At the famed Gabba, on his long-awaited Test debut in December 2014, 23-year-old Josh Hazlewood delivered on the promise he had held since he was 17 years old when he was given a state contract while still in high school. He picked up five wickets (for 68 runs in 23.2 overs of precise fast bowling) in the first innings including that of Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and MS Dhoni – all nicking to wicket-keeper Brad Haddin as he displayed the strengths that had made him the “one to watch out for” in the eyes of Australian observers – fabulous control of length, bounce and movement.
Hazlewood was likened to his idol Glenn McGrath, not just because of their similar origins from rural New South Wales, but also for the height that produced troubling bounce and the relentless accuracy, and just enough movement that threatened both edges of the bat. He was in line for debut four years earlier on a tour to India but was held back by stress injuries to his back. Even as he played limited-overs matches for Australia, the next four years would allow him to refine his craft and once he put on the baggy green, he has been an indispensable member of the Australian bowling attack.
As a youngster, with similarities to McGrath swirling around him, he had however misunderstood the methods of the great Aussie pacer who formed a deadly combination with Shane Warne, and had limited his range. He was more happy to hit the back of length consistently to defeat the batsmen. It was his work with the then Australian bowling coach Craig McDermott that changed his bowling philosophy who coached and cajoled him to pitch the ball further up to allow it to swing. It wasn't a natural length for Hazlewood but he understood the benefits of fuller length and had become a complete fast bowler by the time he held the red Kookaburra in his hand at Brisbane facing the Indians.
Hazlewood had become such a permanent fixture in the Australian Test side that he has missed just a single Test since his debut, the fifth Test of a long Ashes tour in 2015, at the Oval. Even as Australia lost possession of the urn to the hosts at the conclusion of fourth Test, Hazlewood had impressive series returns of 16/412.
His preternatural control of line and length has made Hazlewood a bowler to be reckoned with regardless of the conditions. If the pitches do not hold any terrors for the batsmen who feel emboldened to be adventurous, still have to contend with the immaculate deliveries from Hazlewood and his miserly ways – 2.83 economy in 26 Tests and 25 per cent of overs bowled are maidens.
Hazlewood allows the luxury for Australia to employ Mitchell Starc from the other end to attack the stumps in the hunt for wickets, and in the process expensive. The numbers make for an interesting reading: Starc has a slightly better strike rate but Hazlewood's average and economy are superior. Starc's extra pace and the advantage of left arm delivery permits to pick wickets in bunches, indicated by the frequency of five-wicket hauls. While Starc's wickets tend to be more eye-catching, Hazlewood's are founded in the time-tested Test cricket principles of control and accuracy.
Hazlewood has limited experience of bowling in India – in T20s and ODIs - and the three Tests on Sri Lankan pitches provided him no favours (7/229 at elevated average of 32.7), but he will still be the vital piece around which the Australian bowling revolves. His ability to keep the Indian batsmen quiet while troubling them with his disconcerting bounce will be counted upon by Starc, and the spinners. It is almost a given that Indian batsmen would look to attack the spinners – Nathan Lyon and Steven O'Keefe – and Starc by nature is profligate, and so it will be down to Hazlewood to keep a lid on scoring rate.
McGrath in his storied career featured in eight Tests in India and Australia won three of those, losing four including two in the epic 2001 series. He had a significant role the last time Australia won a Test series in 2004 (14 wickets in 4 Tests at an average of 25, E/R 2.5, S/R 60). His overall record in India is even better (33 wickets in 8 Tests; Ave. 21, E/R 2.2, S/R 57).
Hazlewood would have done the comparisons to McGrath true justice if he delivers a series performance worthy of it, and if he does, Australia will once again be looking at conquering the final frontier.