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Mitchell Starc thunders in to save Australia’s misfiring batsmen again

The Guardian logo The Guardian 13/06/2019 Geoff Lemon

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For the second time in two World Cup wins, Mitchell Starc was the saviour for Australia. At Taunton on Wednesday, Pakistan had looked to have no chance to chase 308 when they slipped to 160 for six but from there the lower-order resistance from the captain, Sarfaraz Ahmed, and his big-hitting bowlers Hasan Ali and Wahab Riaz had built momentum. By the time Pakistan needed 54 from 48 balls, with Wahab well set on 39, it felt irresistible.

Enter Starc, first tying things up with a tight over conceding three runs, then bursting past Wahab with pace to draw the faintest nick that was picked up on a review. Pace again did for the more than adept Mohammad Amir to force an edge on to the batsman’s stumps. Starc finished with two for 43 and the match swung from nearly lost to nearly won in the space of four balls.

It was the second time Australia’s disjointed batting order had failed to fire only for Starc to bail them out. This may seem harsh given a glance at the eventual score but an opening stand of 146 in 22 overs could have led to a score closer to 400.

Once Aaron Finch was dismissed for 82, wickets fell regularly enough to peg Australia back. Glenn Maxwell was sent in to attack, and did, but not for long enough. And you couldn’t escape the conclusion that Australia were trying to hide Usman Khawaja, as he was shuffled further and further down the order.

a crowd of people watching a football ball: Australia’s Mitchell Starc dismissed Pakistan’s Wahab Riaz and Mohammad Amir to swing the match from nearly lost to nearly won in the space of four balls. © ProSports/REX/Shutterstock Australia’s Mitchell Starc dismissed Pakistan’s Wahab Riaz and Mohammad Amir to swing the match from nearly lost to nearly won in the space of four balls. In his entire career of 50-over cricket, international and domestic, Khawaja has batted at No 5 once, a decade ago. He had never batted at No 6. Yet No 6 is where he ended up in this match. He is a fine top-order player who no longer has a place, now David Warner is opening and Steve Smith is preferred at first drop. Neither Khawaja nor Shaun Marsh is the batsman you need coming in to blast fast runs in the dying overs.

So while Australia made a score, they spurned a chance to bat their opponents out of the match. By failing to do so, they left themselves vulnerable. Even with Pakistan conceding a lot of runs early on, dropping multiple catches and throwing away their best set batsmen, they still nearly won.

Starc had equally saved the day against West Indies last Thursday, when an even less imposing score of 288 should have been easy fodder for one of the world’s most powerful batting lineups. Instead the match was swung by Starc, first by an early removal of the game’s least subtle bludgeoner, Chris Gayle, then by a late triple strike that took out Andre Russell, Jason Holder and Carlos Brathwaite. Australia had no right to win that match but Starc doesn’t stand on ceremony.

Four years ago, Starc was a force of nature. He seared through batting lineups, taking five-wicket hauls in five of his first 35 one-day matches. The last of those was his six-wicket haul against New Zealand in Auckland in a World Cup pool match, when he nearly won the unwinnable match in trying to defend 151.

Too much was left to him that day, but he was the decisive bowler in a replay against New Zealand in that year’s World Cup final. He rampaged through those few heady weeks for 22 wickets at a cost of just over 10 runs apiece and was appropriately named player of the tournament.

Things didn’t flow quite as easily in the years since. The five-wicket bags disappeared, with his next after Auckland 2015 not coming until that match against West Indies last week. Over the two years before this World Cup, Starc cobbled together only 10 ODIs while battling through various injuries. Often by the end of a Test series he needed rest and management before the next.

But now, Starc has been unleashed in the middle format of the game. If the thesis was that he flourishes on the biggest stage, then 2019 has already provided a formidable suite of additional evidence. While the Australians battle to work out what’s going on in the rest of their team, they at least have one selection that brooks no doubt whatsoever. And if that one pick keeps winning them games, perhaps the rest won’t matter.

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