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What Mitchell Starc needs to do to become a T20 great

by Rohit Sankar 4 minute read

Mitchell Starc has all ingredients to be an all-time great T20 bowler, but unless he plays enough, there’s no way he is catching up with the format’s requirements, writes Rohit Sankar.

One delivery sums up all the hullabaloo surrounding Mitchell Starc the white-ball bowler: the ball curves away, reverse swings back into the left-handed Ben Stokes and then swerves away at the latest possible millisecond to elude the bat and crash into the base of the stumps.

Yes, it’s that delivery from the 2019 ODI World Cup.

Anyone entering into the frame of discussion in that tournament is in Stokes’ territory. It’s his World Cup, it’s his show, it’s his masterpiece. But in a crucial group game against Australia, Starc did not just play a supporting role; he trespassed the security systems and the entire wall of aggression with the elan and poise of a David Beckham free kick. Few have made a ball, forget the shape, size and colour, dance to their tunes better, even if only for a moment.

Starc is in complete control of this delivery and Stokes’ defeated face – his shoulders slumping, the bat dropping out of his hand and his eyes failing to soak in the moment – tells it all. It’s the perfect delivery; the one every fast bowler dreams to bowl day in, day out; the only delivery needed to be termed the most dangerous bowler in the world.

Starc’s bowling legacy is written all over that delivery. He is a white-ball genius, one who dictates play in the powerplay and death overs and rattles the stumps more often than most, because he aims at it more often than most.

In an ideal world, if you are creating a T20 fast bowler in a laboratory, Starc, his wiry frame and dream wrists included, would be your dream model. He consistently hits 90mph, swings it enough, and nails his yorkers. That’s pretty much the only recipe you need to succeed in this format as a fast bowler.

There was more evidence of this in the final over of the fourth T20I between Australia and West Indies on Thursday. It’s Starc v Andre Russell. It’s like those computer v computer matches you could sit through and watch while simulating in old PC games – ROBO_IDEAL_T20BOWLER#1 VS ROBO_IDEAL_T20BATSMAN#1.

Mitchell Marsh later called the showdown as one between “two of the best in the world at what they do”.

For one of the combatants, however, there’s little statistical evidence to back this up. Andre Russell has played 171 T20 games since the end of the 2016 T20 World Cup. Starc has played 19. Russell has played 17 T20 matches in 2021 alone. He’s backing himself to take 11 runs (Russell likely reads it as two sixes) off the final over against a bowler with little recent experience in the format.

Russell’s weakness has been worked out by analysts around the globe. He hates balls travelling to his head. He was knocked over by one, delivered by the 20-year-old Muhammad Musa, in the PSL last month. Russell’s strengths are pretty well known too: do not bowl in that full length zone and do not err on either side if you are trying a yorker.

Starc bowls four yorkers, misses three of the four, but concedes zero boundaries. ZERO. Zero runs, in fact, in the first five balls. Of course, Russell wasn’t looking to rotate the strike. He was backing himself to clear the fence right until the last two deliveries in the over. Two sixes would seal the job, but Russell managed just one, off the last ball of the game, when Starc had already won the contest.

Starc started the series conceding 89 runs in eight overs across two games, but pulled it back with a spell of 4-1-15-1 in the third game before this ultimate clash with Russell gave Australia their first win in the series.

However, Starc is still a long way off from being fully up-to-date with T20’s modern-day requirements. The spree of full-length balls against Russell makes for a highlights reel and feeds social media, but in reality, he could be considered a touch lucky to get away with missing three out of four yorkers.

It’s understandable that Starc banks on his yorkers against Russell. It’s his trusted ally and biggest weapon, but the contemporary T20 bowling mantra is to mix it up and not feed near the strong zone of a batsman.

It’s understandable that Starc is still not in top gear yet. He just hasn’t played enough. When he enrolled himself to play in the 2020/21 Big Bash League season for the Sydney Sixers, there was euphoria. He hadn’t played a BBL game since 2014. But again he had to pull out, and he didn’t ultimately play in the season, so 2014 remains the last time he played a BBL fixture.

His last franchise league game was in 2015 for the Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL. He signed up to play in the 2018 IPL season, bagging a $1.9 million deal to play for Kolkata Knight Riders, but injury meant that he never played in the season. Since 2016, he’s only played for Australia, all bilateral games too as he missed the 2016 T20 World Cup with an injury.

At a time white-ball specialists have been leaving red-ball cricket, Starc chose to focus on the longest format, where he’s a better bowler than given credit for. But his legacy will clearly be in the shorter formats. He’s already scripted it in ODIs, as the leading wicket taker at two consecutive World Cups and shown glimpses of it in T20s. But before you can label Starc a tested lab product in the shortest format of the game, he will need to simply turn up and play. There’s every reason for him to save his energy for the white-ball games, for franchise leagues and for T20 cricket in particular. His fans deserve it, T20 cricket deserves it. The more he plays, the more magic he will produce.

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