Under the SKanner: Josh Hazlewood - The man who recreates Glenn McGrath's magic
When he burst onto the Test arena in Brisbane during the 2014/15 Border-Gavaskar Trophy, Josh Hazlewood was sandwiched on either side of Mitchell Johnson and Mitchell Starc. Yet, it was his relentless accuracy that saw him steal the limelight from the two left-arm pacers on a hard surface.
Notwithstanding the fascination of extra pace down under, the then 23-year old's emergence ignited the imagination of onlookers for good reason. Since the retirement of the peerless Glenn McGrath, the cricket world had been scavenging for a tall metronome. Needless to say, comparisons began to float around regarding the potential of the exciting talent.
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Almost three years since then, Hazlewood has established himself as the most reliable red-ball operator for Australia. With 118 wickets at an average of 25.75 from 31 Tests, he has earned an enviable reputation in the premier format of the game. Among fast bowlers, only James Anderson and Kagiso Rabada are currently perched higher in the official rankings.
With the 2017/18 edition of Ashes set to take center-stage from Thursday onwards at the Gabba, Hazlewood will be one of the major threats for England's unsettled batting lineup. Let us delve deep into his strengths and weaknesses in Test cricket.
Immaculate control over line and length
Much like McGrath did right throughout his stellar career, Hazlewood maintains remarkable control over his line and length. The Tamworth-born seamer holds an impressive economy-rate of 2.78 despite having to ply his trade on usually non-conducive pitches in Australia. The innate ability to consistently land the ball on desired spots has served him incredibly well thus far.
Hazlewood's consistency had gained prominence even before he could evolve as a Test bowler. During the 2015 Sydney Test, India's fresh skipper Virat Kohli publicly called upon his seamers to emulate the then rookie Australian fast bowler.
Upon accruing the experience of traversing across different surfaces, Hazlewood's control over his radar has only become better with almost every match. Even though such an attribute is widely believed to be a necessary component for any aspiring bowler at Test level, developing the quality is an increasingly difficult task. In such regard, his spells can provide a certain amount of guarantee to the captain who wants constant pressure to be maintained on even flat tracks.
Extracting steep bounce from fuller deliveries
Influenced by the commonly held belief, the vast majority of visiting bowlers to Australia often get coerced into resorting to bouncers. However, as the home team's fast bowlers would insist, wickets are procured down under mostly from the area between good length and a fuller one. Since the Australian pitches aid extra bounce, batsmen are hesitant on the drive whenever the ball lands on tantalising spots.
Extra Cover: Josh Hazlewood - Australia's unsung hero in Tests
Perhaps, there is no better exponent than Hazlewood in extracting steep bounce from supporting pitches. With his tall yet athletic body, he gets the ball to rise adequately. Seldom does he unleash short balls to intimidate opposition batsmen. The right-armer's preferred fuller than normal length is ideal for Australian surfaces. As he targets the corridor of uncertainty on a regular basis, his style of bowling often induces edges from front foot drives. Consequently, those in catching positions behind the stumps are always in play.
Inability to generate reverse-swing
In sharp contrast to his splendid career record, Hazlewood's numbers in Asia are not too encouraging. From eight Tests, he has sent down 222.5 overs and managed to pick up just 16 wickets at a below-par average of 35.37 and underwhelming strike-rate of 83.5. It is pertinent to note that six of those scalps came in one innings.
The major reason behind Hazlewood's struggles in the subcontinent stems from his inability to generate reverse-swing. When the ball goes soft on sluggish tracks, there is very little for bowlers of his ilk to work with. Unlike his partner-in-crime Starc whose extra yard of pace adds to the allure of reverse, the right-armer is yet to come to terms with the art of moving the old ball.
With reverse swing out of the equation, Hazlewood's armoury does not appear suited for pitches prepared in places such as India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and UAE. Even though his accuracy can control the flow of runs from one end, batsmen tend to breathe easier knowing that the wicket-taking threat is substantially reduced.
Struggles to force the initiative on soft surfaces
The sight of a bright Dukes ball under gloomy conditions generally springs to mind when one ruminates of Test cricket in England. During the early part of summer, the pitches tend to be softer. Batsmen, who have the wherewithal to adapt, can become tricky to dislodge once set.
Not every type of world-class seamer possesses an eye-catching record on English shores. A classic example is Kapil Dev who averages an uncharacteristic 39.18 in Tests in the country. Hazlewood's record in England may not be far off from his overall numbers. But statistics do not reveal the complete picture. In the 2015 Ashes series, he could not quite match up to the likes of Stuart Broad, Steven Finn and James Anderson.
Considering his strengths, Hazlewood may need pitches with truer bounce to prosper. With his normally enticing fuller lengths attenuating into deliveries that can be driven on the up, he does struggle to maintain his stranglehold over dexterous batsmen. On two-paced surfaces offering spongy bounce, he does find it slightly difficult to force the initiative. This particular weakness can exacerbate especially during his latter spells in the match.
That said, Hazlewood remains Australia's best bet in ending their recent drought in England. It has been 16 years since their last series triumph in the Old Blighty. Judging by his work-ethic and eagerness to improve further, the metronome can be expected to overcome his limitations and make a telling difference to his team's fortunes.
However, thoughts of securing an Ashes victory away from home can be placed on the back-burner for the time being. Australia's immediate priority will revolve around winning the upcoming series on home soil and reclaim the coveted urn. For that to happen, Hazlewood will have to get into the groove quickly even as he returns to the scene of his Test debut.