Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo
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There is a working theory developing among Australia's hierarchy that Mitchell Starc's decision not to participate in the IPL could have had a major detrimental effect on his T20 form over recent years, highlighting the difficulty of playing all three formats as a fast bowler.
Starc was a shock axing from Australia's line-up to face Afghanistan in their must-win World Cup match on Friday and he had earlier been demoted from his new ball posting due after conceding 14 in Australia's opening over of the tournament against New Zealand in a loss that ultimately caused their exit from the tournament.
Starc has not played in the IPL since 2015 or the BBL since 2014 in order to rest during those periods to be fresh for international duty as a regular in all three formats for Australia. His decision not to play franchise cricket has been widely praised in Australia and has come at significant personal financial cost given what he could potentially earn in an IPL auction.
But the difference between Starc's T20 numbers between 2012-19 and 2020-22 are remarkable across all three phases of the innings. He is no longer the weapon he once was.
While Starc has remained fresh for Test cricket and has performed excellently in the last 12 months, having been the only fast bowler to play each of Australia's last 10 Tests including five in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, his decline in T20 cricket in the same period has been revealing.
There have been glimpses of the old Starc. He bowled a double-wicket maiden against Ireland in his opening over, but he then conceded 43 runs in his next three overs and Australia's hopes of gaining a net run-rate boost took a major blow as a result.
Starc was once the most feared left-armer in the world. Yet in this tournament, of the 13 left-arm quicks who have played three games or more, he has the fewest wickets and the highest economy rate.
His Test bowling has benefitted from skipping the IPL. However, by not testing himself against the best T20 batters in the world each year on mostly batter-friendly IPL pitches, there is a theory that his T20 skills have diminished in terms of both his new ball and death bowling. His yorker no longer appears on command and opponents are far better at pouncing on his misses. Since 2020, he has dropped from 18th in the T20I bowling rankings to 40th, having been a career-high fourth in 2014 when he was playing in the IPL.
By contrast, Josh Hazlewood has gone the other way. He was not in Australia's T20I calculations in 2019. Having been a fringe player at the 2016 World Cup, playing only two games, he fell out of favour in the white-ball teams, missing out on the 2019 ODI World Cup, as he was seen as a Test specialist.
But he played in the BBL in 2020 helping the Sydney Sixers win the title with an outstanding individual finals series. He then played 24 games in the next three IPL seasons, including nine prior to the 2021 T20 World Cup in the UAE where he helped Chennai Super Kings win the title. In 2022 he took 20 wickets in 12 games for Royal Challengers Bangalore and has turned himself into the premier new-ball bowler in T20I cricket rising to No.1 in the rankings this year after being ranked outside 200 in 2020. But Hazlewood has only played six Test matches since the start of 2020 and just two in the last 12 months.
Pat Cummins, the third member of Australia's three-format fast bowling triumvirate, has played in the IPL and Test cricket in the last two years but rested from various ODI and T20I international series in order to remain fresh for key assignments.
His T20 bowling has suffered a similar fate to Starc since some outstanding returns in the 2019-20 summer where he played eight of nine T20Is and saw his ranking climb to No.17 in the world. Since then, he has taken on the Test captaincy and maintained his ranking as the best Test bowler in the world for three straight years. But where his unerring lengths and lines at good pace in Tests produce wickets in bucketloads, those same on-pace lengths have been met with ferocious hitting in T20 cricket, to the point where he was dropped by Kolkata Knight Riders last season. He is now the 50th ranked T20I bowler in world cricket.
He was marginally better than Starc in this tournament, using his off-speed deliveries to better contain opponents at times, but even former Australia captain Ricky Ponting raised the question of leaving out Cummins on the eve of the Afghanistan match.
It leaves Australia's selectors with a decision to make. Having gone to well twice with Australia's three-format trio for one World Cup triumph and one Super 12s exit inside 12 months, what do they do moving forward ahead of the 2024 World Cup in West Indies and the USA?
There are Australian T20 specialists building their resumes by the day. Nathan Ellis has every right to feel aggrieved not to be in Australia's World Cup squad having proven himself as Australia's best death bowler in franchise cricket over the past 12 months and having bowled outstandingly well in two high-scoring T20Is in Mohali and Perth just prior to the World Cup.
The Caribbean and American pitches may also ask for two specialist spinners, bringing Ashton Agar back into the equation.
What does that mean then for Starc? Just as Hazlewood turned to the IPL following his snubbing in 2019, does Starc follow the same path following his axing in Adelaide? The only problem is that Australia play nine Test matches prior to the IPL next year, and a minimum of five, possibly six if they make the World Test Championship final, immediately after it.
One thing is certain, Starc is no longer one of the first names on Australia's T20 team sheet.