one-dimensional Australia’s pace attack would look, particularly on a flat deck, if it consisted of Bird, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins.

    Right now Australia’s Test attack is as well balanced as any I have seen in the past decade. Every base is covered. Obviously it is not on the same level as the glory era Australian bowling unit of Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Brett Lee and Jason Gillespie.

    (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    Yet there are significant similarities between the two attacks. Hazlewood has long been compared with McGrath thanks to his amazing precision. Starc plays a very similar role to Brett Lee, unsettling opponents with his pace, unpredictability and ability to produce something from nothing. Cummins, meanwhile, reminds me of Gillespie at his peak – an out-and-out strike bowler with intimidating pace yet also possessing fine control and a great cricketing brain.

    Then there’s Lyon, who, while he’ll never be anywhere near the bowler Warne was, right now offers Australia that rare spin package of being simultaneously attacking and defensive. The off-spinner is bowling with great economy while posing a constant threat to the opposition. His haul of 57 wickets at 22 from nine Tests this year is extraordinary.

    Again I’ll emphasise that I’m not attempting to put the current Australian attack on par with the golden era Australian bowling unit. Rather I’m pointing out that both attacks had a wonderful balance to them. Quite remarkably all of Starc (26), Hazlewood (26), Cummins (25) and Lyon (29) average in the 20s with the ball away from home.

    Now compare that to the away averages of England’s main four bowlers – Broad (32), Anderson (33), Chris Woakes (53) and Moeen Ali (47) – and it’s easy to spot the key difference between the Ashes opponents. England’s attack does not have the variety nor the dynamism to be consistently effective away from home.

    That has been exposed across the first two Tests of this series, and with the possibility of flat pitches over the next three matches, things could get downright ugly for the England attack. They need a Starc. But only Australia has one.

    Ronan O
    Ronan O'Connell

    Ronan O'Connell has been a journalist for well over 13 years, including nine at daily newspapers in WA. He now traverses the world as a travel photojournalist, contributing words and photography to more than 30 magazines and newspapers including CNN, BBC, The Toronto Star, The Guardian, The South China Morning Post, The Irish Examiner and The Australian Financial Review. Check out his work and follow him on Twitter @ronanoco