Mitchell Starc runs in to bowl
Ryan Pierse / © Getty Images


How Mitchell Starc went from 'f*** you' to 'I can't hear you'

The Australian fast bowler tuned out the clamour to get clarity - and lots of wickets

Daniel Brettig  |  

Mitchell Starc was 21 when he gave a glimpse into the forces raging beneath an exterior that is, especially when he isn't bowling left-arm rockets, very much on the shy side.

Starc wasn't always a towering fast bowler, nor a child who always had ambitions to play for Australia, and the pudgy kid lingers somewhere still. He was switched by his junior coach, Neil D'Costa, from being "a keeper and a slogger with the bat" in junior ranks to become, via hours of regimented technique training, one of the most feared fast bowlers of his generation.

At the Gabba, where he would make his Test debut about ten days later, he took 5 for 39 for New South Wales against Queensland in a domestic one-day game, all speed, swing and bounce.

Somewhere up in the stands, a spectator had taken to baiting Starc, as Queenslanders often tend to do when NSW venture north for rugby league or other competitive pursuits. As the overs went by, perhaps with the assistance of alcohol, the barbs got more persistent, burrowing their way past Starc's calm exterior. Eventually, when he scythed through the last three wickets of the innings, his celebrations were directed at that noisy voice in the stands.

By Starc's own admission, he would spend another seven years or so using the questions, taunts and criticisms of commentators, journalists and members of the public in a similar way to that day at the Gabba - as a motivator.

"I just felt I probably tuned into the noise too much, and I guess I went from someone who didn't mind seeing or reading that sort of stuff and taking that as motivation to prove people wrong or take it as a bit of a 'f*** you'," Starc says. Just with having multiple broadcasters and a whole bunch of radio and print and the rest, I probably read into that noise a bit too much."

Starc took eight wickets in the only Test he played of the 2012-13 home series against South Africa

Starc took eight wickets in the only Test he played of the 2012-13 home series against South Africa Robert Cianflone / © Getty Images

The hurt from those criticisms bubbled away inside as his career developed into that of an outstanding white-ball bowler and an impactful, if occasionally expensive, Test paceman.

The next most telling instance of Starc hitting out would be in support of a team-mate the following summer, an act that made him the unwitting bête noire of the loudest voice in Australian cricket.

December 2012. Australia had just lost a Test series to South Africa from a position of strength, forfeiting a chance to attain the world No. 1 ranking in the process.

The second edition of the Big Bash League was about to start, which meant the return of Shane Warne to television screens, newspaper columns and much else besides, in his role as captain of the Melbourne Stars and Cricket Australia's most high-profile salesman for their new league.

Warne's way of working his way back into the minds of the public was to say he was more than capable of a Test cricket comeback at the age of 43. He, of course, was very close to the Australian captain then, Michael Clarke, who at that stage was having his struggles with the new spinner in the team, Nathan Lyon, who had failed to come through as the fourth-innings clean-up man Australia had needed in the Adelaide Test

Won't take it Lyon down: Starc hasn't been afraid to speak his mind and disagree with popular opinion when the situation has called for it

Won't take it Lyon down: Starc hasn't been afraid to speak his mind and disagree with popular opinion when the situation has called for it Scott Barbour / © Cricket Australia/Getty Images

Clarke's follow-up comments about Warne did not exactly calm the fire. ''From the day he retired, I've been asking him to come back to play for Australia… If Warnie wanted to come out of retirement, there is a long process before you get picked for Australia. He'd have to come back and play some Shield cricket for Victoria.''

It was Starc who came definitively to the defence of Lyon. "[Warne's] done his time," he said at a media call for the Sydney Sixers, with a smile but a firm tone. "He's obviously done a lot of great things for Australian cricket, but he's done and dusted now, and Nathan Lyon's the spinner. We're all backing Nathan to do his job and if Shane Warne wants to come out of retirement and give it a crack, good luck to him."

Lyon was grateful for the support, but Warne did not appear to forget the remarks. When, two years later, Starc was one of several members of the Australian pace attack to struggle against India on a searingly hot first day of the Gabba Test, Warne suggested he needed to change his body language. "It needs to be stronger," he said on Nine's coverage. "He looks a bit soft."

While the fallout from those comments, and Warne's attempts to clarify them, kept many in the press and broadcasters busy over coming days, they left a mark on Starc. His partner, Alyssa Healy, decried the coverage on Twitter, and Australia's then coach, Darren Lehmann, was taken aback by Warne's comments. Starc found himself discussing the saga with the Sydney Morning Herald at one point.

"I was playing cricket. I wasn't listening," he said. "He's getting paid to talk, I'm getting paid to play cricket. Warnie's been on my back for years, so I'm not too worried about it."

How d'ya like me now? Starc is impassioned after dismissing M Vijay in the first over of the 2014-15 SCG Test

How d'ya like me now? Starc is impassioned after dismissing M Vijay in the first over of the 2014-15 SCG Test Ryan Pierse / © Cricket Australia/Getty Images

But Starc's reaction when he claimed the wicket of M Vijay in his first over at the SCG, letting out a guttural roar in the batsman's general direction, was another moment in which his frustrations at critics and at his on-again, off-again presence in the Australian team burst forth. Who else but Warne was on the microphone to describe the moment, with more than a hint of self-justification thrown in?

"Great start from Mitchell Starc, he's steamed in, he's hit a good length straight away, there's a little bit of shape for him, his body language was strong, really good start..."

So Starc had managed to successfully channel the criticism into performance and win some conditional plaudits from his loudest critic. There were to be many more that summer as he went on to become the leading wicket-taker of the 2015 World Cup, delivering two of the most memorable spells of the tournament, against New Zealand.

The first turned a lost cause at Eden Park into a squeaker; the second more or less decided the Cup final when he yorked Brendon McCullum at a heaving MCG in the first over.

At times such as these, Starc is a majestic sight from a distance and a terrifying one from the other end of the pitch. His height and left arm combine with a level of pace only a handful of other bowlers around the world can get near, let alone beat. Add to that a degree of unpredictability and there is invariably plenty of anxiety in the batsman facing him. Starc's Australian team-mates are famously hesitant about facing up to him in the nets, knowing that while they will be struggling to survive for the most part, a clean hit back past the bowler or into the imaginary outfield is likely to fire him up to another gear in speed.

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Starc is also able to get the ball to swing. Either conventional induckers to the right-hander with the new ball, or reverse swing later in the innings, usually delivered from around the wicket. These deliveries bring all of his qualities to the fore: with the late bend of Wasim Akram and the pace of Brett Lee from the height of Glenn McGrath, he's a fast-bowling Frankenstein's monster.

At the end of the World Cup final, as Australia revved up for what became a week of alcohol-fuelled celebrations, Starc stood alongside Steven Smith and laughed heartily while being interviewed by Warne on the insightful topic of how "thirsty" they were. Somewhat less jovial was a press-conference where he was asked about still needing to become a dominant Test bowler for all his white-ball success. Starc, understandably, wanted to enjoy the moment.

On the 2013 and 2015 Ashes tours, Starc took a combined 29 wickets in eight matches at around 30 apiece, but was expensive at key times when the tourists needed parsimony as much as aggression with the ball. It was in England that his reputation for inconsistency gathered speed, leading ultimately to his omission from all but one Test in last year's series there.

Still, on a media day for the touring team in 2015, Starc again demonstrated his willingness to speak his mind even if it caused headaches for his bat manufacturer. He had, for his entire career, been contracted to Kookaburra, who just happened to be working closely with Cricket Australia on the experimental pink ball devised to be used in day-night Tests.

In eight World Cup matches in 2015, Starc took 22 wickets at 10.18

In eight World Cup matches in 2015, Starc took 22 wickets at 10.18 Ryan Pierse / © Getty Images

"It's definitely not a red ball," Starc said, having played in a pink-ball Sheffield Shield game in Adelaide the preceding summer. "It doesn't react anything like the red ball, in terms of swing and the hardness. It goes soft pretty quickly. I didn't see a huge amount of reverse swing in that game and I don't think it swung too much until the artificial light took over."

His comments caused a flurry of reaction within the Kookaburra headquarters, but Starc and his manager were firm on the fact that, whatever his contractual status with the bat and ball manufacturer, he would always give an honest answer to a pointed question.

Similarly, in July 2017, at the height of the pay dispute between CA and the Australian Cricketers' Association, Starc defied direct warnings from team performance manager Pat Howard about signing with competing sponsors by entering an agreement to work with a Sydney-based dealer for Audi - a direct competitor of CA's partner Toyota. When peace was declared a month later after CA backed down, Starc quietly stepped away from the Audi deal, but it had served its purpose. If there was inconsistency in his bowling at times in Tests, his views and loyalties were seldom in doubt.

In Sri Lanka in 2016, he found himself in the role of a one-man show for an Australian team that was malfunctioning in more or less every other position. Away from the glare of home media spotlights, and on pitches that aided his lower-slung reverse-swing action, he ripped out 24 wickets at 15, claiming a victim every 26 balls or so. Seldom had there been a better individual display in a worse collective one by an Australian side.

Australia lost all three Tests in Sri Lanka in 2016, but Starc took plenty of wickets, including 11 for 94 in Galle

Australia lost all three Tests in Sri Lanka in 2016, but Starc took plenty of wickets, including 11 for 94 in Galle Ishara S Kodikara / © AFP/Getty Images

Contrast this to the Ashes in England in 2019, where he played only one match in the series but was part of a successful campaign. He is clear which of the two experiences he preferred.

"Certainly enjoyed England better," he says. "When we performed better as a group, when we sang the song. I'd take team success over individual success every day of the week. I'd give all those wickets back in Sri Lanka for us to win the series away from home.

"I'd rather be in a team that's doing well than perform well myself and the team not do great. It's better to celebrate with your mates than talking about losing games."

The pressure applied by Cricket Australia in the ensuing months in 2016, when Australia lost another series to South Africa at home, pushed the team into a harsher, more merciless direction than the one a fresh generation, Starc included, might have hoped to shape.

While Starc avoided the worst of the ball-tampering storm in 2018, the bowlers were drawn into the conflict due to arguments over the way the ball had been handled and how much they knew. That reverse swing had been Starc's primary weapon for almost as long as he had been bowling for Australia - not least in Durban to begin the series - only heightened the focus. There were moments during the 2017-18 season, especially a Sheffield Shield game in Hurstville where Starc conjured a hat-trick in each innings that were, rightly or wrongly, later called into question.

Who's listening to them? Not Starc, who realised the comments from experts were taking up too much space in his head

Who's listening to them? Not Starc, who realised the comments from experts were taking up too much space in his head Mike Owen / © Getty Images

By the time Australia's Test team convened to face India at home in late 2018, with two new host broadcasters in train as well as the usual media throng, Starc was facing more scrutiny than at any other time in his life. His previous approach, to take in plenty of the feedback coming his way and feed off what he found useful, was about to be seriously challenged.

"At certain stages there were certainly things I took on as motivation to prove people wrong, he says. "But I don't know if it was purely the fact we had so much noise around the [India] series. The expectations on the group, media-wise, were huge. I think I just found it was a lot of unnecessary time spent thinking about it or reading about it."

The Adelaide Oval press box at the top of the Riverbank Stand is backed by a lounge and breakout area, with a long corridor running to the right, past a café on the river side and a string of television and radio broadcast boxes on the oval side. In early December 2018, these spaces are more crammed with past players' opinions than at any other time in the long history of the oval.

Peer down from the press desks into the breakout area and there are the Seven network's Glenn McGrath, Ricky Ponting and Damien Fleming. Beyond them radio commentators Mitchell Johnson and Simon Katich. Milling around the coffee machine nearby are Fox Cricket's Warne, Adam Gilchrist and Mark Waugh. And here come Darren Lehmann, Tom Moody and Ian Chappell, on their way back from ground level for Macquarie Sports Radio.

All these commentators needed something to say and someone to say it about. In a tightly fought first Test, where their bowling attack was meant to be Australia's trump card in the absence of Steven Smith and David Warner, it was Starc who struggled for rhythm, losing his radar almost entirely at the start of India's second innings. Consequently, the critiques flew thick and fast.

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Johnson on the ABC: "I just don't like his body language. He hasn't given a bit of a glare or puffed his chest out with a good follow-through, let the batsman know he's in the contest, that he's going to rip the pegs out."

McGrath on Seven: "At the moment he just doesn't seem to have that rhythm. He's not using his run-up, he's trying to do it all at the crease. And you've got to feel for him - when the confidence is down, you've just got to relax and trust in yourself that you haven't forgotten how to bowl overnight. Just run in, relax and just bowl."

And Warne, inevitably, on Fox: "He's the leader of the attack, your main strike weapon, he cleans up the tail really well, but to take 19 wickets at 36.1 in six matches [in 2018] - he probably needs to be better than that. It's not good enough."

After Australia's defeat in Adelaide, before the Perth Test, the critiques continued. Waugh, a selector as recently as a few months before, told breakfast radio: "If he's probably not up to scratch in Perth, I think they might think about making some changes for the rest of the series."

While these opinions washed over Starc, as much on the field in the milling of commentators, coaches and players in warm-ups before play as on the airwaves themselves, he felt increasingly hemmed in by the blizzard of advice.

"Going from someone who saw that as a motivation to prove people wrong, I probably bought into the noise too much, or started digging myself a bigger hole if I wasn't bowling the way I wanted to," he says now. "Certainly, throughout that series as well... I felt like I had 47 different bowling coaches at one point and all these different opinions that I just didn't need to listen to."

"India were just better than us throughout the [2018-19] series with bat and ball. And this summer's certainly a chance to rectify that" Brett Hemmings / © Cricket Australia/Getty Images

Around the end of the Melbourne Test, after the team had been ground into the dust by Cheteshwar Pujara and Jasprit Bumrah, there was a strong feedback session, captured in the Amazon documentary The Test, in which Australia's coach, Justin Langer, is called out by his players for getting too caught up in the same noise Starc struggled with.

For both men, the following New Year's period in Sydney was a revelatory one. Langer realised he had to change tack when his wife broke down in tears at the breakfast table, saying she did not like what the job was doing to him. For Starc, 2019 began with a decision to leave his "motivation to prove people wrong" behind. January 2 has remained a vivid day in his mind, for it was the one where he got rid of his social media apps.

"Since then I've basically gotten off Twitter and not [been] reading anything really, and not really caring what other people's opinions are. It's just had me in a clearer mindset to focus on what I can control and bowl the way I want to bowl," he says. "That's certainly how I've approached it since and having people I trust around me, whether it's talking to Alyssa or having conversations with 'Dre or the staff around the group, or the players."

Dre is Andre Adams, the former New Zealand seamer who became the New South Wales bowling coach in 2018. When Starc tore a pectoral muscle during the SCG Test against India and took a break from Australia duties, he got the chance to work with Adams at precisely the time he needed a steadying and supportive but still challenging voice to help counter other, less helpful ones.

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With Adams' help, Starc has taken on changes like taping simple messages to his wrist to retain his focus, minimising the "load-up" with his left arm before delivery to bowl more consistently, and adding a level of precision to his bowling. Looking back to how the relationship began, Starc says he was drawn to Adams because he could see improvement in the likes of Harry Conway and Sean Abbott from afar.

"Even before that, Andre was phenomenal," Starc says. "I think he'd been helping our young guys at NSW develop their problem-solving, rather than just giving guys the answer. I think that's one of the key features of his coaching: helping especially the young guys, but even us older guys, to problem-solve on our own and help us get to that level where you can almost coach yourself out on the field."

After taking ten wickets in a big win over Sri Lanka in Canberra in February 2019, Starc mentioned Adams - rather than any member of the national team's support staff - as the helpful voice he needed at a critical time.

Starc had finally found the maturity he had been seeking as a bowler, and a deeper understanding of his own action. He was the leading wicket-taker at yet another World Cup, in England, then played a vital pinch-hitting role in the Old Trafford Ashes Test, even as he worked at length on building greater consistency to meet the wishes of Langer and the Test captain, Tim Paine. Equally, he found the clarity he had been seeking over what he could do and when.

Ryan Pierse / © Getty Images

In a radio interview with former Australian Rules football captain Bob Murphy earlier this year, he said: "You kind of learn how you can achieve [reverse swing] through your action the more you play, I guess, and you learn about parts of your action that can control that. I found that from being almost in the wrong position sometimes with my action, so when my arm dropped a bit and my wrist got a bit lazy, I couldn't swing the ball naturally. But I could swing the ball reverse and I could get this power fade with the new ball.

"Then it was learning how that's a great position to be in for when it's reversing, but I also need to be in a really good position for when the ball's new and I want to swing it naturally. You can teach yourself to be in those different positions and not compromise your speed or your result.

"It takes a lot of time to learn that and to feel the different feelings of those two actions, but if you can work out how to do it, it adds another string to the bow. It's not an easy one to pick up straight away, but we've got plenty of good coaches behind us and past players who I've learned off. If you can do it, and you've got a couple of guys in your attack who can do it, it makes for a much easier job as a captain as well."

Across eight Tests since early 2019, Starc has almost matched his startling figures from Sri Lanka in 2016, only this time doing so in a team that is functioning far better around him. A tally of 45 wickets at 18.42, a wicket every 34.8 deliveries, is the stuff of any bowler's dreams, and a long way from the fog of Adelaide in 2018. Over that period, Australia have not lost a series.

"I've basically gotten off Twitter and not reading anything, and not really caring what other people's opinions are" Paul Kane / © Cricket Australia/Getty Images

The critics have not disappeared entirely. Earlier this summer, Warne suggested replacing Starc with Cummins as the new-ball bowler, a theme that Brett Lee has returned to at regular intervals over several seasons. The difference now is that Starc isn't listening anymore.

"It was purely more a mindset of reading too much into all the negativity," he reflects. "It's been a genuinely clearer mindset since I probably came back from tearing my pectoral muscle during that Sri Lankan series. Just in a much clearer mindset, happier mindset, and not so much carefree but just a much clearer and more positive mindset in my approach to cricket.

"You never want to lose a series and you certainly never want to lose one in Australia. India were just better than us throughout the [2018-19] series with bat and ball. Sure, we haven't hidden away from that. We needed to be better in all facets of the game and this summer's certainly a chance to rectify that.

"We get Steve and Dave back who are a huge part of our batting line-up and two of the best batters in the world. Hopefully that's going to contribute a lot to our performances this year. Marnus [Labuschagne] has developed into an unbelievable player in that time as well. Hopefully, for us as a bowling attack that means less time out on the field and not as many overs as we had to bowl to India last time out. It's certainly going to shape up as a different series, and one where we want to get one back."

So far this summer, Starc has been able to correct some difficulties from the first two ODIs with a far stronger display in the T20I in Canberra and then attended to a family health issue ahead of the Test series, before returning to camp on the Monday of first Test week in Adelaide.

He has even attracted some praise from Warne, for not going to the IPL ahead of the home season this time around. Amazing what can happen when you find a way to ignore that loud voice in the stands.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig