Damned if they rest, damned if they don't
Mitchell Starc was "absolutely shattered" to be rested this week. Of course he was. He felt fine, he had just bowled Australia to victory in Hobart in his breakout Test, and Boxing Day at the MCG is the day on the Australian cricket calendar. He had dreamt of bowling in a Boxing Day Test his whole life. Instead, he was told to sit out because he might get injured. If a player wasn't "shattered" under those circumstances you'd have to question how much the baggy green really meant to him.
But players are not in a position to consider the bigger picture; if they do, they risk losing focus on the here and now, which requires their absolute attention. Just as parents all over Australia tried to convince their children on Christmas Day that a third bowl of ice-cream or handful of chocolates would lead to nausea and regret, John Inverarity and his selection panel face the challenge of convincing players like Starc that missing out can sometimes be good for them.
Look at it from the selectors' point of view. Last summer, they were told by Cricket Australia's sports scientists that James Pattinson would break down during the Sydney Test. He had been Man of the Match a few days earlier in the Boxing Day Test against India, and with the opportunity to take an unbeatable 2-0 series lead they ignored the warnings and played him at the SCG. Pattinson broke down with a stress injury in his foot and was out for the rest of the series.
If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results, the selectors would have been crazy to risk Starc when he entered what Inverarity described as "a high-risk period" due to the amount of bowling he had endured recently. "We don't want a high-risk strategy," Inverarity said this week. With a Test tour of India coming up in February, followed by back-to-back Ashes series, who would?
Remember that Starc is only 22. It is young fast bowlers who are most vulnerable to stress fractures, while older men with more hardened bodies can handle a greater workload. Is it any wonder Pattinson, 22, and Pat Cummins, 19, have caused Australia the most headaches in the past year? At Starc's age, Glenn McGrath had not even made his first-class debut, let alone played for his country 25 times like Starc has across all formats.
Of course, predicting paths is always divisive. Just look at the way the Decision Review System has split opinions in the cricketing world. Can computers be trusted to tell us what a ball would have done? Can sports science be relied upon to foresee an injury? Who knows. But at least Cricket Australia are being proactive and at the rate their fast bowlers have fallen in recent times, they had to try something.
Nor is it disrespectful to Sri Lanka. Yes, Starc bowled the match-winning spell at Bellerive Oval. But were Sri Lanka's batsmen really pleased Starc was sitting out when they were fending off bouncers from his replacement, Mitchell Johnson? The other addition to the attack for this Test was the debutant Jackson Bird, whose first day of bowling for his country was impressively reminiscent of Stuart Clark's incessant, nagging style. Exposing Bird to Test cricket ahead of next year's contests is no bad thing. At the moment, Australia have the bowling depth to allow Starc to rest.
Not that Australia's management of their bowlers has been perfect. In particular, the surfeit of Twenty20 bowling the teenage Cummins was exposed to during the second half of this year, at the World T20 and then the Champions League, was less than ideal for a man who would have featured in Australia's Test summer. He hasn't played a first-class match this summer due to a back stress fracture.
Similarly, Australia will need to be mindful of Starc's workload in all three formats. The coach Mickey Arthur noted during the lead-up to Boxing Day that Starc was the only fast bowler who started in Twenty20, ODIs and Tests. If he is to remain a Test bowler of significant value, perhaps they need to consider whether there is any value in using him in ODIs, a format where few series are of any real consequence.
Resting Starc in the middle of a Test series might not be ideal. As the former fast bowler turned commentator Damien Fleming noted, fast men are not robots that can be switched on and off. There is also the matter of communication; for Starc's confidence, it must be hoped that the selectors stressed to him that he remained in the best XI. Appropriately, Starc will still be paid his match fee for this Test, as Ryan Harris was when he was Man of the Match in Barbados earlier this year then held back from the Trinidad Test that followed.
The merits of resting fast bowlers cannot be judged at this point. But had the selectors ignored the advice of the sports scientists and seen Starc break down, as Pattinson did last summer, they would have appeared negligent. If he plays next week in Sydney and suffers an injury, they will look silly, but it would only highlight the "danger zone" into which Starc's workload had taken him.
Ultimately, if Starc stays fit this summer and contributes in India and England, will anyone care that Johnson and Bird played at the MCG instead of him? With the exception of Starc and his family, probably not. But for now, when it comes to managing fast bowlers, Australia's selectors are damned if they rest them and damned if they don't.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here