After being a key reason Australia lost their home Test series against India, Mitchell Starc had a chance to rebound in the Sheffield Shield.
Instead, he flopped spectacularly, placing his Ashes spot at risk.
Starc took nine wickets at 82 across his last six first-class matches this summer, which included the final two Tests against India.
With that Test series on the line, the veteran quick fell apart.
All Australia needed from Starc in those two matches was competency, rather than brilliance, and they probably would have beaten India 3-1, gone number one in the Test rankings and been playing in the World Test Championship Final in June.
That’s not to suggest he alone, was at fault. But in taking 3-296 at Sydney and Brisbane, and bleeding runs almost every time he took the ball, he massively hindered Australia.
When Australia’s subsequent Test tour of South Africa was cancelled, Starc got the chance to return to the Shield to regain his groove away from the spotlight and outside of those draining bio-bubbles.
Like many other cricket observers, I expected Starc to benefit greatly from this extended time in the Shield. How wrong we were.
After the India series, Starc played four Shield matches for the horrendous figures of six wickets at 75. Starc didn’t just lack penetration, averaging a mere 1.5 wickets per match, he was literally flayed by Shield batsmen, conceding a whopping 3.8 runs per over.
Despite being stacked with international talent, NSW won just one of those four matches. If Starc wasn’t such a big name, he surely would have been dropped back to grade cricket for NSW’s final Shield match against Queensland.
Instead, he played and went wicket-less for the match.
Starc has long attracted exaggerated criticism. That’s because when his rhythm disappears his bowling can become a horror show – full tosses, half volleys, short balls outside off, five wides down leg, runs flowing.
Whereas when a precise seamer like Josh Hazlewood is out of touch the results are far more subtle. Hazlewood loses penetration, posing little threat to the batsmen but at least remaining economical. There is no spectacular fall from grace, like when things go awry for Starc.
I’ve defended Starc through most of his struggles, arguing that his overall value as a Test bowler outweighs his typically brief form troughs.
Right now, however, it’s hard to build a case for retaining Starc in Australia’s starting XI, especially when the Aussies cannot afford a slow start to this year’s Ashes.
England may have gone win-less across their past two Ashes in Australia, but they shape as a much more formidable opponent now.
Compared to their last tour of Australia, England this time will boast champion all-rounder Ben Stokes, a slightly stronger top order, much better spin options, and potentially two express quicks in Jofra Archer and Mark Wood.
Plus the tourists will be primed from a heavy schedule of Tests in 2021, whereas Australia will enter the Ashes cold, having not played a Test for 10 months.
The greatest weakness of Starc is that, when he misfires, he tends to drag the whole Aussie attack down with him. He leaks runs so badly that he can’t even do a holding job in those circumstances.
Australia could not find a role for him in the last two Tests against India. His spells boosted the visitors, allowing them to build momentum.
The same thing happened in the Shield, when Starc’s expensive spells regularly put NSW on the back foot. At 31 years old, Starc is likely approaching the end of his Test career.
Very few express quicks manage to be regular Test cricketers into their mid-30s.
It should be noted that prior to this summer – the worst of his first-class career – Starc had been mostly excellent in Tests for the previous five years, taking 166 wickets at 25 in that time.
After this season, though, he surely is no longer an automatic selection in the Test team. There is simply too much competition, with the likes of James Pattinson and Michael Neser waiting in the wings.
Perhaps a return to white ball cricket could be the tonic. Starc will only play ODIs and T20Is between now and the next Australian summer, including the T20 World Cup in October.
Given his habit of dominating limited overs tournaments, perhaps that big stage could vault him back into form. If it doesn’t, however, then he should be benched for the Ashes.