Between January 2004 and July 2005, Brett Lee missed 14 consecutive Test matches for Australia. It wasn’t because he was injured, nor because he was making his way back from any sort of ailment. Over that period, for reasons of team balance and planning, Michael Kasprowicz and Jason Gillespie were preferred, initially without Glenn McGrath in Sri Lanka, and then alongside him when the senior paceman returned from his own injury to face India, New Zealand and Pakistan.
It’s a relevant example to Australia in 2019, principally because of the role so far played in this Ashes series by Mitchell Starc. Like Lee, Starc is the fastest and arguably most high-profile member of the Australian pace sextet in England. But, like Lee, his tendency to go for pace and all-out attack has left him on the fringes of the team at a time when the strategy is not to blast opponents out, but to strangle them through control.
Having already experienced a lot of missed matches over his career for reasons of injury and, at times, “informed player management”, Starc is a chance to figure in the Ashes, but only if the conditions and the balance of the attack suit. He is trying to keep his hopes up, while also recognising the way that the coach Justin Langer and the captain Tim Paine wish to operate on this tour in particular.
“Everyone prefers to play but it’s pretty exciting that the cupboard is full of fast bowlers,” Starc said. “It’s awesome to see Jimmy back after what he’s been through and I guess similarly what Pat Cummins has been through previously. It’s a while ago now but to have those guys back fit and firing … Jimmy, it was fantastic to see him playing Test cricket again, someone with I guess such a fantastic record. Having his body let him down and to come back and play Test cricket again was pretty special.
“It makes Josh and I have to work that bit harder to try and make it back as well, which I think you want from a whole squad. We’re really close mates, so having that competition there whether it be Josh and I playing or a different two playing, it is that squad mentality. We’re here to win the Ashes. We’re not just here to make it on the park. We want to win this Ashes. Whether that’s a different bowling attack each game, or the same through five Test matches, it’s pretty exciting.”
At times prior to this tour, there was a sense that the “big three” of Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood had been relied upon too much, and had also got into a pattern of being chosen simply as the best bowlers in any circumstances, rather than paying more attention to the prevailing conditions. Paine has spoken about “selling” the concept that a wider spread will lengthen all of their careers, and Starc added also that the 2019 plan for the Ashes has been a far more subtle one than 2013 or 2015.
“I’ve been conscious of trying to build pressure from both ends,” said Starc. “I think we’ve got an attack that do different things and build pressure different ways. We’ve got a couple of more aggressive guys, a couple of holders there that build pressure and take wickets that way and a couple of guys that are probably a hybrid of both.
“We’re quite a well-rounded attack and then you throw in Nathan Lyon, who just knows how to get it done in all conditions. We’re prepared for all conditions whether it be flat, green, seaming, swinging, slow, fast. Again it’s exciting to have everyone up and firing and plenty to choose from.
“We’ve taken the squad mentality in the whole tour so far, whether it be the World Cup and now into the Ashes … if called up at Lord’s I’m ready to go as well.”
Something notable about Edgbaston, even if Starc did not experience it, was a lack of swing from the Dukes ball, although there was plenty of seam movement and later on, variable bounce. The sorts of wickets served up by England for the remainder of the series will have a major bearing on how much of a role Starc ends up playing, with his best chances seemingly on the harder surfaces of Old Trafford and The Oval at the back end of the campaign.
“I hadn’t held one in four years until I bowled with one in Southampton because I hadn’t played with one in Australia,” Starc said of the Dukes ball. “It’s nice having them back in my hand and swinging them round the net. It didn’t do a lot during this game in the air, there was a little bit off the wicket with the harder seam and the harder surface. I guess conditions can play a part in how much it moves around off the wicket or in the air. We saw the white ball move around a fair bit more at Lord’s in the World Cup so maybe that’s the same with the red ball.
“Judging by the Irish Test there a few weeks ago that’s probably going to be the case there off the surface. Again, we’ll have to see what that wicket is going to look like. Hopefully it moves around at training and we can take that into the game as well.
“Australia has got a pretty good record at Lord’s and obviously we’ll be looking to continue that. We’re not sure what the conditions are going to be. If it’s anything like that Irish Test match it’s perfect for us bowlers. We’ll wait and see what it is when we get there and start training. It’s a wonderful place to play cricket, whether it be white-ball or red-ball, for Australia or for a franchise. I’m looking forward to it this week.”
And if you’re wondering how Australia performed during that 14-match period in which Lee was spelled, the record was this: five series victories in a row, memorably in Sri Lanka and India, then a little more routinely against New Zealand home and away and also Pakistan. The streak was broken when Lee returned to the team – for the 2005 Ashes series.