<
>

Hazlewood steps up in shades of McGrath

play
'I had to have a sleeping pill last night' - Smith (1:32)

Australia captain says he's had a few 'different thoughts' about his decision to not enforce the follow-on in Adelaide. (1:32)

Striding through Adelaide Oval ahead of a finish expected to be so tense that Steven Smith had popped a sleeping pill the night before, Glenn McGrath emitted a casual yawn. In his days as Australia's spearhead, he was never more at home than in situations where a match was finely balanced and his captain needed early wickets. When others fretted, McGrath relaxed; good line, good length, a little bit of fifth-day variation in bounce? No worries, skipper.

McGrath's assurance was well-founded. The occasions on which he snuffed out English hope are too numerous to count: just ask Mike Atherton. He did so with a method that was both fiendishly simple and simply fiendish, challenging batsmen to make minute adjustments to subtle changes in movement of both sideways and vertical varieties, all the while with the bare minimum margin for error. Never as spectacular as others like Shane Warne or Brett Lee in his own side, or Wasim Akram and Muttiah Muralitharan among others, McGrath was the apogee of effectiveness.

For almost as long as he has been playing the game, Josh Hazlewood has worn comparisons with his fellow country New South Wales product, blessed with similar height, rhythm and seam position, and even boasting an extra gear of pace if required. But the task of stepping up as the key bowler in a nervy Ashes contest had previously been beyond him - in 2015 he was broadly considered the most disappointing of Australia's bowlers despite what most assumed would be the ideal style in which to turn the Dukes ball into a weapon.

Hazlewood's 2015 Ashes ended on the outfield of Northampton's county ground, when he was informed of the selectors' decision to drop him from the final Test. He was unhappy with the decision, but could not argue with its justification - far too often his early deliveries had swerved obligingly into Alastair Cook's hip, taking pressure off the England innings almost before it had started. Those early overs, before batsmen are completely set in feet and mind, are critical to any bowler, and the contrast between England's first- and second-innings fortunes with the ball in Adelaide confirmed the notion.

Entering the Australian season in recovery from a side strain, Hazlewood had put on an exceptional display in his first Sheffield Shield game back, making a mess of Western Australia's top order in two innings at Hurstville Oval, even as Mitchell Starc won more attention for a pair of tail-end hat-tricks. So well did Hazlewood bowl that it was immediately decided to spell him from the final Shield round before the Gabba, but the lack of match practice has since showed at various times, as he has struggled to put the Kookaburra, ostensibly more friendly to him than the Dukes, exactly where he wants to.

So it was with some expectation but also nervousness that Smith handed Hazlewood the ball for the resumption of play on day five, for a spell of no more than three overs ahead of the second new ball that would serve either as coup de gr ce to the England tail or Hail Mary to a motoring Joe Root. An early wicket or two before it arrived would tell the tale of the day and perhaps even the entire series - an English victory from so far behind on first innings would truly have shattered Australia's confidence. The previous evening, Hazlewood had one of his overs taken for 14 by Cook and Mark Stoneman, in a sign he was still searching for the ideal rhythm.

But on a pleasant afternoon unaffected by any breeze, Hazlewood felt the sun on his back, the seam on the ball and plenty of adrenaline rushing through his body. First ball to Chris Woakes was straight and fast, drawing a respectful dead bat. Second was fractionally wider on the same immaculate length, leaving Woakes uncertain whether or not to play. With an eye not yet "in" he did so, drawing a thin edge that the umpire Aleem Dar acknowledged after some delay. A Woakes review revealed a slim spike on Snicko, enough to silence the Barmy Army and send the Australians on their way.

Next over, Hazlewood gave up England's first run of the morning, albeit through a Moeen Ali false stroke. That put Root on strike, the England captain who had been the principal source of Australian anxiety through his wonderfully sure-footed batting on the fourth evening. First ball is short and rising, pushing Root back and taking evasive action. The next is fuller, around fifth stump and reversing perceptibly back, forcing a defensive punch.

Third ball is a little straighter, a little quicker, this time hinting at shape away and skidding through a fraction low. Root's shot is late and fraught, the toe end of the bat is touched, and in an instant Tim Paine is hurling the ball skywards, rejoicing in the critical moment of the day. There is no way back for England, no end of satisfaction for Hazlewood. Said Root of his dismissal: "This morning you give credit to the bowler. He bowled very good lengths, made it very difficult to get set and on a fifth-day wicket you're going to get balls that might keep a little bit lower than you expect. Maybe my footwork could've been better, but you can look into things too much sometimes."

A soaring exuberance is writ large across Hazlewood's face next ball, a 148.4kph bullet to Jonny Bairstow, and while he does not add to those two wickets, it is in his hand that the day's script has been written. "You wait for these moments to occur in games to go out there and stamp your authority on the game and pick up those early two, especially Joe Root, set the scene for today," Hazlewood told ABC Radio. "A few nerves there as well as excitement for the opportunity to win a Test match for your country."

"You wait for these moments to occur in games to go out there and stamp your authority on the game"

For your country, yes, but also for your team-mates. Australia's success so far in this series has been an ensemble effort, with two consistently outstanding performers in Nathan Lyon and Pat Cummins and a handful of contributions from others: Smith's hundred in Brisbane, Shaun Marsh's in Adelaide, David Warner's Gabba stand with Cameron Bancroft, and Starc's sporadic bursts of dangerous pace and swing. That's something Smith acknowledged in the aftermath of Australia's 120-run victory, in how Hazlewood had not been at his best at all points, but stepped up when most required.

"Josh probably hasn't been bowling as well as I've seen him bowl, I think he knows that," Smith said. "But this morning I thought the lengths that he came out and bowled were exceptional. The wickets of Woakes and Root, those lengths, that's Josh Hazlewood, that's what he does, he bowls that length day in, day out, doesn't try to swing the ball too much, he just hits the seam, gets a bit of movement both ways and today it was reversing a little bit, but the length he bowled in that first spell was particularly good.

"My plan this morning was to use him for three overs, to use Starcy for three overs, try to exploit whatever reverse swing there was and then get Gazza and Patty on until the new ball, hopefully take two wickets in that time and I think we got three, which was a bonus, and the new ball's always tough in pink-ball cricket. So things worked out well."

As for the McGrath comparison, Hazlewood is now stacking up quite favourably with his forebear. After 33 Test matches, McGrath had scooped 148 wickets at 23.83, an economy rate of 2.67 runs an over and a strike rate of 53.4. At the same point, Hazlewood has 125 at 25.97, an economy rate of 2.78 and a strike rate of 56.00. Based on the impact he enjoyed in Adelaide on day five, Hazlewood can expect to haunt England, and reassure Australia, for many years to come.