Starc among the greatest fast bowlers in ODIs? Most probably

He has all the attributes: pace, bounce, swing, left-arm advantage, yorkers, death bowling, middle-overs wickets, around-the-wicket angle, and more

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Twice in two innings, KL Rahul has faced a hat-trick ball from Mitchell Starc. On both occasions he has walked out following near-perfect deliveries from Starc to Suryakumar Yadav. In the first match, Starc bowled the hat-trick delivery too full. In the second, he nearly repeated the ball that got Suryakumar out.
Rahul kept it out. On the surface it looked like a more accomplished longer-formats batter handling the same ball better than one who is being pushed into the longer formats based on his success in T20s and not in List A or first-class cricket. On closer inspection, though, Suryakumar was done in by a ball that seamed to go with the beautiful swing Starc was getting. The hat-trick ball swung in the air, but didn't change its direction upon pitching.
Not to worry, Rahul got his own version of that Suryakumar ball soon enough. The shortest length with which you can hit the stumps with, swinging in in the air, then pitching and seaming some more to beat the bat, which had hoped to cover the line of the swing. At Starc's pace. If you were teaching a class the meaning of unplayable, you might use that as an illustration.
As Starc himself said, he didn't do much different in these two ODIs. He tried to swing it, he bowled fast, and he attacked the stumps. This direct approach - high pace, hit the stumps - gives him comfortably the best strike rate among bowlers with 100 wickets or more in history of ODI cricket.
When it is swinging and seaming - as it has been this series - Starc is a proper nightmare because he can swing it in a way that it still attacks the stumps. He is one of the only four fast bowlers with 100 wickets or more to have taken more than half of their wickets bowled or lbw. The other three - Waqar Younis, Wasim Akram and Mohammad Sami - benefited heavily from the low Asian pitches and reverse swing, which has been practically regulated out of the game in Starc's time.
With the numbers that Starc has - a strike rate of 25.6, average of 21.78, nine five-fors - it is surely time to see where he sits among the greatest fast bowlers in ODIs. He has all the attributes: pace, bounce, swing, left-arm advantage, yorkers, death bowling, middle-overs wickets, around-the-wicket angle, ability to run through line-ups as seen in the 16 times he has been on a hat-trick, more than anyone since he debuted.
However, ODIs are the toughest to compare players across eras because of how much the playing conditions and the tempo of the game keep changing. Starc has played most of his ODI cricket with reverse-swing practically non-existent, on high-scoring pitches with good bounce, but he also has bowled to more trigger-happy batters needing to score quicker and thus taking more risks. That he has taken only 219 wickets can be an argument against him, but if he plays such little ODI cricket, he plays only the "important" tournaments and series, which reduces matches against outmatched opponents.
One way to contextualise Starc among the greats of the format is to see how much better he is than the average bowler of his era. Shiva Jayaraman from ESPNcricinfo's stats team worked these numbers out for me. Starc averages 9.59 less than the average of fast bowlers in the matches he has played. Among those who have taken 100 wickets or more in ODIs, nine fast bowlers have fared better on this metric. Two of these are not full-time bowlers, which might suggest theirs being used only in seam-friendly conditions, thus skewing that number.
The leaves us with seven: Jasprit Bumrah, Shaun Pollock, Glenn McGrath, Josh Hazlewood, Joel Garner, Nathan Bracken and Curtly Ambrose. Bumrah's numbers are phenomenal: an average 16.56 lower than the average of fast bowlers in matches he has played, and an economy rate 1.17 lower.
Starc doesn't quite do that much better than the others on the economy rate front because of the highly aggressive lengths he bowls in order to get the bowleds and lbws. The flip side is the exceptional strike rate. Those traditional stats - average, strike rate - and that he is so much better than the others in his era should be enough to put him among a handful of the greatest fast bowlers in ODI cricket. Once he is back from injury and adds to his body of work, Bumrah could just end up right alongside Starc.
The only argument against Starc can be the volume. However, he has topped the wickets chart in both the World Cups he has played. He won one, and ended up a semi-finalist in the other. How much Starc wants to add to the volume of wickets will probably be decided after the World Cup later this year, but if he has a similar World Cup to the last two, there will be very little keeping him from being recognised as the greatest of all time.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo