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Hazlewood the key for Australia against Kiwis

A lot rests on Josh Hazlewood's shoulders in India. (AFP PHOTO/IAN KINGTON)
Expert
11th February, 2016
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There’s no Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Johnson or James Pattinson. As Australia start their two-Test series against New Zealand today, it is relative rookie Josh Hazlewood who shapes as the tourists’ most important bowler.

Much of the focus ahead of this intriguing series has been on how Australia’s batting behemoths Steve Smith and David Warner will fare in conditions which may well aid seam and swing bowling.

The battle between that pair and Kiwi new ball duo Trent Boult and Tim Southee undoubtedly will have a giant influence on this series.

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Yet Hazlewood’s role will be every bit as pivotal as those of Smith or Warner. The 25-year-old is coming off a stunning 2015 in which he was selected in the ICC Test Team of the Year, was named ICC Emerging Cricketer of the Year and bowled impeccably as Australia claimed the World Cup.

After 15 Tests, Hazlewood has the remarkable record of 61 wickets at an average of 24. If the pitches in New Zealand offer seam movement, as Kiwi captain Brendon McCullum has predicted, that should make him even more potent.

With his towering height, relentless accuracy and bolt-upright seam position, Hazlewood is built to bowl in such conditions. He will be keen to make amends for his performance in the 2015 Ashes during which he struggled to control the swinging Dukes ball during his first series in England.

Hazlewood must have been stung by the often exaggerated criticism of his efforts in the Ashes. He entered that series as an extremely green international cricketer, with just five Tests to his name, and snared 16 wickets at 25.

Yet after the series loss, Hazlewood was held to account by many cricket pundits and followers as though he had played 50 Tests, arguably copping more stick than veteran Mitchell Johnson, who had an awful series.

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He did not look in rhythm in the first two Tests against the Kiwis this summer but was outstanding in the deciding third Test at Adelaide.

Directing delivery after delivery at the top of off stump, Hazlewood expertly exploited the green pitch, taking nine wickets for the Test. What made that effort even more commendable was the manner in which he stepped up after spearhead Starc got injured in the first innings.

After playing 11 Tests in seven months, Hazlewood appeared worn out by the end of the recent home Test series against the West Indies. Over the past five weeks, however, he has been offered generous rest, playing only four ODIs in that time, which should help him enter the series against New Zealand fit and fresh.

In Australia, Hazlewood proved a major headache for Kiwi opener Martin Guptill, who is in barnstorming form in limited-overs cricket. He also bowled accurately to superstar Kane Williamson, New Zealand’s key batsman.

With veteran strokemaker Ross Taylor set to miss this first Test through injury, Williamson and Guptill will shoulder greater burden. Hazlewood surely will be confident he can continue Guptill’s woeful record against Australia – the Kiwi averages just 16 in seven Tests against them.

In the absence of Starc and Pattinson, Hazlewood is in the unfamiliar position of being the most dynamic bowler in the Australian attack. Peter Siddle and Jackson Bird are very similar in method to Hazlewood, relying on accuracy and subtle skills to draw a loose shot from the batsmen.

Neither of them, though, are able to produce the same top speeds as Hazlewood. While he prefers to bowl within himself in Tests, operating mainly in the mid-130km/h bracket, Hazlewood is capable of bowling far sharper than that.

He regularly reaches the mid-140s in ODIs, and was clocked at 149km/h in Australia’s World Cup semi-final win over India last year, before hitting 146km/h in the final against New Zealand.

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Hazlewood, Bird and Siddle are tailormade for seaming conditions and will be a major handful for the New Zealand batsmen if Australia bowl first today on what is set to be a very green deck.

But if the pitch flattens out significantly as the match wears on, it will be interesting to see whether Hazlewood has the fitness to bowl a spell or two at top speed, above 140km/h, to offer Australia something different.

For the first time in his career, Hazlewood enters a Test series as Australia’s spearhead. How he handles that responsibility will have a giant bearing on this series.