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Cricket news - How Mitchell Starc got back his smile again
Mitchell Starc has got his smile back. And when Starcy's smiling, Australian cricket is smiling with him. For, it generally is a sign that he's bowling at his best. And that generally means that Australia are winning Test matches. And then the smile only gets wider, like it has over the last two weeks, firstly at the Gabba and certainly at the Adelaide Oval.
It can't be easy being Mitchell Starc though. For, you're always expected to be at your best, and therefore smiling. That best again ends up being very subjective and its extent very varied. Being among the best, if not the best, in the world with the white-ball only acts as a bugbear whenever his record with the red or pink ball is up for appraisal. And it's actually a very decent Test record too.
Starc sits currently at 5th in the all-time list of best strike-rates in Test cricket for those with over 200 wickets. Only Dale Steyn, Waqar Younis, Allan Donald and Malcolm Marshall, among the more successful bowlers in history, took wickets more frequently than Starc has in his 54 Tests so far. Yet, way too often, there's a feeling about Starc the Test bowler that he's just not at his best. That he's just not doing well enough, at times even when he is.
There is also no dearth of theories about why Starc simply cannot establish himself as a credible threat in Test cricket despite being a certified badass with the ball in the shorter formats. On the back of a disappointing series against India for the left-arm pacer last summer, Australian captain Tim Paine had his own when he said, "when he's at his best he's brilliant, when he's not, he's not so much." Paine then had conceded, however, what we're trying to broach here saying, "I think Starcy is one of those bowlers, I don't know what people expect from him."
It was pretty clear what Paine and the team management expected of Starc when they were in England for the Ashes though. They wanted him to be more consistent. They wanted him to be more accurate. They wanted him to make sure he sticks to the team plan of choking the trigger-happy English batsmen up.
They wanted him not to be the potential leak in their otherwise seemingly watertight strategy. And not many were surprised when the 29-year-old left-armer, who'd led the attack in the previous two Ashes campaigns - home and away - was benched for the first three Tests of the series. And every time his omission was brought up, both Paine and Justin Langer were rather candid about how it's control they sought from him and how he was working really hard at getting it behind the scenes. Maybe in a way, it was perhaps the best opportunity for Starc to get a little more control over his Test career itself.
Though he did show glimpses of it during his only appearance during the series in Manchester, what Starc achieved during the two months in England following the World Cup was debunk a longstanding theory about him. For way too long, his detractors have cited him as being a fair-weather player who doesn't want the ball in his hands at times when things aren't going his way.
And if that were true, it's likely that Starc would have lost his smile during the Ashes. But he didn't. He was there every practice session, every game day, working away at his game. And even at times during the Old Trafford Test when he didn't seem to be sticking to the game-plan, he never looked not keen on running in at full tilt and trying.
It was in this quest to gain more control over his rudder and radar that Starc also ended up making the subtle yet significant adjustment to his load-up at the point of delivery. As he would reveal on Sunday (December 1), he'd decided to tinker with it after an unsatisfactory outing in the opening Sheffield Shield encounter at the Gabba, where he managed a solitary wicket in 39 overs across both innings.
"I tinkered with it in the one training session between the first and second Shield game and had a training session at the SCG before the Drummoyne game and just felt like things weren't happening quickly enough or in the right positions through the Gabba Shield game.
"I just felt like the changes put me in a position earlier to get myself in better positions and be quite snappy at the crease. It wasn't a very big change but just got me in better positions earlier to do what I wanted to do and it seems to be more consistent as well," he said at the end of the third day after having picked up his best figures of 6/66 on Australian soil."
What Starc refers to as a mere "tinkering" is a lot more when you break it down. On the face of it, he's made an alteration in how far high he takes his left-hand when he loads-up his bowling action to deliver the ball. So he's gone from starting the loading with the ball somewhere over his head to now starting from closer to his left ear.
He does it by pushing his elbow back slightly, and what it's meant is his bowling arm is completing a smaller angle of rotation before releasing the ball and therefore not only allowing him to power through the action more but also in his own words give him more authority over charting the ball's course. Starc finished with match figures of 10/60 in that game at Drumyonne Oval and the altered action was here to stay.
"I think that how I bowled in the Gabba game (against Queensland) was probably a result of that, I felt like things were going slowly, I was more focused on trying to be consistent rather than still run in and bowl at a good pace. So finding a happy medium there was probably what resulted in now the little technical change to still get myself in positions where I'm more compact and less can go wrong in terms of the lines and lengths I want to bowl, which is what we spoke a fair bit about in the UK tour," he said.
That Starc has managed to do so in such a short period of time is rather remarkable according to a number of fast bowlers past and present who've seen him do so. To fathom the enormity of this "slight" alteration, just think of a routine activity, where your body gets into position involuntarily without you having to put any thought into it. Like say pedaling a bike. Now imagine for some reason you had to make a minor adjustment to it, and now rather than letting the body do it subconsciously, you have to give it a thought every time.
For, fast bowling - the entire action from the top of the run-up - is all about muscle memory and the last thing you want to be doing while running in to bowl at full speed is to think about whether your arm and wrist are in the position you desire. You want to instead be focused on what you want to make happen at the other end. And that Starc has managed to make the transition so seamless within a month, and with great success already at Test level, is perhaps on par with the dramatic success of David Warner with bat in hand this summer.
"The bowling group was heavily focused on economy rates and hitting a really good length for a long amount of time, which the guys did phenomenally well throughout the Ashes. So something I worked a fair bit on in the nets over there, but coming back to Australia, in that first game perhaps dropped a little bit of pace being too heavily on that, so now it is a bit of that focus along with still trying to have a bit of air speed focus as well," he explained further.
And more than being the most successful bowler of the Test series so far with 14 at 14.35 apiece or consistently the quickest or even the bowler that captain Paine sought out the most on an untoward Day 3 in Adelaide, what pleased Starc the most is the fact that he was by far the most economical of the three fast bowlers in Pakistan's first innings - going at 2.64 as compared to Cummins's economy of 3.66 and Hazlewood's 3.43. For, it sums up his transformation.
No wonder he had a beaming smile at the end of the day. No wonder Australia's Test team seems to be in a happier place. No wonder nobody's proposing theories about how Starc could be better.
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