Starc swings into reckoning for Adelaide
Like Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Starc admits his rise to a place in Australia's Test squad has been spotted with bouts of self-doubt. Unlike Johnson, Starc has a left-arm fast bowling method that has grown increasingly likely to hold up under the stress of that self-doubt reappearing in the cauldron of the series against South Africa.
Starc is edging closer to a place in the XI for the second Test in Adelaide starting from Thursday, his speed, swing and height augmenting the natural variety provided by his left arm. Ben Hilfenhaus appears the most probable fast bowler to make way, though the younger James Pattinson is slipping ever closer towards the sorts of prescient workload red flags that suggested he would be a casualty at the SCG last summer.
Whoever he replaces, Starc will be doing so as a far more confident and accomplished bowler than the one who strode nervously onto the Test stage at the Gabba against New Zealand a little less than 12 months ago. Despite having played only four Tests, Starc is already spoken of by the coach Mickey Arthur and the national selector John Inverarity as a success, his skills and durability both benefiting from a careful program that has melded development and match-play over the past year.
"Still being in one piece is obviously a great thing," Starc said. "Mickey has said right from the get-go, there's a plan for everyone, he's been quite honest. He's spoken to me a lot about coming in around the team and times when I would go back to state cricket. They have kept me informed and it's been pretty successful over the past 12 months.
"I feel I have improved my game and learnt so much being around the Australian team, then gone away and been left alone a bit as well, to my own devices."
Starc's education has also factored in his personality, which carries less swagger than Pattinson though occasionally given to bouts of aggression. Gabba spectators once discovered this during a domestic limited-overs appearance for New South Wales, in which Starc gestured upon taking a wicket with triumph and no little anger at a handful who had baited the wiry southerner.
In this, Starc shares some ground with Johnson, whose shy and retiring character was sometimes pushed to one side in attempts to play the role of enforcer. This never sat with complete comfort on Johnson's shoulders, and Starc is glad to have the more demonstrative Pattinson to engage in the verbal battle while he concentrates on keeping his arm and action higher than Johnson's has ever been.
"I've had it [white line fever] a few times but I will probably leave it to Patto," Starc said. "I'm not as verbal as Patto is. I am probably more [about] actions rather than words. Jimmy's pretty good at it, so I'll let him keep doing that. I'm probably not going to have a crack at anyone. Hopefully I can do that with the ball."
Through the past two years Starc has built his sense of self-worth, helped by mentors including Wasim Akram and Jason Gillespie to first realise what a talent he had, and then set about making sure it is used for maximum returns. "I'd done a lot of work on that though my time at the academy, I probably didn't have the greatest self-confidence but I worked through that and I'm probably better off for that now," Starc said. "At the academy we have sports psychologists and that sort of thing who we have sessions with every week, so they worked for me."
The recurring sight of cartwheeling stumps after another inswinger has curled through a batsman's defences has no doubt helped Starc's belief, and even if the formats are wildly different, his success for the Sydney Sixers and the national side in Twenty20 will be an aid of sorts should he take the new ball at Adelaide Oval.
Among Starc's skills is a penchant for subverting his left-armer's angle by moving round the wicket with the older ball and gaining enough reverse-swing to bend the ball away from right-hand batsmen, when with the new ball they had been wary of it bending back in. In this he shows the influence of Akram, who was fearsome enough with the new ball from over the wicket but often lethal from round it with the old.
"It is sometimes a bit of a spur-of-the-moment thing, a change of angle. I like to do it a lot more in limited-overs cricket towards the death," Starc said. "It doesn't happen as often in four-day cricket for me. I am sticking to over the wicket and hopefully getting that line across the right hander.
"We had it swinging around in the nets yesterday so hopefully we can bring that out into the game, and hopefully get the ball to reverse a bit where it's more abrasive on the drier track. Hopefully the quicks can make full use of the reverse-swing and the conventional swing. We'll do as much as we can to get that ball off the straight."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here