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Should Australia turn to new-ball Starc for Afghanistan match?

Fast bowler has mostly operated in the middle overs but with hosts seeking big win, change could be needed

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Mitchell Starc hasn't taken the new ball too often this T20 World Cup  •  ICC/Getty Images

Mitchell Starc hasn't taken the new ball too often this T20 World Cup  •  ICC/Getty Images

Mitchell Starc marks his spot, runs in, gathers and gallops with the easy elegance of a gazelle, making it look like a work of nature rather than an art form honed over a career. The ball flies through to the other end in front of an expectant Gabba crowd, whacking Lorcan Tucker on the pads, shaping in as it does so. The extra swing, so often the quiver in his arrow, ends up saving the Irishman with the ball heading down leg.
But there's no such redemption for Curtis Campher next ball. This one is started just right, shaping away from off stump before bending back in and, like a Roberto Carlos free kick, ending up in the perfect spot where there's no keeping it out. There's no redemption for George Dockrell either, a carbon copy of the earlier one hitting timber. Ireland are reeling, their chase realistically over before it has even begun. It's that quintessential white-ball sight - Starc's inswinging first-over yorkers wreaking havoc.
Except it isn't. It is indeed Starc's first over, but three bowlers have had a go before Australia turned to him. He still manages to find swing this time, but with so many sides this T20 World Cup finding prodigious sideways movement that swiftly dries up, it's perhaps odd to see arguably the world's best exponent of the inswinging yorker not given the chance to fully optimise that advantage.
But this is the role Australia have assigned to a player his captain, Aaron Finch, called "as good as anyone with the new ball of all time". There is value to delaying Starc's usage, but it's hard to escape the sense that a Starc at his best would bowl any T20 innings' first ball, no matter what notional advantages other bowlers might offer. Until the end of 2019, he'd only ever not bowled either of the first two overs twice in his T20I career, and it was fairly obvious why. In the Powerplay he'd conceded just 305 runs in 330 balls with the fielding restrictions, taking 17 wickets at 17.94. Few captains could ask for more from a premier quick bowler.
But the Starc of the past three years hasn't quite been the bowler seared so indelibly into cricketing perceptions. In T20I cricket, his economy rate and average have risen sharply in every phase, with his T20I Powerplay economy rate moving north to 7.28.
"I think it's been a really good ploy for Starc not to open the bowling. His record the last 12-18 months with the new ball is less than flattering," said Ricky Ponting. "And we all talk about how dangerous he is with the brand new ball and bowling the first over and trying to get early wickets but the facts are he actually hasn't been able to do that. But what they've done with using him outside the first couple of overs and through the middle has actually worked a treat."
"It's obviously something new. Yeah, I generally obviously take the first over and see if it's swinging. I still feel like the role is to take wickets."
Mitchell Starc on bowling in the middle overs
In the only game this tournament where he took the new ball, Finn Allen laid into the first ball he bowled full, dispatching it over mid-on, forcing Starc to pull his length back. In that same over, he had length deliveries smashed for another four and six.
All that in a tournament that has otherwise seen the first three overs of Powerplays negotiated with relative timidity. The first half of the Powerplay tends to see fewer runs scored anyway, but that effect has been exacerbated in Australia at this tournament, with just 6.17 runs scored per over. The second half of the Powerplay sees that go up to 7.
And when Starc's been used as first or second change this tournament, his performance during the fielding restrictions has seen an eye-catching uptick. He's conceded runs at just 5.25 an over, an improvement even on pre-2020 Starc. According to Finch, though, it's the option to have Starc, and his lethal yorker, in the middle overs that makes it so tempting for Australia to hold the left-armer back.
"We feel as though he's got a really important role through the middle part of the innings," Finch said. "If you don't get wickets through that middle phase of the game, you are incredibly vulnerable at the back end regardless of who is bowling. You could have the best two ever, and if you've got two set batters then it's going to be difficult to contain them. It's been a change in Mitch's role to be pushing harder through those middle overs and towards the back end of the Powerplay so that we can try and get a wicket there to expose a middle order. That's the only reason for it."
And it isn't as if Starc doesn't attack during those middle overs. His economy in this time may have worsened, but nailing that yorker is as effective at containment as wicket-taking. Since 2020, he has bowled 22 middle-over yorkers that leaked just ten runs, more than Trent Boult and Jasprit Bumrah in this phase of the game combined. He bowls a yorker about once every nine deliveries during the middle overs, well in excess of what Boult and Bumrah, two of the most effective exponents of this skill, manage. If Finch wants Starc to look for wickets in the middle overs, that's precisely the game plan he follows.
Finch was diplomatic about the reason for the change, even if the underlying logic holds. "The fact that his role has slightly changed isn't a reflection on anything else apart from just restructuring the Powerplay and then probably the first 10 overs actually trying to continue to press for wickets so it just comes down to trying to navigate that 20 overs as best we can."
However, at his heart, Starc is a swing bowler, and after that Ireland game, his comments didn't need much reading between the lines to make his preferences fairly obvious.
"It's obviously something new. Yeah, I generally obviously take the first over and see if it's swinging. It generally doesn't outside of the first two overs of the Powerplay if it does swing. It's a new role. It's obviously something that began in that game against England in Canberra, and it's sort of a role that Finchy and Ronnie [Australia Head Coach Andrew McDonald] want me to play through the middle there with [Adam] Zampa.
"The lengths probably have to change, and it's probably not going to swing outside those couple of overs. I still feel like the role is to take wickets. Just at different times and through different partnerships with different matchups, I guess."
But with Australia needing a big win against Afghanistan in Adelaide on Friday to keep their semi-final hopes intact, Starc's ability to blast out an opposition could yet lure his team to turn to their yorker specialist for a vintage performance. "It would be nice to know going into a game whether it was going to swing or not," Finch smiled. "That would make things much easier with selection. We'll discuss all options leading in."
Starc knows what option he'd take in a format where high reward almost invariably comes with high risk. Starc's new tunes have plenty going for them, but just this once, the Adelaide Oval might rather hear the classics.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000