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Cricket news - Hazlewood - Of accuracy and lessons on the go
Growing up, Josh Hazlewood would pick up any activity or sport that allowed him to avoid school. And there was a lot of opportunity to be outdoors in his tiny hometown of Bendeemer, where the most exciting part of the year was when the annual tractor festival came around. Cricket and soccer might have been his go-to sports, but he also dabbled in javelin and at times basketball, only because he was tall. So it isn't surprising that even as a Test bowler, Hazlewood prefers doing most of his learning on the field rather than off it in a confined room. Like he's shown in his Test career already, and did so again at Headingley on Friday (August 23), he's quite skilled at asking questions of batsmen when he's got a ball in his hand. And often enough, not many seem equipped to stand up to Hazlewood's inquiries, which like England found out, in helpful conditions can come across as an inquisition.
A newspaper report early in Hazlewood's career had revealed that the towering New South Welshman had plans of shifting base to Queensland as a teenager, but couldn't get a sports' scholarship from any private school in Brisbane. It's ironic then that all the analytics and statistical data that the Australian team receives before every Test match and series comes to them from the National Cricket Centre based in Brisbane. And it's quite elaborate and game-changing data too according to some in the Australian camp, the stuff that the men from Down Under base their entire strategy and plans on.
It includes the obvious analysis on the batsmen in the opposition, from what lines and lengths they get out to most often. There's also, however, detailed information on what lengths work for fast bowlers at specific grounds in England - be it Edgbaston or Lord's. And this is the only bit of the holistic data from Brisbane that Hazlewood is interested in. The rest he just works out for himself on his own when he's steaming in to bowl in the middle.
"All I focus is on the length really. I think it's around 6-7 metres here, and it's perfect. Batsmen don't like it there from any team so I want to keep smashing that 6-7 metre length and hope the results take care of themselves," he would say at the end of the day after having helped blow England away for 67 with a five-wicket haul.
Hazlewood doesn't blow batsmen away though. He prizes them out. In a series, where talk of intimidation and being fiery has dominated all chat especially from the English, Hazlewood is the type of pacer who doesn't overpower batsmen but out-skills them. No surprises then that the list of batsmen he's dismissed the most in his career are made up of only top-order and mainly top-class batsmen. They include everyone from Hashim Amla, Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Babar Azam, Alastair Cook, Ajinkya Rahane and now Joe Root, who has climbed to No. 2 in the Hazlewood hit-list.
What makes Hazlewood special though is the fact that his multiple dismissals of the who's who of modern-day Test batting aren't scattered across different series. It's more a case of once Hazlewood has your number in a series and you in his sights, he doesn't often let you get away, as Root has found out already over the last 10 days. It was the same with Amla when he got the recently retired South African mainstay on five occasions during their tour of Australia in late 2016.
The length's been the same both times Hazlewood has accounted for Root this series - in between the 6-7 metre length that he speaks about. It's also a length where the England captain, who doesn't have the most proactive front-foot, ends up getting caught in the crease. At Lord's, Hazlewood got the ball to jag back in sharply and Root was caught in front of the stumps. Here at Headingley, he started with a similar delivery, catching Root on the move again, and managing to score a leading edge that nearly carried to slip. The next ball landed on a similar length, had the right-hander rooted to the crease again, but this time straightened very late to catch the outside-edge to let David Warner take an acrobatic catch at first slip.
The rest of Hazlewood's victims fell prey to the same intense scrutiny that the 28-year-old puts his victims through over and over again without a let-off. He had Jason Roy out with one that questioned his patience and skill, and found both wanting. He had Jonny Bairstow succumb in similar fashion before having Jos Buttler pull the trigger on his own wicket with a loose and airy drive on the up straight to cover. The Buttler wicket in particular was the kind you'd get to see in the late overs of an ODI not on the second afternoon of a Test match when the team's score is 56-7 in their first innings.
We are in an era though where batsmen, especially from England, aren't used to metronomic bowlers slamming the pitch on the same spot over and over again. It's a batting line-up after all that's so seeped in facing white-ball exponents with their ball-by-ball variations and a focus on trying their best to not pitch the ball at the same spot. And like was proven at Leeds, they are unlikely to be a match for Hazlewood's accuracy and highly refined skills as a fast bowler.
This also the first time in his Test career Hazlewood had teamed up with arguably the most explosive pace-bowling combination in Australia currently, that of Pat Cummins and James Pattinson. You'd imagine the studious Cummins to be slightly keener in the vast analytics at his disposal than the fiery Pattinson. And the pair played their part too in the dismantling of England on Friday. Though a couple of Cummins's wickets may have come courtesy the short ball, their focus too like with most of the Australian pacers on tour so far was on hitting the 6-7 metre length and letting the pitch and the conditions do its bidding.
Though he's made a career out of "landing the ball on the same spot" since, Hazlewood hadn't quite managed to come to grips with executing his inherent skill when he last toured England for the Ashes in 2015. "To land that ball in the same spot over and over, is quite easy in Australia with the Kookaburra where it doesn't do as much off the wicket and in the air. It was a bit more of a challenge in England. We saw how well the English guys did it, and it's something to work on for next time, definitely," he'd said after not being at his best during the last Ashes here.
Four years on, like he revealed on Friday, he's made amends and quite significantly so.
"I've probably not tried to swing it as much I'd say. Probably came over here (last time around) and the Dukes ball swinging around and you're happy and I think I bowled too full in general. But I think I've just allowed the wicket and the conditions to do the work this time and yeah just bowl at the right spot and let everything else take care of itself." What he didn't spell out but we know is true with most things that Hazlewood does with the ball is that he'd learnt his lesson where he enjoys doing it the most, on the field, in the middle.
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