Michael Clarke said he did not “get it”, Mark Waugh, Merv Hughes and Tom Moody took to Twitter to try and get the inside word, but Daniel Vettori has confirmed Mitchell Starc was dropped.
Or, in more polite terms, it was a “tactical decision”.
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Starc’s absence from Australia’s XI set the cat amongst the pigeons on Friday night as the left-arm quick was a shock omission for their final Group 1 T20 World Cup match against Afghanistan.
While Australia needed to win — and did — keep their World Cup defence alive, they also needed to smash their opponents to put the pressure right back on their Group 1 rivals England, who they were equal on points with before their respective final match but trailed on Net Run-Rate. But their four run win meant they barely improved on their NRR and consequently, England only need to beat Sri Lanka on Saturday to progress through to the finals.
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Given Starc’s ability to rise to the occasion, having taken a wicket with the first ball of last year’s Ashes as well as removing New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum with the third ball of the 2015 ODI World Cup final, many believed he would be an automatic pick.
Indeed, only a few nights earlier Starc had taken two wickets in his first over against Ireland and for a side needing to rip open Afghanistan – and then finish the job – the left-armer certainly appeared the most likely to achieve that even if he had not opened the bowling in recent matches.
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Instead, Australia, already missing captain Aaron Finch and dashing batter Tim David, dropped Starc and brought in Kane Richardson, who had not been used throughout the World Cup to date.
Clarke, who previously captained Starc, slammed the decision.
“There’s absolutely no way you can leave him out of tonight’s game,” the former captain said in commentary.
“If anyone’s going to rip through Afghanistan’s batting it’s Mitchell Starc. Left-arm, if it swings with the new ball and then we’ve seen his yorkers at the death. I don’t get it.”
He later added, “No Mitchell Starc. I still can’t believe it to be honest.
“I think we saw a bit of swing. I think Starc right now with the new ball swinging back into the right-handers would’ve been lethal.
“He’d have been my first bowler picked against this Afghanistan line-up.
“To me we’ve got a lot of the same-same here, (Josh) Hazlewood, (Marcus) Stoinis, (Cameron) Green – it’s all right-hand back of a length, hit the wicket hard. We’ve got to win this game and got to win by a lot. I just think that left-arm something different – it would have been exactly what we needed tonight.”
Former World Cup-winner turned national selector Waugh agreed, “Starc should be playing. He is an aggressive wicket taking bowler who could easily rip through Afghanistan. Richardson more of a holding type bowler.”
Their comments were justified by Australia only just holding on, as Afghanistan fell four runs short of pulling off an incredible victory as fan-favourite belted the home side’s attack into the stands.
While Richardson had a dropped chance first ball, the South Australian seamer took a wicket third ball.
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But from that point onwards it was one-way traffic, as Richardson was hit for 48 runs from his four overs – an economy rate of 12 an over.
Meanwhile, Josh Hazlewood went for 10 from his over but finished with two wickets while Pat Cummins was economical but unable to provide the breakthrough.
It meant Australia’s quest to smash Afghanistan and put the pressure on England went up in smoke.
Former New Zealand captain Vettori said Starc’s axing was a “tactical change”.
“It was more about the effectiveness of Hazlewood and Cummins at the top, and their ability to take the new ball and be wicket-takers,” he told reporters following the four-run win, which kept alive Australia’s slim hopes of making the semi-finals.
“Therefore that pushed Starcy into a different role, and he came up against Kane Richardson and it was thought amongst the hierarchy that Kane was exceptional at the death, and so to utilise him there as opposed to Mitch.
“In his first over, he (Richardson) was incredibly unlucky.
“He could have had two wickets and then suddenly the whole game’s turned, and that first breakthrough (of Rahmanullah Gurbaz) was a big wicket for us because he played so well and had been so aggressive.
“So we reflect on that, and I think Richo himself would say that he probably missed at the back end of two overs.
“But apart from that, the majority of his spell was what we expected.”
Australia’s tactics right throughout the tournament have been questioned, with the decision to drop Steve Smith and keep Finch at the top of the order dominating discussion.
But ever since their first-up 89-run loss to New Zealand, Australia has yet to click with the top order failing to convert starts into big scores.
Finch’s strike-rate has also been a huge concern despite notching a half-century against minnows Ireland.
Maxwell, who had a brilliant IPL but had struggled in international cricket over the past year, even revealed he did not know where he was batting on Friday night’s crucial match, as he slid down to number six in the order before scoring a rapid half-century.
“We lost the first wicket, and I came out thinking I was at five and Divva (Michael Di Venuto) gave me a tap on the shoulder and said ‘I think you’re at six’,” Maxwell said.
“I said ‘okay, no worries’, and left my gear there and went back inside.
“So there wasn’t a whole lot of conversation about.
“I knew it was going to be a fluid batting order, and that we were going to put people out for the best time of the game.
“Unfortunately for us, we were at every stage probably just one wicket too many down to go as hard as we would have liked.
“But in saying that, we still had complete and utter faith in our batting line-up to get the job done.”
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Vettori said the early loss of wickets meant they had put the breaks on Maxwell, who finished unbeaten on 54 from 32 but later revealed he couldn’t go as hard as he wanted.
“If we’d got through that powerplay then Maxwell would have been an option, but it’s more about his ability to play spin,” Vettori said.
“We saw again how effective he was, and (Marcus) Stoinis has been incredible this tournament so there was no desire to move him away from that number five spot.
“Then Smith comes in, and you try to put him in a role that he can be highly effective, so it was Maxy who jumped down to that number six spot.”
The former spinner added that Australia had to pay respect to Afghanistan.
“We knew that the win was potentially all we could get because of the respect for the Afghanistan side,” he said.
“There’s huge admiration for that bowling attack, particularly (Fazalhaq) Farooqi at the top and Naveen (ul-Haq) who came in tonight and was exceptional.
“There was no complacency around how hard this game was going to be, so to think of scoring 200 and then bowling them out for 100 to get above the run rate was always going to be a challenge.”