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'Patchy' Hazlewood seeks new-ball strikes

Josh Hazlewood gets on one knee as he celebrates Gallo Images

A "patchy" Josh Hazlewood has admitted he needs to improve with the new ball against South Africa, ahead of Test matches in Cape Town and Johannesburg likely to offer more conventional assistance for fast bowlers after the reverse-swing-oriented conditions of Durban and Port Elizabeth.

The Australians reconvene on Monday to train at Newlands after four days off, knowing they need to produce more runs from the top order while also finding a way past the irrepressible AB de Villiers. By Hazlewood's estimate, Steven Smith's team had played at "less than 50%" of its capacity in the second Test, meaning there is plenty of room for the necessary upside in the third.

Hazlewood identified new-ball spells as an area in which the tourists must lift. His best display early in an innings was arguably on day four at St George's Park, where the Australians had only 100 runs to defend but Hazlewood homed in on Aiden Markram, having him dropped by Mitchell Marsh at first slip then held by Smith at second either side of lunch.

"With the new ball [I have been] a little bit patchy I think," Hazlewood said. "Durban probably wasn't a great new-ball wicket. Obviously a lot of wickets were taken once it started reversing and the ball was a bit older and probably [Port Elizabeth] as well to a degree. It's definitely something we can work on, we haven't seen a heap of conventional swing. Might have been different if we'd bowled first in the Test just gone. But there might be a little bit more in Cape Town or Jo'burg, so working on that.

"The Ashes I felt like I bowled really well the whole way through and sometimes you're just lucky if you get the nicks or you don't. I think we had a lot of plays and misses in the first innings and on any other day they might have nicked them and it's a different story. You've got to take the results out of it sometimes and focus on what you're doing."

The suspension of Kagiso Rabada for two Tests - with an appeal pending - robs South Africa of their best reverse-swing exponent, opening the possibility of a Newlands surface similar to that prepared for January's Test match against India, where Vernon Philander's medium-paced seamers proved exceptionally challenging. On that sort of pitch, Hazlewood's accuracy and bounce will come further into play, with the new ball in particular.

"I haven't played a Test match in Cape Town so I'm a bit unsure. It's been different I think for a few different games," he said. "They might leave some grass on it for Vernon who is pretty good down there most of the time. Depends on what we find. Anything with a bit of grass is always good. You don't come across it very often in Test cricket so would be good.

"We're pretty used to it [flat pitches] being from Australia. All summer was pretty tough work. I think we do it pretty well and we work as a group on those sort of wickets. Big Mitch [Mitchell Starc] is actually a very good flat-wicket bowler. He seems to take big wickets on those sort of tracks and Patty [Pat Cummins] has got a great bouncer and then good pace so I think we're a pretty well-rounded group so we can tailor our skillsets to different wickets.

"I pretty much try and build pressure from my end and dot it up and force the mistake that way. I think Gaz [Nathan Lyon] is probably a bit the same. If it's not spinning a great deal, he did a great job at the WACA I remember during the summer, and just built that pressure and create the wickets that way."

Against de Villiers, Hazlewood reasoned that the touring bowlers had offered too much latitude early in his innings, allowing for a fast start, and once the former Proteas captain became set he was exceedingly difficult to pin down. "We'll have another meeting on their whole team, but yeah, him in particular," Hazlewood said. "We've obviously struggled a bit so far.

"He's just gotten off the mark and got to that 20 or 30 runs quite easily and we've probably gifted that to him a little bit. Probably just starting better against him and treating him like any other player really and bowl good balls more often than not. We've come up against good players in other series and guys who have got mountains of runs. Virat [Kohli] in Australia was one early on in my career and they're only human so hopefully he's scored all of his runs so far.

"I guess you've got to put his shot selection out of your head and just concentrate on what you're doing and where you're bowling. If he plays a good shot off a good ball then fair enough, but you don't want him hitting your bad balls. You want to be putting it in the right areas, more often than not. You try and get it out of your head as quickly as you can and you realise where he actually played the shot from and it's not a terrible ball. So just keep putting it there and hopefully something is going to happen."

One area in which Hazlewood is now better placed to make something happen is in terms of his pace, which rose appreciably during the Ashes summer, off the back of some extra gym work, which was made possible by a side strain suffered in Bangladesh. Duly prevented from bowling, Hazlewood instead added strength, and has at times been able to push up to as fast as 148kph.

"I think through this winter just gone I didn't play a lot of cricket. It was probably a blessing in disguise," he said. "I did my side in Bangladesh and got that extra 8-10 weeks of time in the gym in conditioning and strength and a bit more power. And I think that's just translated onto the field through the summer first of all and hopefully continue it here which I think I have.

"I think the winters before I played a lot of cricket and we'd had some big Test tours in winter and some one-day tours and I hadn't had that period of time where you could get in the gym and get that weight back on and get stronger and fitter. There's pros and cons for both I think."

As for Smith's mediocre batting run so far in the series, Hazlewood said bowling in the nets to the captain had not become any less testing for the Australian bowlers. "He's hard to get out as usual, so I think it's only around the corner. When you average 63 it's a matter of time until the runs start to come," Hazlewood said. "He probably just needs to relax and go back to what works for him and I'm sure he'll be fine.

"He knows it's early on in the series, it's 1-1 and we got close to them we thought in the last Test and played below 50% of what we can play. He knows there's room for improvement if we play at our best then hopefully we come away with the wins."