Column | Starc & Boult - men for the big occasions

Mitchell Starc
Mitchell Starc was in red-hot form in the IPL playoffs. File photo: PTI/Kunal Patil

The Qualifier 1 of Indian Premier League (IPL) invariably generates considerable interest. This is only natural since the match features the top two sides of the league phase. This year, the Qualifier 1 between Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) and Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) was expected to raise edge-of-the-seat excitement given the tremendous form both teams were in. However, it turned out to be a damp squib as SRH collapsed, resulting in the side getting dismissed for a total of 159. KKR reached the target of 160 losing just two wickets and 38 balls remaining. 

A review of this game will show that SRH floundered badly when their opening batsman Travis Head, who had been giving them explosive starts all through the championship, was dismissed without scoring in the very first over. Abhishek Sharma, his partner. went in the next over and when Nitish Kumar Reddy and Shahbaz Ahmed were dismissed in the fifth over, the fight was well and truly over for SRH. And the bowler who inflicted the maximum damage on SRH was Mitchell Starc, the Aussie left-arm pacer, who took the wickets of Head, Reddy and Shahbaz. Starc went on to finish with 3/34 in his allotted four overs, which won him the player-of-the-match award as well.

Starc almost did an encore in the final against SRH on Sunday. This time he accounted for Abhishek (2) in the opening over and sent back the dangerous Rahul Tripathi (9) to set up KKR's triumph.

Royal Challengers Bengaluru  (RCB) were expected to win the Eliminator, where they took on Rajasthan Royals (RR). RCB were on a roll, winning six matches on the trot, in which process they edged out the highly-fancied Chennai Super Kings (CSK) as well.

Trent Boult
Trent Boult, left, has been a consistent performer for RR. File photo: PTI/Swapan Mahapatra

However, RR came up with an improved bowling performance, on account of which RCB were restricted to a score of 172/ 8 in the allotted 20 overs. Their bowling was led by Trent Boult, the left-arm fast bowler from New Zealand who conceded only 16 runs in his 4 overs and also took the wicket of Faf du Plessis. Though Ravichandran Ashwin won the man-of-the match award for his figures of 2/19, there was no doubting the fact that RCB were initially thrown off the track by Boult's superb spell. For the record, RR reached their target losing six wickets, with an over remaining. 

Thus, it can be said without any hesitation that these two left-arm fast bowlers succeeded in creating the maximum impact in the first two matches in the IPL playoffs. Starc and Boult have many similarities apart from the fact that they both bowl quick stuff using their left arms. They are both approaching their mid 30s but remain extremely fit. They made their international debut in the early years of the second decade of this century and both have picked up more than 300 wickets each in Test matches, besides 200-plus in One-Day Internationals (ODIs). They have also proved time and again their ability to come good in big games with match-winning performances.

Left-arm fast bowlers are universally considered by batsmen to be extremely difficult customers to handle. The natural angle at which they send down the ball from over the wicket probes a right-hand batsman in the corridor of uncertainty around the off stump. Further, the outswinger bowled by a left-arm bowler, moves into the right-hand batsman and keeps him on his toes. Moreover, they can keep the batsmen guessing by bowling from both sides of the wickets with equal ease. Most of them have a wicked bouncer in their armoury, which, because of the angle at which it is delivered, poses more difficulties to tackle than one sent down by a right-arm bowler.

Wasim Akram
Wasim Akram was a magician with the ball. FIle photo: AFP/Wen Humphreys

For some as yet unknown reasons, there were very few left-arm fast bowlers in international cricket in the years preceding the World War II. Alan Davidson of Australia was the first left-arm pacer to make an impact in Test cricket. Davidson was an all-rounder. who possessed excellent control over line and length, and also imparted late swing to the ball, besides being an useful lower-order batsman. He played for Australia from 1953 till 1963 and picked up 186 wickets in Tests.

Wasim Akram of Pakistan remains arguably the best left-arm fast bowler that cricket world has seen till date. Arriving on the international scene as a teenaged prodigy after being spotted by Javed Miandad, Akram was taken under the wings by Imran Khan, who not only taught him the finer nuances of the trade of fast bowling but also nurtured him into a world class cricketer. At his best, Akram was unplayable as he could get the ball to swing late in a most unpredictable manner, without cutting down on the speed. He was a more than useful batsman with a double century to his credit in Test matches. Akram’s tally of 916 wickets in international cricket (414 in Tests and 502 in ODIs) tells one about the destruction he could wreak with the ball. But the shadow of match-fixing that followed him during the latter part of his career took away some sheen from his performances.

Akram was followed by Chaminda Vaas of Sri Lanka, Zaheer Khan of India and Mitchell Johnson of Australia. Vaas  was the senior most among them, with an international career of 15 years stretching from 1994 till 2009, while Zaher played from 2000 to 2014. Though Johnson had a shorter stint at the highest level, playing only for eight years between 2005 and 2015, he was the most destructive of the three, with a strike rate of one wicket every 51 balls in Test cricket. All three were splendid bowlers who mastered the art of bowling well in both Test matches and ODIs. Vaas was the workhorse for SriLanka and played an important role in their triumph in 1996 World Cup while Zaheer performed a similar role when India won the title in 2011. All of them  have taken more than 300 wickets in Tests, which stands as testament to their skills, stamina and longevity. However,  Vaas was more successful in ODIs where he picked up 400 wickets, while Zaheer and Johnson had tallies of 282 and 239 scalps respectively.

This trio was followed by the duo of Starc and Boult, who both made their Test debut in 2011. Starc is a very successful bowler with the white-ball, though his returns in Test cricket have been no less impressive. His ability to peak on the big stage in limited overs cricket could be understood from the fact that he was the player of the World Cup 2015 with 22 wickets at an average of 10.18, the highest wicket-taker in 2019 edition and a key member of the championship winning squad in 2023. He is very tall, standing at 196 cms and he uses it to good effect while bowling. He possesses the ability to bowl at speeds exceeding 150 kms per hour consistently and can also reverse swing the ball, which makes him an extremely dangerous bowler. 

Mitchell Starc
Mitchell Starc, centre, played a big role in Australia winning the 2019 and 2023 World Cups. File photo: PTI/Ravi Choudhary

Boult, on the other hand, broke into the New Zealand national squad as a bowler in the longer duration version of the game where his consistent performances helped make it to the limited overs side. The giant strides he took in white-ball cricket could be seen from his performances in 2015 World Cup where he was the joint highest wicket-taker. He was the leader of the Kiwi attack during the 2019 edition where he picked up a hat-rick as well. He is not very tall for a fast bowler (180 cms) but makes up for this by the speed he generates from his powerful shoulders and his ability to move the ball both ways. It merits special mention that Boult has benefited from the excellent partnership he forged with Tim Southee, with the duo complementing each other in a near-perfect manner.

The careers of Starc and Boult have followed divergent paths in IPL. Starc signed for RCB in 2014 and played two seasons while picking up 34 wickets. He was particularly effective in 2015 when he bagged 20 scalps and helped improve the performance of the franchisee by leaps and bounds. However, an injury kept him out of the 2017 edition, following which he parted ways with RCB. He was signed by KKR in 2018 but did not play any game for them during the next three seasons due to a variety of reasons. But such is his stature that he was won in the auction preceding the 2024 edition by KKR themselves for an all-time high amount of Rs 24.75 crore. And his performances during this season certainly justify the faith that the franchisee placed on him.

Unlike Starc, Boult has been a regular in IPL since 2015 when he was first recruited by SRH. During the last 10 editions, he turned out for five franchisees, with 118 wickets to his credit. His best season was in 2020 when he picked up 20 wickets for Mumbai Indians (MI) and played an important role in them winning the trophy. He has been one of the strong and silent performers for RR this season and played a key role in propelling the franchisee to within striking distance of the trophy.  

Starc and Boult are the two leading left-arm fast bowlers in the world today. Even though they are in the twilight of their career, they possess sufficient firepower to determine the course of important games. They are both committed professionals and the youngsters playing alongside and even against them stand to gain by observing and learning from them. Watching them in action is a matter of great joy for the followers of this sport as they bring out the beauty and subtlety associated with this art, even as they send down thunderbolts with the power and accuracy of a rocket launcher.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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