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'Hopefully there's a bit more left in the journey' - Mitchell Starc wants to keep those magic deliveries coming

The fast bowler has prioritised Test cricket for years now and is four away from taking 300 wickets in the format

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
Mitchell Starc is four wickets away from being the seventh Australian to 300 in Tests  •  Getty Images

Mitchell Starc is four wickets away from being the seventh Australian to 300 in Tests  •  Getty Images

Mitchell Starc has the chance to bring up a significant landmark at the scene of where his Test career started and where he produced one of his most iconic moments.
A little over a year ago, he swung the first ball of the Ashes back behind Rory Burns' pads to take leg stump. England were probably never going to win that series (Bazball was still six months away from being first uttered) but it was even more unlikely after that opening delivery. Now, as Starc prepares to face South Africa, he is four wickets away from being the seventh Australian to 300 in Tests.
"I'm not sure I'd get one wicket let alone 300," he said on Thursday. "It's been an interesting but very enjoyable journey. Hopefully there's a bit more left in it."
The Burns ball is a useful reference point, not just because of the wicket itself, but because not for the first time Starc had entered the season with some questions hanging over him. Since then he has been Australia's only frontline quick to play in every Test, a medal of honour for his durability as a three-format bowler even factoring in the break he gives himself by continuing to ignore the IPL.
"It's not been great for the back pocket, [but] it certainly helped my body," he said. "If I look at the last couple of years of Test cricket, that decision has certainly helped it. They've probably been my most consistent couple of years in Test cricket."
Australia were never realistically going to leave Starc out of the start of that Ashes, but his 2020-21 season against India had been underwhelming - all the quicks ran out of steam by the Gabba - and the cancellation of the South Africa tour due to Covid left his form as a somewhat unanswered topic.
But it wasn't too long before that when Starc had been left out - for four Tests of the 2019 Ashes as Australia went for a horses-for-courses approach in English conditions. The one match he played, at Old Trafford, Australia won to retain the urn after the shock of Headingley.
In a way, it's hard to believe that Starc's form - and the question of whether he has been the most vulnerable quick in the side - has been part of so much of his career. He's someone who can bowl left-arm at 145kph with late swing. There have been peaks and troughs as with almost any cricketer, but after settling into Test cricket, his year-by-year returns have been remarkably consistent. Last season he was named the Allan Border Medallist.
Starc himself, though, picks out a turning point dating back to 2018 when he decided to stop listening to what was said about him. The numbers since suggest it may have helped, and certainly hasn't hindered: from the start of the 2018-19 season, Starc averages 25.60 in Tests compared to 28.52 before then.
"He's had a lot of ups and downs which I think just makes you stronger as a cricketer and as a person in general. He doesn't listen to much of the white noise."
Usman Khawaja on Mitchell Starc
"I was someone who listened to and read everything," he said. "And then that year we had multiple broadcasters start, everyone coming in with radio and whatever, that's when it really doubled down on the noise and it really got away from [me]. That's where I learnt best to let things go and only worry about the groups that mattered most to me. That was a point where it changed a fair bit, where I chose not to read things and it's continued on where it doesn't matter."
There is also the general maturing and growing up that has gone on over the years. Along with that, in more recent times there have been some technical tweaks including the introduction of a wobble-seam delivery and greater overall control. But he has never lost that ability to bowl a magic delivery, as witnessed by the ball to take out Jason Holder's off stump in Adelaide.
Usman Khawaja has seen Starc's career from up close, both as a team-mate and as a domestic opponent. They played grade cricket together and were at Australia's academy at the same time - "I thought, this guy's got something special that can actually take them next level," Khawaja recalled - then he was part of New South Wales when Starc made his Sheffield Shield debut in 2009 and also his Test debut against New Zealand at the Gabba in 2011.
"I saw him when he was a youngster … I saw him in the dumps in 2nd XI and then he debuted at the end of the year. [He was a] very emotional young kid and he knows that, I always give him a bit of stick about that," Khawaja said. "I give him stick because it's nice to see the journey. He always had the skills but it was more about what was going up there for him which is a lot of the case for all international players and he's found a way through it.
"He's had a lot of ups and downs which I think just makes you stronger as a cricketer and as a person in general. He doesn't listen to much of the white noise. He knows what he has to do. He's actually got a lot more skills now than before. He just used to try to swing it and when the ball stopped swinging he really didn't have much else. Now he can swing it in, bowl wobble seam, he's got a lot more accuracy."
Starc's technical changes, which he said came from a lot of knowledge sharing between himself, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, have come about at a time where he has focused more on long-form cricket even while remaining a key part of the ODI side and returning to being a T20 regular, albeit controversially omitted at the end of the recent World Cup. During the England ODI series that followed, Starc reiterated that Test cricket remains far out in front for him. He will, sooner rather than later, shelve a format but it won't be this one.
But however much success Starc continues to have in Test cricket, there is one part of the story that will never have a conclusion: whether he and Shane Warne could have made peace. Warne was one of Starc's fiercest critics, and often believed it helped motivate a player, but in an interview with News Corp shortly before his death, which was unpublished at the time, he said it was never personal with Starc and he hoped to be able to share a beer.
"It's part of cricket, you're going to have your critics and everyone is entitled to have an opinion," Starc said. "The disappointing part or the sad part is that we never got to have that conversation. I guess we'll never know."

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo