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A representation of consistency and longevity: Mitchell Starc and a unique aspect of cricket's past | Geoff Lemon
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A representation of consistency and longevity: Mitchell Starc and a unique aspect of cricket’s past | Geoff Lemon


In March of this year, Mitchell Starc surpassed a significant milestone by exceeding Dennis Keith Lillee’s record of 355 wickets in Test matches. He also achieved another feat by becoming the highest paid player in the Indian Premier League, with a contract worth just under US$3 million.

In today’s world, cricket is predominantly seen as a means of making money rather than a display of national pride, causing the second number to hold more importance. While Lillee was a standout player in the 1970s, only those nearing the age of 50 would have witnessed his incredible bowling skills.

Following the opening day of the Christchurch Test, Starc spoke modestly about wicket 356. “With having Nathan Lyon on the team and him informing me, I was aware of the milestone. It’s great to achieve it early on and continue with the rest of the match,” he stated in an interview with ABC radio.

I have not had many opportunities to interact with DK Lillee. We have encountered each other through the cricket community, but we have not had the chance to bowl together. However, I am aware of his contributions to Australian cricket and his exceptional skills as a bowler. It is truly an honor to be in the same league as some of the great names in the sport. It also serves as a reminder of my longevity and experience in the game, evidenced by the number of matches I have played.

There is no argument that Starc does not prioritize Tests. Despite being one of the most powerful players in white-ball cricket, this will only be his third IPL season. Since 2015, he has consistently opted out in order to maintain his fitness for international matches. This extended break may have increased his desired salary upon his return, but he has sacrificed millions in the meantime.

Maybe Starc’s response was due to being humble, or being from a younger generation. It’s possible that 350 wickets didn’t seem as impressive during the same week when James Anderson reached his 700th. Since Lillee’s time, there has been a significant increase in the number of wickets taken. Anderson is currently behind Shane Warne’s 708 and Muttiah Muralitharan’s 800, although being a pace bowler against two spinners makes him an even more extraordinary exception. Anderson’s long-time bowling partner Stuart Broad and Indian spinner Anil Kumble have both taken over 600 wickets, while Lyon and Ravichandran Ashwin recently reached the 500 mark along with Glenn McGrath and Courtney Walsh. Additionally, eight other players have reached 400 wickets.

And still, reaching Lillee’s feat is major. Aside from Lillee’s symbolic potency, becoming a cricketing icon with that lithe run and that predatory leap into one of the most compelling bowling actions the game has seen, he was prolific in the black and white of the stats. He set the Australian wicket-taking record at 259, the world record at 310, before extending it to his final 355. Only a few years earlier, that sort of number had been thought impossible.

Dennis Lillee against England during the 1975 Ashes.

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It required the exceptional fast-bowling all-rounders, including Ian Botham and Imran Khan, to catch up to him. However, Richard Hadlee and Kapil Dev were the first to achieve over 400 wickets. Following them, players’ careers were characterized by the abundance of Test cricket in the 1990s and 2000s. The introduction of new teams and increasing demand for television coverage led to a peak in Test cricket. Out of the players with more wickets than Lillee, only the aforementioned four all-rounders and Malcolm Marshall debuted in the 1970s. The remaining 21 players made their debut between 1984 and 2011. Out of those 21, only five appeared in fewer than 100 Tests, and with Starc potentially joining the ranks, that number will soon decrease to four.

Lillee appeared in 70 Test matches, a significantly lower number compared to other players with more wickets. However, his impressive average of 5.07 wickets per Test puts him behind only Ashwin and Muralitharan. It is important to note that Lillee’s Test record does not include four seasons at the height of his career: one due to a back injury, two due to participation in World Series Cricket, and one when he was part of a World XI team that toured in place of an apartheid South African team in 1971/72.

The World XI captained by Garfield Sobers drew together the game’s biggest stars for four matches. Lillee wrecked them with 24 wickets at 20. The World Series teams led by Clive Lloyd and Tony Greig were similar, and Lillee took 67 wickets at 26. All of these sides were higher quality than most Test opposition, but politics meant players never had these stats included on their records. Botham and Kapil were not recruited for World Series Cricket, Hadlee only played one-day matches, and Imran played five Supertests for 25 wickets. Add Lillee’s unofficial wickets to his Test list and he has 446 of the best, more than anyone short of the 500 club.

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To put it simply, Starc surpassing Lillee on the official rankings is a significant accomplishment. Despite this, his bowling style is sometimes unfairly labeled as unpredictable, costly, and injury-prone. This is due to the fact that he had to adapt to Test cricket on the spot, being selected to play at a young age and facing the constant struggle of being dropped and then recalled as selectors tried to balance his talents with his issues. Even in the recent 2019 Ashes, he only played in one out of five Tests.

He has transformed himself into a paragon of consistency and longevity, taking 206 wickets at an average of 26. He has participated in 25 out of the last 26 Tests in Australia and New Zealand, all five matches in Pakistan and Sri Lanka in 2022, and seven out of nine games last year in India and England. While his bowling technique may result in some erratic deliveries, it also produces unplayable ones. With a career strike rate of one wicket every 48 balls, he is among the top three performers, outshining even the likes of Lillee.

Being ranked behind McGrath as an Australian fast bowler is a monumental moment in history. It is a rare period of time and Josh Hazlewood has the potential to surpass Lillee in a few more years. Pat Cummins, who is not yet 31, has a good chance as well. However, the next Australian fast bowler who could achieve this feat has not even debuted and it could be another 15 years before it happens. This timeline may even be farther out if the Test schedule continues to shrink. It is uncommon for fast bowlers to have long careers in Australian cricket due to the demanding nature of the sport and the constant competition from the younger generations. Looking back at the past, it is important to acknowledge and appreciate the accomplishments of our present players.

Source: theguardian.com