Australia’s spearhead Mitchell Starc has no chance of playing the Boxing Day Test if the example raised by his fellow fast bowler Pat Cummins is any indication. Starc has a bruised heel on his right foot, the same injury Cummins suffered during his November 2011 Test debut and which then dogged him throughout the following summer – he did not play again for Australia until mid-2012.
While Cummins was then a teenager and Starc is far more seasoned, the niggardly nature of the injury makes it a complicated one for Australia’s medical staff and selectors to assess. As Cummins described, it is a problem that requires rest, and with a four-Test tour of South Africa looming in February, there is little room for recovery should the injury be aggravated in either of the two remaining dead Ashes Tests, however much Starc may want to play.
“I think that’s certainly part of the thinking of the selectors, the skipper and everyone around him,” Cummins said in Melbourne. “I know for him he just wants to play every game that’s in front of him but it’s a funny kind of injury. It’s not super common but if it’s not treated well it can drag on for a long time, a bruise where you have to walk all day and bowl on.
“I chatted to him about it, I had a similar one on my Test debut and it’s one of those ones there’s no way around. You can’t strap it differently, you can’t try to bowl off the other foot, it’s hard to hide from, so it’s just trying to get it early enough and not really damage it. He knows all that, the staff know all that and I’m sure they’ll work it out.
“He’s doing everything he can to get right, he’s been on crutches the last few days to try to take some weight off the heel. But hasn’t tried to bowl yet or anything, we’ve just got down to Melbourne so I think the next couple days they’ll assess that. He’s absolutely itching to get out there and play, but got to make sure he’s right.”
With Starc highly unlikely to play, the breach is set to be filled by the Tasmanian seamer Jackson Bird, who has spent most of the year in reserve after playing the most recent of his eight Test matches in the 2016 Boxing Day fixture against Pakistan. Bird is less a fast bowler than a seam and swing merchant, but he knows how to bowl on the MCG’s drop-in pitch, having excelled there on his debut against Sri Lanka in 2012 and also having performed well at the ground for Tasmania.
“The wicket is pretty flat, the drop-in wicket,” Bird said. “Whatever length you try and bowl, you have to really bowl the ball into the wicket. Hit the wicket as hard as you can – there usually is a bit of movement on the first day or two. I find whatever length you bowl you really have to hit the wicket. Then in the second dig it usually goes reverse swing, you just have to find the right length that’s going to hit the top of the stumps and try and stand the seam up, hit the wicket hard to get the most out of it.
“Mitch has still got a couple of days of training to recover, or try to recover, hopefully for Mitch’s sake his heel isn’t too serious and he does get up but in saying that, it’d be unbelievable to play an Ashes Test on Boxing Day. Either way, I’ll be ready and preparing as I normally would for any Test match.
“In the first two Tests I left early and went and played Shield cricket for Tassie [Tasmania], so I got a fair few overs under my belt and felt like the ball came out really nicely in those couple of weeks I was away. I had a week in the Perth nets working on a few different things with Sakesy [David Saker, assistant coach]. I haven’t played a Test match since this game last year, so I’ve been ready to go for 12 months basically. If I get the opportunity, I’m really looking forward to it.”
Bird said his year as a drinks waiter had been frustrating, albeit mitigated by the quality of the pace bowlers ahead of him in the queue. “It’s a little bit frustrating to not get an opportunity but I’m completely realistic in where I sit behind the fast bowlers ahead of me,” Bird said. “They’re all world-class fast bowlers, I’m under no illusions where I sit.
“I’ve just got to prepare as if I’m going to play. I just need to be ready to go if any of those guys don’t come up. That’s the spot I’m in at the moment. I’m not complaining, I’m in a better spot than some blokes are. So I can’t complain too much, it’s great to be around the Australian team, especially in the Ashes.
“You can only have 11 players in the team and when we’ve got such good fast bowlers around at the moment, someone’s got to miss out. It’s just been me for the past 12 months and the conditions we’ve played in haven’t helped my cause – a lot of those Tests were in the subcontinent. It is frustrating missing out – and some of the circumstances of the last 12 months made it a little bit more frustrating, but that’s the way it goes. Sometimes you’ve got to cop it on the chin and can’t complain too much about it.”
The wicketkeeper Tim Paine is expected to join the squad in Melbourne on Sunday after spending some extra time at home with his family after his father-in-law suffered a stroke. “Tim’s one of the most mentally strong players I’ve ever played with,” Bird said. “He’s shown that the last couple of weeks, to get back into the Test team and perform how he has after such a long period out with career-threatening injuries when he thought he might not get back. If there’s anybody who can compartmentalise that, I think it’s him.”