A woman can’t see her own bindi. This despite it being the one bit of ornamentation that is closest to her eyes. In much the same way, Australia have a glaring blind spot. They are looking high and low for the perfect all-rounder, one who will be able to share the workload of the quick bowlers, and add some runs down the order. What they don’t see, is that they already have one.
Australia tried to make Shane Watson the answer to both batting and bowling problems; like using one band-aid to cover two wounds. Then they anointed Mitchell Marsh as the next big thing. They even flirted with James Faulkner and most recently, Hilton Cartwright. They only picked Glen Maxwell for this tour because he can bowl some off spin.
But as Mitchell Starc showed on Thursday, they already have the missing link they are seeking.
I was in Australia in December last year when Starc made 84 against Pakistan at the MCG. It was after that innings that I said to the friend who was with me, that Australia already have a fast bowling all-rounder; they just don’t know it yet. After Starc helped the visitors to respectability in Pune, I felt convinced enough to put it in digital ink.
Starc the batsman is, in a way, like Alistair Cook. He is organized in his defence, makes good use of his height, and has a few pet shots which he uses to maximum effect. Most other deliveries, he is happy to keep out or leave alone. Unlike Cook, his pet shots are not the one you will find in most text books, because the words cow corner probably don’t appear there. Cow corner, or between long on and deep midwicket, is exactly where Starc likes to hit.
Have a look at his wagon wheel. Of his 61 runs, 24 of them came in that area. All three of his sixes and two of his five boundaries came from there. In every other zone, he has single digit presence. But Starc is not all slog. Ask Umesh Yadav, who watched the ball shoot past him through mid off when he pitched one up. Ask India of 2014, where Starc got his highest test score of 99 at Mohali.
In this excellent article, Sanjay Manjrekar argued with terrific clarity that great all-rounders happen by accident. The four most famous all-rounders, he said, Kapil Dev, Richard Hadlee, Imran Khan and Ian Botham started their careers as pure bowlers, but as their batting developed, became all-round legends. Another point he made, was that all good all-rounders should walk into the team on a single discipline; contribution in the other is a welcome bonus. A player who ‘does a bit of both’ does not fit the bill in Test cricket. He was referring specifically to Moeen Ali. India have had similar experiences with Stuart Binny.
Starc is one of the world’s best bowlers, his role in the side is clear cut. Yet he has never been a pushover with the bat. On Test debut against New Zealand, he scored an unbeaten 32 off 54 balls at number 10. He got his first Test half century in just his eighth inning. His recent performances add even more weight to his case. In his last five innings, he has passed fifty thrice. He even averages and strikes more (25.79 at 69.47) than the current first choice all-rounder, Mitchell Marsh (22.5 at 53.2).
Thursday’s innings will probably mean a lot to Starc. He gained bragging rights over most of his teams batsmen, and showed that the pitch did not deserve the flak it copped on social media. He also crossed 1000 runs in Test cricket. His partnership with Josh Hazlewood (55 runs, Starc 53, Hazlewood 1), second highest after the opening partnership, showed that he has the skills to farm the strike, an essential quality in an all-rounder who will often bat with the tail. He negotiated the new ball. He managed to survive the short ball. He used his feet against the spinners.
The value of his runs was multiplied by the pace at which he scored them. His 61 runs come off 63 balls. On day one, his team scored at 2.72 RPO in the innings, but the last 10 overs, in which he was at the crease saw runs come at 4.5 RPO. It was almost the kind of role that Adam Gilchrist played for Australia, offering a counter-attack at a stage most bowling sides are making inroads.
Should Australia allow Starc to grow into an all-rounder, there are two aspects to consider. The upside is naturally the options it would allow them. In place of Mitchell Marsh, they could play an extra batsman, considering the premium runs will be at on this tour. If need be, Maxwell could come in as the spin bowling all-rounder. A third seamer could be played when conditions demand one. The downside is that Starc’s workload may potentially increase; should he bat higher up the order, recovery time will be lower.
Starc has had his fair share of injuries — he recently pulled out of the IPL on the advice of the CA medical staff — and CA have been keen to bubble-wrap him in the recent past. But those are the pitfalls of professional cricket.
I’m calling it now. Starc will end up as a genuine all-rounder by the time he hangs up his boots. When will Australia see it though?
The writer is a former India and Maharashtra cricketer and now a freelance journalist. She tweets @SnehalPradhan