Mitchell Starc dominated the last World Cup to a level rarely ever seen from a fast bowler. But this time around he has to combat injury, ordinary recent form and a country where he has struggled in ODIs.
I have never seen a better 50-over bowler than Starc at his peak. Wasim Akram was wizardly. Shane Warne was phenomenal. Glenn McGrath was relentless. Muttiah Muralitharan was remarkably consistent.
Yet Starc in his pomp was equal to any of them.
Across a 35-match streak from January 2015 to January 2017, Starc was a wrecking ball, taking 76 wickets at 17. This bonanza wasn’t based on routing weak nations either. In fact, he reserved his best for the top teams. Against the other three semi-finalists from the 2015 World Cup, Starc ran amok in that period, hoarding 26 wickets at 11.
He was the best new-ball bowler on the planet, continually making key breakthroughs in the first ten overs with his late swing, intimidating pace and startling bounce.
Starc was also the best death bowler thanks to his scorching, pin-point yorker. And he was also effective in the middle overs, with his captains frequently using him in a short spell in an effort to stall the opposition’s momentum.
In this period, Starc put together one of the greatest individual performances ever seen across a World Cup. He took 22 wickets at ten as Australia won their fifth World Cup, and astoundingly conceded just 3.5 runs per over in that tournament despite playing on flat pitches.
In early 2016, he became the fastest bowler of all time to 100 ODI wickets, reaching that mark in just 52 matches. To underline how incredible an achievement that is, consider that it took 77 matches to get there for Australia’s greatest-ever ODI bowler, Glenn McGrath.
At that stage of his career, three years ago, Starc was the most valuable one-day cricketer on the planet. He was just 26 years old and looked on target to potentially overtake McGrath as Australia’s GOAT.
But one thing McGrath possessed which Starc never has is durability.
McGrath kept cruising along like a Maybach until he retired from international cricket at the age of 37. In his final year, McGrath was still the best ODI bowler in the world, dominating the 2007 World Cup with 26 wickets at 13.
Starc, meanwhile, has been held back by his body since reaching those lofty heights in 2015 and 2016. In the past two years he has featured in only ten of Australia’s 34 ODIs. Not surprisingly, given this lack of continuity, Starc’s form dipped sharply in that period as he averaged 34 with the ball.
He struggled, in particular, against England who possess the world’s best batting lineup. In five matches against England last year, Starc averaged 38 with the ball and went at a whopping 6.3 runs per over, miles above his career economy rate of 4.95.
Meanwhile, the World Cup will be played in the place where he has laboured most – England. Starc has never cracked the Old Dart, in any format, and has averaged 38 from his eight ODIs there.
He will arrive in the UK next month for the World Cup not having bowled in a limited-overs international for nearly six months due to a pectoral injury.
Admittedly, Starc is familiar to playing big games fresh back from injury. His eight-year international career has been interrupted endlessly by injuries.
But swiftly regaining touch and momentum in a World Cup is a very difficult task. If he can achieve that then Australia will become frightening opponents. If he labours, Australia’s chances of causing a tournament upset will be dented significantly.