New-ball game: The numbers behind Starc’s T20 role shift

The most iconic moments of Mitchell Starc’s career have come with a fresh Kookaburra in his hand but Australia’s T20 title defense may rest on their spearhead’s ability to adapt on the fly to a significantly altered role.

This year’s World Cup may be one of the most friendly to swing and seam bowlers, yet Starc has been conspicuously away from the top of his mark at the beginning Australia’s bowling innings for their last two matches.

The Aussies’ shift in strategy was first put into action in Canberra only 10 days out from their first match of the tournament during a bilateral series against England.

In crude terms, it sees fellow quicks Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins used upfront and Starc instead deployed towards the back-end of the Powerplay, and then as a wicket-taker through the middle overs.

“It’s obviously something new,” Starc told reporters after Australia’s 42-run win over Ireland. “I generally take the first over and see if it’s swinging.

“It’s a new role – it’s something that began in that game against England in Canberra. It’s a role that Finchy and Ronnie (coach Andrew McDonald) want me to play through the middle there with (leg-spinner Adam) Zampa.”

Captain Aaron Finch has labeled Starc Australia’s “defensive-attacking option”.

“Mitchell Starc’s had a really different role to what he’s had for the last 10 years,” Finch explained. “He is bowling almost three (overs) through the middle phase of the innings, whereas in the past he was generally two up front and two at the death exclusively.”

As Finch noted, Starc has traditionally been a new-ball bowler. Prior to the tactical shift last month, Starc had bowled the first or second over of Australia’s bowling innings in all but two of his 55 T20 Internationals, with the exceptions coming back eight years ago when Australia opened with spin.

The left-armer has been thrown the new cherry for good reason; his knack of knocking over openers before they are set has not just been a desirable trait – it has shaped his very identity as a cricketer.

When his career is over, the clean-bowleds of Kiwi kingpin Brendon McCullum in the 2015 ODI World Cup final and of Rory Burns at the Gabba last year will be the first memories springing to fans’ minds when they remember one of this generation’s most dangerous swing bowlers.

Both wickets came in the first over of the match. Burns’ was in the first over of the Ashes.

In fact, no bowler has taken more first-over ODI wickets in the history of the format than Starc (19 times) while he has done it more times in Tests (13) than anyone else since the beginning of 2014.

His skittling of Curtis Campher and George Dockrell with a still-shifting ball in Ireland’s fourth over of Australia’s win at the Gabba on Monday was a familiar sight.

Finch, Stoinis fire in crucial win over Ireland

However, recent numbers suggest that performance is fast becoming an outlier – underlining why Australia have made the tweak.

Prior to the Ireland game, Starc had taken just one wicket in the Powerplay since last year’s World Cup. Since the start of 2020, his strike-rate in the first six overs of a T20Is is 26.73 and his economy rate 7.29.

Before that, those marks had been at 19.67 and 5.64 respectively.

But although there is a clear recognition that the new-ball prowess that once defined Starc as a cricketer may have diminished somewhat, Australia have also identified that the 32-year-old might have developed some new strengths.

Since the end of the last World Cup, two-thirds of all of Starc’s T20I Powerplay deliveries have been dot balls. No bowler over that period has a higher percentage of balls not scored off.

That is an invaluable skill given teams generally look to score heavily during the first six overs of T20 innings when only two fielders are permitted outside the inner ring.

It also highlights his versatility, with Starc explaining he is now targeting the stumps less and tending to bowl shorter.”I’ve probably had to change a little bit, particularly in the Powerplay,” said Starc. “I’m obviously someone who bowls a bit fuller than Pat and Josh, that’s probably a result of looking for that swing in the first over or two.

“With the ball not swinging at the back end of a Powerplay, that’s something I have to adjust with conditions.”

Despite the change, Australia have clearly not forgotten Starc’s penchant for striking in big moments with the new ball.

Against New Zealand, he bowled the first over, going full and at the stumps. There was little movement and Finn Allen carted him for 14. While Australia have since admitted they erred tactically in that match, it shows there remains an opening for Starc to get the new ball.

“We’ve got Josh and Pat who are a fantastic across formats with the new ball as well,” said Starc.

“I think it’s a positive that we’ve got plenty of options. It may not be my only role, it may not be Josh and Pat’s only role. We could change with different conditions, different opponents, whatever the matchups may be.

“That seems to be my role at the moment, and I’ll just keep developing that.”

– with Josh Schonafinger

Men’s T20 World Cup 2022

Australia squad: Ashton Agar, Pat Cummins, Tim David, Aaron Finch (c), Cameron Green, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Kane Richardson, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Marcus Stoinis, Matthew Wade, David Warner, Adam Zampa

Australia’s fixtures

Oct 22: Lost to New Zealand by 89 runs

Oct 25: Beat Sri Lanka by seven wickets

Oct 28: Match abandoned v England

Oct 31: Beat Ireland by 42 runs

Nov 4: v Afghanistan, Adelaide Oval, 7pm AEDT

Click here for the full 2022 T20 World Cup fixtures

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