Ben Jones reflects on Australia’s mavericks.
Mitchell Starc is special.
Most people know that, just from watching him fire it down at 150kph. It’s clear from his statistical record, from the frightening rate at which he’s accrued 150 ODI wickets. Nobody in history has done so with a better strike rate.
Starc is an outlier not just in the effectiveness of his bowling, but in the way he bowls. Most seamers build from a base of good length deliveries; Starc doesn’t. Starc bowls full. In the last decade, no established bowler has bowled a full length more often than him; only two men have hit a good length more rarely.
If we go deeper, it’s even clearer how attacking Starc is. CricViz’s Wicket Probability Model uses ball-tracking data to calculate the likelihood that any delivery – and thus over, spell, bowler – has of taking a wicket. Over the last ten years, no established ODI bowler has a better Expected Strike Rate than Mitchell Starc. The deliveries he bowls are incredibly dangerous, and incredibly attacking.
Australia have the most attacking bowler in the world. And today, he didn’t attack.
Glenn Maxwell is special.
He is the fastest scoring current Australian batsman, by a distance. Since the last major ICC tournament, Maxwell scores more than one run-per-over quicker than anyone else to appear frequently in the green and gold. He has a range of strokes that beggar belief, embellished by a crowd-pleasing streak that makes him one of the most loved batsmen in the world.
Only one man who has batted as often as Maxwell in the last two years can say they score quicker than him. That man is Jos Buttler, who has a claim on being one of the best ODI batsmen of all time. Maxwell is elite.
Australia have the second fastest scoring batsman in the world. Today, they hid him.
India are the most structured ODI side going around. They are a grooved, well-oiled machine, a set of players who know exactly what they want to do at every stage. This is a strength, and a weakness.
They build their entire batting strategy on preserving early wickets. Rohit and Shikhar set out to be roughly 50-0 in every single Powerplay 1, to set up a base knowing that such is their quality, one of them is likely to make a match-defining contribution – the lad in next isn’t bad either.
The one thing they don’t want you to do, is attack them early on. They really don’t mind you bowling defensively, dotting up in the first 10 overs. Pat Cummins went at 3rpo in his opening spell today, but India won’t have been bothered one bit. He didn’t take a wicket.
In tandem with Cummins, Starc’s role should have been to back up Cummins’s solidity with penetration, but it that wasn’t how it played out. Both of the Indian openers are vulnerable to very full bowling early on in the innings, and as we know, Starc bowls more full deliveries than anyone else in the world.
Not today. Today, when Australia needed him to attack, he didn’t. In the first 10 overs this morning, Starc pitched it up with just 6% of his deliveries. That’s the lowest figure he’s ever recorded in an ODI – by a long, long way. India got through the first 22 overs without losing a wicket, a platform they were never going to waste.
Starc is controlled enough and skillful enough that this was a tactical choice, a decision to be more defensive in the opening period. Across the game, it didn’t work; today, Starc conceded 74 runs in his 10 overs, the most he has in his last 34 ODIs. It was among his worst performances with the ball that we’ve seen in the last four years, his lowest Expected Strike Rate since the tail end of 2016.
As is always the way with Starc, it was a lurch from the previous match against the Windies, when he took the most wickets he’s taken in any ODI since the last World Cup. He won Australia the game, to all intents and purposes. It was among his best performances with the ball we’ve seen in the last four years. Those performances happened three days apart.
Off-form and lacking in rhythm, he can look ungainly and uncomfortable on the approach to the crease, but on-form, he’s a gazelle. Everything moving in the right direction, everything building towards the launch of this missile. At his best, Starc is the perfect fast bowler.
The same dichotomy is true of Maxwell. When he struggles, as he did against the West Indies while Starc flourished, it looks messy.
But today he clicked. He went at India, with the asking rate starting to soar, and he briefly threatened to make a game of it. His ceiling, in terms of what he could possibly achieve for Australia, was up with the stars.
Yet Australia had placed their own ceiling on what he could do, by bringing him in at five, and more importantly, in the 37th over. From there, it was either Maxwell playing one of the greatest ODI innings of all time, or defeat for Australia. To steal a line the journalist George Dobell would often use when Peter Moores’ England would bring Jos Buttler in with the required rate up around 10rpo, Australia were asking Maxwell to turn water into wine.
You wouldn’t have garnered much support mentioning Maxwell’s pros last week, of course. Against West Indies, when his ill-advised second ball hook saw him depart for nothing, we saw the other side of a player capable of producing the best and the worst of batting. With all the goodwill that the cricketing community has invested in him, the joy that he’s imparted, it is hard to see him fail – but fail he does. It’s fair and reasonable to do so; when you’re trying to do what Maxwell is generally trying to do, failure is an acceptable bi-product. But he sure does produce a lot of it.
Former England coach Duncan Fletcher used to speak about ensuring there was a “critical mass” of solid characters in the dressing room. As detailed by Steve James in The Plan, “he wanted eight good characters who could drag the weaker ones through, one who might be a quieter lad, and two who were tougher to handle”. When the balance was wrong, the team didn’t work.
There is a similar principle in play when constructing a side, with regard to maverick players and dependable performers. You need a critical mass of reliable players, with bat and with ball. Guys who will make solid, consistent contributions. If you don’t have enough of those, then your team is going to struggle; but you do need the other type of player as well. You need the maverick who can go the distance, and then win you a game.
Australia probably have that balance about right, in terms of personnel. You can quibble over the particular selections, but it’s essentially a reasonable team. But they need to make the most of their mavericks, in a way that – perhaps – they haven’t been of late.
That’s why you have to accept Starc’s performance today; it’s why you have to accept Maxwell’s performance on Thursday. If you don’t put up with them at their worst, then you don’t deserve them at their best. Starc has to bowl that attacking length, otherwise he’s not the same bowler; Maxwell has to play those audacious shots, otherwise he’s not the same batsman. They’ve got to be free to do what they want to – they’ve got to be free to have a good time, to have a party.
The genius of this India side is straightforward. They are masters – tactically, technically, consistently – at making their opposition do what they least want to do. To negate their batting order you need to attack early when it feels like you have most to lose; to take down their bowling, you have to attack early, because their spinners are superb and their death bowling is, well, Jasprit Bumrah. Your window to try and gain an advantage is at the top, and Australia defended throughout it. The time to have Glenn Maxwell at the crease, your best attacker, was in the first 20 overs, and they waited until the 37th over. He should have batted at No.3. The time to have Mitchell Starc push his length full, and try to get the ball swinging, was in the first 10 overs. Australia did neither; that’s where they lost the game today.
The format of this World Cup dictates that it wasn’t a fatal error. It won’t in isolation see Australia knocked out, and it didn’t see them humiliated on the day. They fought back and avoided a significant NRR penalty. However, unless they embrace the mavericks in their side, and give them the opportunity to find the outer reaches of their talents, then Australia can’t win this World Cup.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.