Australia's left-arm quick has been through family tragedy and emerged a stronger, more resilient person. As he embarks on another UK tour, he talks about perspective gained, time lost, and keeping the legacy of Paul Starc alive
Starc truth: A golden putter, the Ashes & memories of Dad
It is a decade ago now that a 23-year-old Mitchell Starc flew out for his maiden Ashes tour. Back then, his father Paul, having convinced himself that his presence at matches was proving bad luck for his son, had decided he would only watch games via the safety of his television.
"Every time he came to the cricket," Starc tells cricket.com.au, "he seemed to think I didn't do very well, so he stopped coming … but he was always watching."
When the 2015 ODI World Cup final rolled around however, Mitch forced his hand.
"I told him I'd booked the flights, booked the hotel," he adds, grinning at the memory. "He had to come."
When a 93,000 strong crowd went up in unison as Starc spectacularly castled Kiwi Brendon McCullum with just the fifth ball of the match, setting Australia on course for another World Cup title, Paul would not have been anywhere else.
Six years ago today.World Cup final, first over.Starc to McCullum:📹 @ICCpic.twitter.com/y63Uo811I6— 7Cricket (@7Cricket) March 29, 2021
"That one went well," Starc smiles, "and after that, he flicked the switch and went the other way – he was coming to everything."
Paul was there to see match-winning displays from his son in Adelaide and Durban and many places in between. As time wore on, his regular attendance allowed him to forge a tight bond with a couple of other observers with equally vested interests: Trevor Hazlewood and Peter Cummins.
Image Id: 29D1D745B5CD434C97EAF99A122C8A20 Image Caption: (L-R) Peter Cummins and the late Paul Starc // Instagram
Mitch remembers those three men occupying the "fast bowlers' corner" of the SCG dressing room together with their sons in January 2018. Two generations savouring an Ashes series triumph over several cold beers. It is a special memory for the 33-year-old. Maybe his favourite among many of being with his late father at the cricket. And it is one he clings to now as he readies himself for Ashes tour number four.
"There's certain things that I'd love him to be around for," Starc says. "But life can be shit sometimes."
For the first time, Starc is embarking on an Ashes tour without that unwavering figure of support in his corner. Yet for reasons many and varied, he is also better equipped than he has ever been for what lies ahead.
* * *
It is impossible for Mitchell Starc to separate his early cricket memories from those of his dad. The two are intertwined from those formative years, a happy collage in his mind's eye. Paul as Berala under-10s cricket coach and club secretary. Paul at home, carrying his ladder to the end of their cul-de-sac in Lidcombe to collect balls off the roof of a neighbouring warehouse. His unmistakable whistle from the doorstep, a signal to the kids it was time for dinner.
"He was a big part of my cricket – my learning periods, and keeping me in the game," Starc says.
"He got me to that stage of professional cricket, and once I got there, he let me do my own thing. He certainly watched it all, and he'd make the odd jibe at me when my radar wasn't right, that's for sure (laughs), but he wasn't one who was going to tell me what to do.
"Not that they ever said it, but Mum and Dad were big on getting us to problem solve on our own – do it our way – but they were definitely supportive the whole way through."
Starc was at home with his wife, Alyssa Healy, when the hammer blow of Paul's cancer diagnosis landed on them. The 2020-21 cricket summer was underway. Life was being complicated by COVID-19 bubbles and major travel restrictions.
"It made it hard to spend that extra time with him," Starc says. "He was keen on me (continuing to play) cricket, because it gave him something to watch while he was going through his chemo and he was stuck on the couch.
"But every time I'd step away from cricket, I had to leave a bubble, or we were somewhere else and couldn't get back to Sydney."
Australia lost its Border-Gavaskar Trophy battle with India that summer, and the home side's attack came under the media microscope after they failed to close out matches in Sydney and Brisbane. Starc was not spared.
"It was a hard moment in time," Healy recalls. "He didn't want to be there, and then all of a sudden, he's copping shit in the media about his performances.
"And he's not telling anyone why he doesn't want to be at cricket or why things aren't going to plan … he's thinking about his dad, he wants to spend time with his dad."
Image Id: DEE4BDB8BB4E4DBBA0B9E1B5424C185E Image Caption: Mitch and Paul Starc after the 2017-18 Ashes // Instagram
Paul Starc died in late February, 2021. The time between diagnosis and his passing was, in one way, mercifully brief. Yet it also left Mitch with an unease about what those final weeks should have looked like, caught as he was between his dying father's wish to see him on the cricket field, and his own need to be beside him.
"I was grateful I got to see him the day before he passed away," he says. "But you always want more time."
Soon after, the family abided by Paul's wishes. Instead of a traditional funeral, they held a celebration of his life at the Cumberland Country Golf Club in western Sydney, where he had been a member.
"Pretty good golfer – played all his life," Starc says. "Played off scratch for a while."
After the sun went down, Starc, his siblings and their partners wandered up to the 18th green. There they continued the celebration, drinking beers and swapping Paul stories. At one point, someone pulled out Paul's old one-iron and they took turns trying to hit balls back down the fairway. Then Mitch opened a bottle of whiskey he had been saving for an occasion he knew now would never arrive.
"I'd bought a nice bottle when I first found the taste for it, and I'd tucked it away to share with Dad when I retired," he says. "We didn't get to that point, so we had it on that day instead."
The golf thread runs strong through most of their recollections of Paul. Healy remembers when they were starting to become more serious about the sport. Paul would happily offer her tips while playfully sledging his boys, Mitch and Brandon, about their inability to hit a fairway. By that point the three men shared a friendship as much as they did a familial bond.
"Just the banter that they had, it was almost like golf was Paul's thing, Mitch has cricket and Brandon has high jump, so he wouldn't give them any advice," Healy laughs.
"If Laura (Brandon's partner) or I had some questions about our swing, he'd come over and help us, but with the boys, it was like, 'Golf's my thing, you've got your own things, piss off!' It was obviously all in jest, but at the same time, he wanted to be better (laughs)."
And so it is through golf – and the spirit of competition – that they are ensuring his memory remains strong in their minds.
"The set of clubs he had when I grew up, I've got them in the garage," Starc says. "He had this gold putter, which looks like something Phil Mickelson used back in the day, and so every time Alyssa, Brandon and I play golf, we play for that putter.
"Things like that, I find really special."
* * *
Starc joined the 300-Test wicket club last summer, each of those arriving every 50.0 balls. Only a handful of others in the game's long history can boast such a combination, and every one of them is fast-bowling royalty.
In England this northern summer, he will likely take his 600th international wicket. Only Warne, McGrath and Lee have more for Australia. Starc has won World Cups and Ashes series. He has beaten India and South Africa, stood tall amid crises, bled and sweated and fought through pain across 77 Tests and 168 limited-overs matches, all the while building a multi-format record that is bettered by only an elite few.
Yet debate about his place in the side hums away constantly. Is he suited to the conditions? Does he leak too many runs? How will he handle Bazball?
Once upon a time, the negativity and doubt could eat away at him, and in turn affect his performance. A self-fulfilling prophecy his critics would then point towards to continue the cycle.
More recently, he has broken free of his self-doubt. He is refusing to sweat the small stuff, to let the opinions of strangers influence his mindset. He knows selection is beyond his control. Knows his job in the side might mean he leaks more runs than his sidekicks. He is at peace with all of it, and the timing is hardly coincidental.
"That (media criticism) might have bothered me a few years ago, but I've certainly settled on a happy place where it doesn't bother me anymore," he says. "If that's what people think, that's what they think … if I'm the whipping boy sometimes, that's fine.
"I'm certainly more comfortable in my own skin. Perspective is everything, and one of the biggest contributors to perspective is going through those tough times."
Starc heads to the UK with other factors working in his favour, too. Technically speaking, he has added the wobble-seam delivery to his armoury. It not only allows him to move an older ball both ways off the pitch, but makes what was once his typically fuller length far less predictable.
"(I'm) better equipped," he says. "I feel like my game is in a better place to play more of a role.
"Something I got caught up in (during the 2019 Ashes, in which he only played one Test) was I had to be this economical bowler that hit one spot … almost trying to be what Josh (Hazlewood) and Pat (Cummins) do for the team, which is not what has made our group successful; I was a point of difference, and I tried to go away from that.
"So that's something I've learned going into this Ashes series – to do what I do well, to stick to my strengths to complement the group, rather than have to buy into something else that, whether I don't trust it or not, is not a strength of mine.
"I'm certainly more comfortable to go about it that way. And if I'm left out because of it, then that's OK as well."
Image Id: 5C773E2FE97146BEB99C16860AD0C104 Image Caption: Starc was part of Australia's fourth Test win at Old Trafford in 2019 // Getty
None of which is to say ambition doesn't continue to drive him. Almost 13 years and 245 matches in, he keeps coming back because there is more he wants to achieve, more success he wants to savour with his colleagues and close mates.
Starc has learned to manage his body and has been deliberate in choosing which cricket he plays – or doesn't – as his career wears on. He is one of the few top Australians who has consistently opted out of the Indian Premier League, having last appeared there in 2015.
"To choose not to do certain things to prolong playing for Australia, I've tried to be smart about that," he says. "Yeah, the money's nice, but I'd love to play 100 Test matches. Whether I get there or not, I don't know, but that would be a nice one to tick off. Hopefully there's a little bit left in me."
To realise that particular ambition, Starc knows he might have to winnow his schedule further. A World Cup in India during October-November looms on the horizon. For now, he is yet to allow it to come into focus, but he isn't ruling it out as an ODI swansong as he considers jettisoning one of the white-ball formats.
As with his role in the Ashes, however, perspective has taught him to be philosophical. Fast bowlers break down all the time. His body has withstood the repetitive force of almost 35,000 deliveries in his professional career. And as special a bowler he is, he knows he is not so special that he doesn't occasionally look behind him.
"To play three formats for over 10 years, it's been a lot of pain along the way, but I'm grateful I've gotten that far," he says.
"Whilst I've tried to add to the bow, as soon as I lose air speed, there's going to be someone chasing me. Once that next left-armer is coming through, yeah, I'm sure I'll know when I know."
Starc's enduring career has also meant a decade of being away from home – from family – for 10 months out of every year. He has found himself looking forward to each April. Most years, it is a window in his and Healy's respective calendars where they can drop their kit bags at home and connect.
"It's our time away from cricket," he says, "and it's generally spent on a golf course."
* * *
Healy sees Paul in her husband all the time. It is there in his thoughtful nature, and in his stubborn determination to do everything for himself around the house. She even really sees Paul.
"It's uncanny," she says. "He is Paul. They are so alike. And when Mitch shaves his beard into that goatee, it's a little bit scary to turn on the telly and think I'm seeing Paul Starc bowl for Australia (laughs)."
She is proud of the way he has built upon that foundation of thoughtfulness both within and outside the game. In the spring of 2021, as Australia's women played India in a multi-format tournament throughout Queensland, Starc jumped aboard. At first, it was just a chance for him to spend more time with his wife and continue his training in a state where COVID-19 restrictions were more relaxed. But as the tour progressed, he began sharing his knowledge with the fast-bowling group, from Ellyse Perry through to Stella Campbell. One day, he turned up to training with new bowling spikes for the younger girls in the group.
"He's matured over the years, and he's kind of understood what it means to be an Australian cricketer," Healy says. "He sees the game as a whole, and (considers) what he can do to leave a mark."
Once upon a time that was more Healy's remit. The Aussie skipper has been a driving forced in a cultural revolution within Australian cricket. Perhaps her holistic outlook has rubbed off on her husband, who nowadays seems to go about his craft with more vim than ever. Given the loss he has been learning to live with, it is a significant detail. On the home front, too, Healy sees reassuring signs Starc is handling his grief healthily.
"Mitch is quite a quiet and private person, very reserved," she says. "But on the odd occasion he does bring up his dad, or talk about something his dad did, or how if he needed a hand with something, his dad would help.
"They've been nice moments to recognise that yep, things are OK, he's remembering his dad in a nice way and he's able to talk about it.
"And watching the two boys (Mitch and Brandon) remember their dad in little ways, like playing for the gold putter, is really cute, and it puts my mind at ease that they're dealing with it the right way. They're grieving, but at the same time they're still talking about their dad, and wanting to celebrate him, which is really cool."
Image Id: BE6DF67461044A4D85A28F94AA94D55E Image Caption: Healy says Starc now looks at how he can leave a mark on cricket more broadly // Getty
Only recently, the couple learned that Starc's fondness for nostalgia is another hereditary trait. A few years ago, when they were moving into a new house, he set about putting some of Healy's cricket medals on display.
"She jokes I'm way too sentimental with certain things," Starc says, "and clearly I get that from him."
That clarity arrived not long after Paul's death, when his partner Liz was going through some of his old files. Among them, she found a treasure trove of newspaper clippings, which traced Mitch's career all the way back to his first New South Wales squad selection in 2008. All that time they had been tucked away, for no eyes in the world but his, a father's private keepsakes stitching together the cricketing story of his eldest son.
"I had no idea about it," Starc says, the trace of a smile appearing on his upturned lips. "To have kept all that, just on the quiet, it was cool. He was quietly proud."
2023 Qantas Tour of the UK
World Test Championship Final: Wednesday June 7-Sunday June 11, The Oval
First Test: Friday June 16-Tuesday June 20, Edgbaston
Second Test: Wednesday June 28-Sunday July 2, Lord’s
Third Test: Thursday July 6-Monday July 10, Headingley
Fourth Test: Wednesday July 19-Sunday July 23, Old Trafford
Fifth Test: Thursday July 27-Monday 31, The Oval
Australia squad: Pat Cummins (c), Scott Boland, Alex Carey (wk), Cameron Green, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Josh Inglis (wk), Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitch Marsh, Todd Murphy, Matthew Renshaw, Steve Smith (vc), Mitchell Starc, David Warner