'It's a catch-22 with Hazlewood' - Lehmann
After a year full of ups and downs, Josh Hazlewood is back where it all started. Back in Brisbane, the scene of his Test debut last summer, when he picked up five wickets in his maiden innings and seven for the match. Back at the Gabba, where he left the field with whole-body cramps due to the heat and pressure of his first day as a Test cricketer. Back in the squad, yes. Back in the team, maybe.
In his first year as a Test cricketer, Hazlewood has so far played nine games for 40 wickets at the outstanding average of 21.75. But it has not all been smooth sailing. He finished the Ashes joint second on Australia's wicket tally with 16 victims, but his consistency waned throughout the series and he was dropped for the final Test at The Oval.
As much as anything, perhaps it was exhaustion. Having played the final three Tests against India, then being a key member of the World Cup-winning squad, then playing six straight Tests in the West Indies and England, his 24-year-old body started to struggle, and mentally he found it tough as well. The coach Darren Lehmann is confident though that the old, young Hazlewood is back.
"It's a catch-22 with Josh," Lehmann said. "Everyone's caning him for his Ashes performance. I think he got 16 wickets at 23. It wasn't that bad. There were times when he didn't control the ball as he would like, but he's a young kid and we forget about that half the time. He has come back fresh and ready to go. He started to have some niggles towards the back end [of the Ashes]."
Whether Hazlewood plays the first Test of the home summer against New Zealand remains to be seen. Peter Siddle replaced Hazlewood for The Oval Test and bowled impeccably for match figures of 6 for 67, and it seems likely that one of Siddle or Hazlewood will miss out; Mitchell Johnson is a certain starter and it would be hard to ignore Mitchell Starc given his recent form.
"We'll sit down with the captain and selector on duty in the next day or two to finalise that," Lehmann said. "We're pretty comfortable with where our quicks are at, it's which format we want to go, whether we go two left-handers or two right-armers or whatever it may be. They're all quality bowlers so we're really happy with that."
If Hazlewood gets the chance to return at the venue of his seven wickets on debut, he is confident that he will be fresh after his time off following the end of the Ashes. He was to be rested from the Test tour of Bangladesh, which was abandoned in any case, and after returning mid-way through the Matador Cup, he picked up five wickets in three games, and five in last week's Sheffield Shield round.
"I got better as the game went on last week in Adelaide," Hazlewood said. "Started off not quite in rhythm but the longer the game went the better I felt, which is always a good sign. I did pretty well in the Matador Cup and even though it is one-day cricket I think any cricket leading into the season is good and the ball feels like it's coming out pretty well."
Hazlewood will be more comfortable with the Kookaburra ball than the Dukes used in England, and the Gabba is likely to suit his style of bowling full and allowing the ball to swing. He concedes that at times during the Ashes he lost patience and tried to force wickets to come too quickly, and he has also got into some bad habits against England's left-handers.
"I probably bowled a touch full, I think the way their batters played the swinging ball was a lot better than the way the Australian batters played it," he said. "They are used to the conditions. The Kookaburra doesn't do as much throughout the day. After that initial 10 or 15 overs you have to go back to hitting those lines and building the pressure that way.
"I think I just got into a bad habit with so many left-handers in the English team, my run-up kept getting wider and wider, then when the right-handers got strike I just stayed on that line rather than getting straighter. So a few bad habits crept in."
He is hoping for no repeat of those bad habits during this series against New Zealand, nor does he want to revisit the painful cramping that forced him off the field on his first day as a Test cricketer. Starc also struggled on that energy-sapping mid-December day against India, and Hazlewood hopes that the early November weather will be more favourable this time.
"I have great confidence at the Gabba and I think the conditions suit me pretty well," he said. "Hopefully it is not as hot as last year. I think it was the added nerves early morning being my first Test match, I was very tense and on-edge and that probably led to it a fair bit as well. I haven't really experienced it before, cramping and since then so hopefully that's in the past and I'm a bit more relaxed these days."
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale