Mitchell Starc was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year for 2023. Daniel Cherny’s piece on Starc originally appeared in the 2024 edition of Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack.

The Five Cricketers of the Year represent a tradition that dates back in Wisden to 1889, making this the oldest individual award in cricket. The Five are picked by the editor, and the selection is based, primarily but not exclusively, on the players’ excellence in and/or influence on the previous English season. No one can be chosen more than once.

If only Mitchell Starc had asked the question earlier. Despite having seen his partners-in-crime, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, wreak havoc with the wobble seam, Starc was content for a long time with an artillery of ferocious pace and swing. Fair enough, too. By mid-2019, he had already claimed over 200 Test wickets, and taken two World Cups by storm. Yet, left out for all bar one of that year’s Ashes Tests as the selectors prioritised economy, he had reached a crossroads. And so he started dabbling with the wobble seam, parting his fingers further than normal; as a left-armer, it wasn’t as simple as mirroring the grip of Cummins and Hazlewood.

“It was more in my release point, which in turn helped my swing,” he says. “I found I needed to be really tall at release to get it to wobble or nip around. That helped my swinging ball swing a bit later. I’ve played enough now to quickly know the little differences in feel or in my action, or when I’m dropping a little bit – as opposed to only seeing it after a session.”

The work paid off. Already one of Australia’s most potent quicks, Starc improved his Test average after the 2019 Ashes, taking 118 wickets at 26 in the next four years. But, at the start of last summer, there were still doubts about whether his high-risk, high-reward game would stand up in the UK, where his red-ball record had been modest. An expensive outing at The Oval in the World Test Championship final against India meant he was bypassed for the Ashes opener at Edgbaston. Could Australia risk fielding a player who, faced by a Bazball onslaught, might leak runs? And yet, recalled for the Second Test at Lord’s, Starc silenced the knockers, ending an epic series as the leading wicket-taker on either side, with 23 at 27. During a rollercoaster tussle in which even Cummins and Hazlewood were whacked around, Starc’s ability to strike every 33 balls was pivotal in ensuring Australia retained the urn.

In fact, he wonders whether England’s up-tempo style actually helped him: “Maybe the whole Bazball stuff played into the fact that I don’t really look at economy rates.” Conceding 4.86 an over, he was only fractionally more costly than Hazlewood, and meaner than the usually frugal Scott Boland. In any case, Starc kept taking wickets: even while leaking more than five an over at The Oval, he picked up eight. And despite a reputation for bowling well both with the new ball and against the tail, he troubled England’s middle order, removing Harry Brook, Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow three times each.

“My role has always been to be a little more aggressive, to bowl a bit fuller, which goes for runs but can create more opportunities,” he says. “Hopefully the ’23 tour is reflected in the wickets I could take for the group, instead of being heavily focused on saving runs.” His best performance came at Leeds, where he took 5-78 in England’s run-chase, as Australia fell narrowly short of taking a 3-0 lead. It was the complete Starc, combining swing and wobble seam with dangerous variety in length – a virtuoso performance that may never get its due because it came in a losing cause.

MITCHELL AARON STARC was born on January 30, 1990, in Sydney. One of four siblings growing up in a cul-de-sac in the western suburb of Lidcombe, Starc – like younger brother Brandon and sisters Amanda and Taylah – loved sport. Years later, Brandon competed as an Olympic high-jumper, and won gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Queensland. Cricket, though, was where Mitchell shone.

It was playing the game as a child that he first crossed paths with his future wife, Alyssa Healy. A quarter of a century later, they would have a dozen world titles between them, cementing their status as the game’s power couple. In March 2020, Starc was even allowed to leave a tour of South Africa to watch her play in the final of the T20 World Cup in Melbourne. Healy, now Australia’s captain, would make her name as a wicketkeeper-batter, and early on Starc wanted to do the same. Only in his mid-teens did he concentrate on bowling. While his lusty hitting has remained handy, his decision to prioritise the ball proved shrewd.

He made his first-class debut for New South Wales at 19, and first played for Australia – a one-day international against India at Visakhapatnam – before turning 21. A couple of weeks later, in his second ODI, he took 4-27 against Sri Lanka at Brisbane, and barely a year after that returned to the Gabba for his Test debut, against New Zealand in December 2011. But his first four years in Test cricket were marked by omission and injury. Though his frightening feats at the 2015 World Cup – most memorably his yorker to remove New Zealand’s Brendon McCullum in the first over of the final at the MCG – made him a white-ball phenomenon, it was only that year that Starc cemented his place in the Test XI, coinciding with the retirement of his left-arm predecessor, Mitchell Johnson. An ankle injury ruined his 2015/16 summer, but Starc returned with a vengeance, taking 91 wickets at 25 in a 20-month stretch starting with the 2016 tour of Sri Lanka.

Challenges awaited, with Starc less effective in the immediate aftermath of the sandpaper affair at Cape Town in March 2018. Poor finishes to home-series defeats by India two summers apart, as well as his issues in England, led to questions about whether he was a spent force. They were answered firmly during outstanding Ashes series in 2021/22, when he took 19 wickets at 25, and 2023.

Under the microscope after a below-par league stage during the World Cup in India, Starc fired in both semi-final and final, removing South African captain Temba Bavuma for a duck in the first over at Eden Gardens, then taking three wickets at Ahmedabad to help stun India. And, having spent much of his career putting international commitments before IPL riches, he was picked up at auction in December by Kolkata Knight Riders for a tournament-record £2.33m. Whatever happens next, his legacy, and bank balance, are safe.

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