IPL 2024

Still got it: Starc blows away notions of his T20 decadence

Starc was the player of the match in the final.
Starc was the player of the match in the final. ©BCCI/IPL

Eighteen months ago, during a home T20 World Cup, Mitchell Starc found himself in a strange place: out of an Australian T20I XI to face Afghanistan in a must-win clash in Adelaide. The think-tank preferred Kane Richardson to him. The axe had appeared to be swinging fairly close to him even before that game in Australia's title defence with Starc operating as a change bowler and not handed the new ball - a quintessential sight in a white-ball game.

His returns in the format had been dipping but one of the foremost exponents of the limited-overs formats didn't take the treatment meted out to him quietly. Nor did he throw in the towel on the format. 'Strong opinions', it was revealed, were shared in a lengthy chat with chair of selectors George Bailey. While no other details from that conversation emerged, Starc mentioned that he retained ambition to continue playing T20 cricket for Australia with another World Cup not too far away.

Aspirations with the national team have been central to the Starc-IPL narrative. One of the premier white-ball fast bowlers of the generation stayed away from the premier T20 competition for nine seasons because the tournament coincided with his postseason down time. It was an opportunity to spend time with family, to rest and prepare the body for the workloads of the next season. This meant all of his appearances in the format since 2015 were at the international level and he admitted not playing the IPL may have hindered the development of his T20 game, but he was at peace with the terms of the trade-off.

Until now. The 2024 season of the IPL was going to be played in the leadup to the World Cup in the USA and the Caribbean, and it was the perfect opportunity to work towards a marquee tournament and see if the format had passed him or his white-ball skills by. At first it seemed like it. After being picked up for a record fee of INR 24.75 crores - one he had no control over - his first eight overs in the competition went for 100 runs. Then five wickets came at a more acceptable economy of 8.2 but it turned sour once more as the next 10 overs went for 148 runs. He'd played just two T20s in the 18 months preceding this reunion with the IPL and the format-rustiness showed.

But it wasn't that Starc no longer had the tools to succeed. He could still swing the ball at high pace, which as he demonstrated on the night of the final, is a heady combination to keep out let alone try and hit. It was just that the format had become more tactically nuanced during his time away. And as he got more games under his belt, the rhythm returned, as did those new-ball wickets, to devastating effect. If it was Travis Head in the first Qualifier, it was Head's partner Abhishek Sharma in the final, who tried and failed to stop a pacy, swinging delivery from rearranging the wood-work behind him.

Starc dismissed Abhishek in first over of the final.
Starc dismissed Abhishek in first over of the final. ©BCCI

It helped to have a familiar face like Bharat Arun, the former India bowling coach, someone Starc had worked with at RCB during his previous IPL stint. "I've worked with Bharat at RCB when I was there years ago as well. It was nice to reconnect with him this year," Starc said after bowling KKR to victory in the final. "It certainly wasn't so much technical. It was probably a bit more tactical... some suggestions in trying different things, certainly for batters I hadn't seen or knew much about, I was going to him or Shreyas or GG with that sort of thing.

"I've played a lot of cricket so I know how to manage myself there. I haven't played a lot of T20 cricket in the last few years so for me it was trying to find that rhythm of the T20 format and I was trying to stay ahead of batters."

In a tournament dominated by the bat and headlined by record totals and a gargantuan six count, the 34-year-old said it was important to stay level-headed as a bowler. "You look at some of the (bowling) figures... it's easy for someone like myself who's been around for a long time and been through the ups and downs to say it's a mindset thing," he said.

"Not everyday is a good day. You're never as good as people say you are and you're never as bad as people say you are. I think staying level is a good part of it. I think T20 is a great leveller. You can have some good days and two days later you can have a shocking day. I think that's one thing that's kept me in good stead throughout, is staying pretty level. I think that's probably the advice I can give, you've got to enjoy the journey for its good and bad. If you can learn from the tougher days, it's going to make you a better bowler.

"So it's certainly been a tougher tournament for bowlers, but those who have found a way or those who have been good enough have stood at the top, whether it's been wicket-taking or economy rates. Jasprit's [Bumrah] been one of the best in the world for a long time and he's certainly showed that he found a way to not go for runs and take wickets as well."

Eventually, Starc finished the season with 17 wickets from 14 games at a somewhat high economy of 10.61. But it was his mastery in those decisive early exchanges against the next-best team in the competition, Sunrisers Hyderabad, that explained why the Knight Riders were willing to empty three-fourth of their auction purse on him once he'd expressed his willingness to return to the tournament.

"It's nights like tonight or the last game why I've been picked up to come here," Starc said. "As I said, glad to be contribute. I mean there's been jokes throughout and it's been friendly banter about price tags and what not. It doesn't bother me too much. I've sort of had plenty of critics throughout my career and I think the pressures of being an overseas player or a price tag... you expect that coming to the best domestic league in the world."

Will the IPL see him again in 12 months time when there's no T20 World Cup to build towards. "Look I'm certainly closer to the end of my career than the start," he said. "One format may drop off, there's a long time before the next one-day World Cup and whether that format continues for me or not, it may open doors for more franchise cricket.

"I've thoroughly enjoyed this season. It's been great and as you say it leads into a World Cup. That's the other side of the benefit of being here, against some amazing players in an amazing tournament. It's great lead up to a World Cup. The success has been fantastic. But it's left a lot of players in a good position heading into the World Cup. Next year, I don't know the schedule exactly but as I said, I've enjoyed it and look forward to being back next year. Hopefully it's in purple and gold again."

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