@Yas_Wisden 4 minute read
Australia have one of the most settled first-choice bowling attacks in recent memory. The quartet of Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon have been near ever-presents since they first joined forces ahead of the 2017/18 Ashes four years ago.
In the 31 Tests Australia have contested since the start of that series, they are the only four Australia bowlers to have played more than five Tests; it’s hard to recall many sides having such a stable first-choice bowling unit over such a long period of time.
If you narrow the spell of interest to just the past two years, the picture is even more stark. In the last two years, the only players still available for international selection (James Pattinson recently announced his retirement from Australia duty) to have played a Test for Australia as a frontline bowler are Messrs Cummins, Hazlewood, Starc and Lyon.
There have been occasions where that stability has been threatened. In an attempt to make the most of English conditions in the 2019 Ashes, Starc and, most inexplicably, Hazlewood were left out for the series opener for Pattinson and Peter Siddle – the only Test the quartet played together that series was at Old Trafford where Australia sealed a dominant, Ashes-retaining victory. But by and large, their collective presence has almost been a given.
That, though, might change in the upcoming series. There has been debate surrounding the form of Starc, the quickest of the three seamers. While Starc’s overall Test record is excellent, there are some who are questioning his place in the side. Shane Warne is one such voice, saying earlier this week: “He needs to find a bit of rhythm and some form. He had a really poor World Cup. He’s just not bowling well enough.”
It is true that Starc had a slightly underwhelming World Cup on a personal level. While he claimed nine wickets, he was Australia’s most expensive regular bowler (9.18 runs per over) and was, as Warne claims, slightly short on both pace and rhythm.
But it is Starc’s output in Australia’s most recent Test series that should subject his position to scrutiny. In India’s heist Down Under last winter, Starc averaged over 40 with the ball and was, by some distance, Australia’s most expensive regular bowler. And even if Starc does start the series, you’d expect Australia to veer away from the 2020/21 strategy of sticking to the same three quicks across a compact series. Over his career, Starc’s bowling average drops from just 24 across the first two Tests of series to 31.67 in the third, 36.94 in the fourth and 52.66 in the fifth.
The pressure on Starc’s place is not all to do with the left-arm quick’s relatively minor and short-lived loss in form, the emergence and return to fitness of Jhye Richardson is a big part of the conversation. Richardson, 25, who first played international white-ball cricket in 2017, has played two Tests, both in 2019, in a career that has so far been plagued by injury.
Just as his international career looked to be taking off – he took six wickets at 20.50 in what is so far his only Test series, against Sri Lanka in early 2019 – it was held back by injuries that ruled him out of that year’s World Cup and Ashes series. Fast forward two and a half years and Richardson is threatening to pick up where he left off in Test cricket.
He is a tall, genuinely quick right-arm seamer who has the numbers to back up his obvious potential. Over the course of his first-class career he’s taken 90 wickets at 21.11 and in this season’s Sheffield Shield, he has been devastating. Ahead of the Brisbane Test, Richardson has claimed 23 wickets at 13.43; his recent dismissal of Marnus Labuschagne with a ripper that leapt off a length and squared up the Australia No. 3 was an ominous precursor of what he may do to English batters later this winter.
In truth, it’s not a straightforward decision. Starc, withstanding his recent dip, has been a key part of Australia’s success with the ball for some time; it would be a bold call to drop Australia’s ninth leading wicket-taker in Test cricket. But if Australia do decide to look past Starc, be it at Brisbane or later in the series, Richardson will be much more than an able fill-in – we may well see a statement performance akin to Cummins’ four years ago, a man who overcame serious injury to become one of the most feared bowlers in the planet. It is not a stretch to say that such a path is within Richardson’s reach.