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Spearhead Starc faces new reality in the desert

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Four years ago, Mitchell Starc was called into an Australian team that had been soundly beaten by Pakistan in their first Test in Dubai, amid a seeming attempt to right the wrong of that result by being still more aggressive than Michael Clarke’s team had attempted in the opener – Glenn Maxwell was the other inclusion.

Taking the new ball with Mitchell Johnson, Starc found his speed and bounce blunted by the combination of a docile Abu Dhabi surface and the concentration of Pakistan’s top order, as the hosts rolled to another gargantuan first innings. In the second, he was one of many Australian bowlers to be monstered by Misbah-ul-Haq, as both he and Azhar Ali marched to centuries in each innings. Starc’s match figures were a sorry 38.4-5-142-2.

In 2018, Starc is no longer a youthful reinforcement but the undisputed spearhead of an Australian team melding a huge amount of youth with older heads who, in easier times, might not have found their way back into the team, including the captain Tim Paine and the paceman Peter Siddle. This weakened team must, as a result of the Newlands scandal, be a more humble one in outlook and posture. But their learnings in Asian climes since 2014 have also forced a more gradual tactical rethink, something Starc said would be critical to their chances of success over the next two weeks.

“I can’t remember too much of that tour, I was a lot younger, less experienced and played that Test match in Abu Dhabi, but it’s a different feel with some new faces, new coach,” Starc said in Dubai. “We’ve had some really, really constructive conversations, I think learning about the game and how to play in these conditions. Taking a little bit out of what we did in India when I felt like we were in positions to win all those Test matches the last tour there.

“I think the preparation’s been first class, but it’s not how you prepare, it’s how you play. We’re really looking forward to the challenge, there’s been a bit happen in the last few months and it’s a chance for us to come out here and play some really good cricket and hopefully get some young guys playing their first Test for Australia as well.”

The “constructive conversations” Starc spoke of have been at a level more detailed than often took place in the years that Darren Lehmann was coach, as befits the wide information net cast by his successor Justin Langer. These have featured discussions of how Starc might best complement the rest of the attack, which is expected to lean heavily on the spin bowling wiles of Nathan Lyon and Jon Holland on a Dubai pitch and square dried and scuffed by the recent Asia Cup. He has already evolved considerably, keeping in mind an outstanding tour of Sri Lanka in 2016, and key contributions in India last year before he limped home with a foot fracture.

“It’s an interesting one, I’ve had conversations with JL and a few other guys about potentially changing my role slightly for these parts of the world,” Starc said. “It’s not somewhere like Australia where you can blast guys out on fast, bouncy wickets. It’s almost playing a supporting role to the spinners that play. I think in the past, perhaps that Test match I played here last time, I was stuck in that Australian mindset of attack, attack, attack, went for runs and didn’t take wickets.

“It’s not somewhere like Australia where you can blast guys out on fast, bouncy wickets. It’s almost playing a supporting role to the spinners that play. I think in the past, I was stuck in that Australian mindset of attack, attack, attack, went for runs and didn’t take wickets.” Mitchell Starc

“So I’ve progressed my game to play many different roles and have to shape that role slightly to this part of the world and I guess watch the world’s greatest do his job from the other end in Nathan. In that tour [Sri Lanka] I realised when to attack and when to sit back and still not go for too many runs.

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“When the ball was reversing that’s when I could attack but at the same time it’s making sure you’re building that pressure by not going for runs and earning the right to take those wickets and bowl attacking. I guess here where the wickets are even flatter and it’s a bit warmer as well, you have to change that role again slightly, but I’ll definitely be taking a bit of that blueprint into this tour as well.”

Whatever role is deigned for Starc, Siddle, or Michael Neser and Brendan Doggett, the left-armer will be in his best position to fulfil it in quite some time. A pattern of injury, rushed rehab and a return to the field as soon as humanly possible has been maintained for much of the past three years, in marked contrast to the longer break he has enjoyed in 2018, having not bowled a ball for Australia since the aforementioned, fateful South Africa tour. Now fully fit, Starc was also included in the Twenty20 side that plays after these two Tests.

“I’ve done some hard work the last few months to get myself fit and strong and if they have to be long spells I’m ready for it. At the same time it’ll be up to Tim how we use the fast guys around the spinners. We’ve had some long spells around training as well, and some shorter days as well. So there for everything, just looking forward to getting out there with the baggy green again.

“I’m really looking forward to these two Test matches first and foremost and I don’t think I’ve played a T20 in about two years, so that’s exciting as well. I’ve had a lot of time the last few months to let my body heal by itself rather than have to rush back for any cricket so that’s something I’ve really enjoyed, having the time to let everything heal and feeling really good about my body and my cricket. I feel fit and ready to go, so a couple of Tests, some T20s and into a long summer.

“[Injury] was a mixture of things, between the uneven creases in South Africa, a lot of bowling through the summer, you could put a few things down on the list. But I had a chance then to let everything heal without going to the IPL and a couple of winter tours, it was a good chance to let everything heal by itself. It’s done that so I’m looking forward to feeling as fit as I have for a while.”

As for the laconic line “there’s been a bit happen in the last few months”, Starc will get a reminder of this when he takes the new ball and does not see Steven Smith at slip, David Warner in the gully or Cameron Bancroft at short leg. With Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins also absent at this point of the season, Starc acknowledged that the evolution of his role is far from limited to pace bowling tactics under the unrelenting UAE sun.

“We’ve got a good group of experienced guys in this team, we’ve got some young guys but we’ve got some state captains, our newly appointed vice-captain as well and Tim doing a fantastic job as captain,” he said. “You’ve got Nathan Lyon who’s played 73 Tests and for me being around a little while, it’s just being in a bit of a leadership role for the fast bowlers or some of the young guys. I think all the guys lead in different ways at different stages. Ultimately we’re there to support Tim and in the end we’re trying to win a Test series for Australia away from home.

“The preparation’s been first class from everyone, whether they’ve played no Tests or a lot of Tests. I think as a group we’re learning very well in these parts of the world, these last few tours and even in our preparation for this one. It’s been a really great lead-up, some young guys coming in who are excited to try to press for selection and bring a lot of that new energy. So it’s exciting for us guys who’ve been around a little while to see those guys come in and really press for selection and want to impress right from day one.”

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