The puzzle of Mitchell’s stark struggles

2:39 AM ET

  • Melinda Farrell at the SCG

“If I keep listening to Warnie, I may as well retire.”

Mitchell Starc‘s words in Adelaide were accompanied with a shrug. He feels Shane Warne’s criticism of every aspect of his bowling, right down to his body language, has featured consistently throughout his career. He could probably carry it around in his kit bag, ready to pull out on any given bad day.

But while Warne’s takedowns have sometimes been viewed as hyperbole, his questions have become harder to ignore as the series against India has worn on. So have the figures. Quite simply, the recent numbers are stark for Mitchell.

In the first Test against South Africa in Durban, Starc was the undisputed strike weapon of Australia’s attack, taking 5 for 34 and 4 for 75. Those figures also nudged Starc’s Test average to a career-best 26.94. He had taken 179 wickets in 41 Tests; surely he would sail past the 200 milestone before the end of the year.

But as the sun soaked the SCG and Australia’s bowlers pitted themselves fruitlessly against the immovable Cheteshwar Pujara, Starc’s 200th wicket loomed in the far distance, seemingly as elusive as a shimmering mirage.

Enough has been said about the elephant in this room. We all know he’s there, perched on the couch with his curling trunk hiding a suggestive smirk. But this is not an exercise in casting aspersions. We all know what happened at Newlands but the suspicions surrounding Australia’s longer-term ball-management are hardly being quelled by subsequent performances. For now, let’s put that aside and pull out the abacus.

In this series Starc has taken 13 wickets at 34.53. Since the Durban Test, Starc has taken 20 wickets at 46.50. Rewind to last summer’s Ashes series and the comparison is clearly concerning; during that series his figures were a much more impressive 22 wickets at an average of 23.54.

Starc hasn’t dropped any pace in the past year. His average speed in this series so far stands at 147.54kpm, which is, according to Cricviz, the fastest he has ever bowled in a Test series. Accuracy is harder to measure and almost irrelevant when discussing the left-armer; his pitch map has always been a scattergun pattern peppered with those brilliant, unplayable wicket-balls.

He is also not alone when it comes to unflattering numbers. Josh Hazlewood has taken 21 wickets since Durban at 37, compared to his career average of 26.83.

And at times Starc has looked dangerous, a wicked spell of short-pitched bowling on day one causing clear discomfort to Pujara and Mayank Agarwal. His dismissal of Ajinkya Rahane was classic, brutal Starc; a searing bouncer angled in to the batsman from around the wicket rearing up awkwardly and clipping the glove.

It should also be noted that Australia’s bowlers have endured added pressure, having to defend below par scores set by some indifferent batting performances in the absence of Steven Smith and David Warner. Even if Australia bowl opposition sides out for 350, there is little guarantee the top six will pave the way for a superior total. Even a first-innings tally of 250 was good enough for India to eke out a lead in Adelaide. The tail has been called upon to shore up a wobbly top and middle and then turn around quickly to bend their backs once more.

But when there is no significant swing, new-ball or reverse, Starc may need to develop more flat-track variations. If the players are now too nervous about scrutiny to maintain and work the ball sufficiently, that need becomes more urgent.

Perhaps there is also a question to be asked of the way he is used. The knock-on effects of Newlands have led to a new coach and captain, and it may be that with the change in regime, any new tactical plans along with the focus on change in behaviour may have muddled the minds of some. No one should be surprised if the past year has taken both an emotional and physical toll on these bowlers; it would be unnatural if it hadn’t.

Sometimes the numbers don’t fully reflect the picture. Bowlers can contribute to team-mates’ figures through applied pressure. Players go through rough patches, niggles, loss of rhythm, drops in confidence or form. They can be unlucky, bowling well without being rewarded on the scoreboard. This may well be one such period and it’s hard to imagine such a talented cricketer won’t find a way to turn this run around.

****

After bowling just five overs on the morning of the second day, Starc was eventually called back into the attack for two overs just before tea, with India 6 for 470 and Australia’s strike weapon still one short of that elusive 200th wicket. The first three balls to Rishabh Pant were uneventful, conceding no runs. The fourth was driven beautifully between cover and point. Four leg byes and another cover drive followed; 11 off the over. After tea, Usman Khawaja was brought into the attack.

There was to be one more chance. When the third new ball became available, Starc took it for a solitary over from the Randwick end. His first delivery sprayed down the leg side and the ball burst through the glove of a diving Tim Paine for two byes.

That pretty much summed it up.

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