Starc right to call Warne's bluff
It is one thing to stand up for a team-mate. Quite another to do so when the antagonist happens to be Shane Warne.
Though he remains some way short of ripening as a Test match bowler, there is a lot to like about Mitchell Starc. On the field he is capable of delivering the unplayable ball, as Alviro Petersen and Jacques Kallis discovered to their discomfort in Perth. Off it, he is also capable of delivering impassioned defences of his team-mates, a quality that will not go unnoticed by the pair of fellow bowlers subject to much scrutiny over the past week. If Starc is not yet capable of bowling as a team man all the time, he has certainly spoken as one.
When Warne drummed up effortless publicity for the Twenty20 Big Bash League by trotting out the line that at 43 he was more than good enough to walk straight back into Australia's Test team, media and public enthusiasm for the ageing legspinner's loose talk was such to make incumbent Nathan Lyon feel a little unwanted. While Lyon and Michael Clarke have formed a strong and very healthy relationship, Australia's captain could not help but fuel the fire by admitting that he had wished and asked for a Warne comeback many times.
As the debate swirled, Starc weighed in with the following words about Warne at a press conference ahead of the Sydney Sixers' opening BBL fixture on Saturday. "He's done his time," Starc said, with a smile but a firm tone. "He's obviously done a lot of great things for Australian cricket, but he's done and dusted now, and Nathan Lyon's the spinner. We're all backing Nathan to do his job and if Shane Warne wants to come out of retirement and give it a crack, good luck to him."
Starc's response to the Warne question was as refreshing for its defence of Lyon's place in as it was for siding with reality against the hot-air hype of the BBL's opening week. That it was subsequently written up and spoken of as disrespectful to Warne was unfair on Starc, who had shown the temerity to assure Lyon that amid the madness there were plenty who felt he was doing just fine, and learning fast, as Australia's No. 1 spinner. The way the Melbourne Renegades batsmen tucked into Warne's bowling on opening night of the BBL did not hurt Lyon's case, either.
Starc has now discarded Sixers pink for the grey-green of Australia's training kit in Hobart as the Test team prepared for Sri Lanka. Chief among the team's concerns ahead of the series is the readiness of Ben Hilfenhaus to be both yeoman and wicket-taker, after he wrestled with technical bad habits against South Africa and found himself out of the team for a WACA Test match that would normally be ideal for his persistent away swing.
The question posed to Starc about Hilfenhaus after training was innocuous enough, merely hinting at the struggles the Tasmanian bowler has gone through in trying to relocate his best method after it was warped somewhat by the conflicting demands of T20 matches in India and South Africa. Nevertheless, Starc's response was pugnacious, even if he might be the bowler to benefit by inclusion should Hilfenhaus be ruled unready to return.
"Hilfy's a class bowler, and I'm sure he'll come out and go well again," Starc said. "If Hilfy doesn't come out and take five-for, someone's on his back, so he's going to bowl well. You can't just pick on one performance after one match, he's a class bowler, he's getting himself right to go and I'm sure he'll prepare well for this Test. If he gets chosen he'll do a great job again."
In this case, Starc's defence was more passionate than measured, as it is true that Hilfenhaus had two matches against South Africa to prove himself, before he was sidelined for reasons of injury, fatigue or form, depending on who you ask. But it will no doubt be a tonic for Hilfenhaus that Starc is in his corner not only with ball in hand but microphone at chin.
As Australia seek to build a formidable team culture without the bulwark provided for so long by Ricky Ponting, Starc's fire will be valued so long as it continues to be directed with the sort of focus he demonstrated in defence of Lyon and Hilfenhaus. Starc can still be prone to costly lapses with the ball, as shown on day two of the Perth Test. But he has demonstrated that his heart is where it should be. In the increasingly mercenary T20 age, that is not a quality to be taken for granted.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here