Are Australia ready to unleash Josh Hazlewood 2.0 at the T20 World Cup?
Having had sustained success for Australia and CSK, he appears most likely to start the tournament with Starc and Cummins
Do you remember the time when the Champions League T20 was a thing? Do you remember the time when Sydney Sixers won the title in Johannesburg? Do you actually remember that time when a certain Josh Hazlewood had the best economy rate (4.70) among bowlers who had bowled at least 15 overs in that tournament?
In the 2013-14 Big Bash League (BBL), Hazlewood was the joint-second-highest wicket-taker, with 14 strikes in nine matches at an economy rate of 7.88. He could bounce out batters. He could york them. He could also best them with good lengths. Mumbai Indians, who would go on to become the gold standard of T20 cricket, snapped him up at the 2014 IPL auction for INR 50 lakh. He didn't get a game at Mumbai in 2014 and he opted out of the next season, citing concerns around his workload.
He made it to Australia's squad in the 2016 T20 World Cup, but for the next four years, he didn't play any competitive T20 cricket and went on to become a Test-match phenom. After he wasn't selected in Australia's 50-over World Cup squad in 2019, a hurt Hazlewood returned to where it all started for him, bowling thrifty spells for Sixers in the BBL. Hazlewood's accuracy in the BBL attracted the attention of Chennai Super Kings in the IPL. In 2021, he became a regular for Australia in T20Is and Super Kings in the IPL, in the lead-up to the T20 World Cup.
Sure, hitting heavy lengths with a high-arm action is Hazlewood's traditional strength, but there's more to him. He can now bowl slower offcutters into the pitch, cross-seamers, and even has a knuckle-ball in his repertoire.
He made a telling contribution for Super Kings in the IPL final against Kolkata Knight Riders last week in Dubai. In his very first over, he found extra bounce and the edge of Venkatesh Iyer's bat, but MS Dhoni dropped a fairly straightforward catch. In his next over, he drew another mis-hit, this time from Shubman Gill, but Shardul Thakur missed a more difficult chance in the infield.
Thakur, however, brought Super Kings back with a double-strike in the 11th over. In the next over, Dhoni matched up Hazlewood with Sunil Narine and the seamer bashed a heavy length, having Narine holing out on the pull. He then had Eoin Morgan holing out with a similar short ball. His 2 for 29 in four overs was also vital to Super Kings pinning down Knight Riders after they had surged to 91 for 0 in the 11th over, chasing 193.
Hazlewood had also played his part in the first qualifier against Delhi Capitals, returning identical figures. Earlier against Mumbai Indians, Hazlewood had got a full ball to skid into Kieron Pollard and trapped him lbw.
In the first leg of the IPL in India, Pollard had knocked the living daylights out of Super Kings - and Lungi Ngidi - in Delhi, walloping an unbeaten 87 off 34 balls as Mumbai mowed down 219. Hazlewood, who had opted out of the India leg of the tournament, was specifically picked to counter Pollard in Dubai and he did his job, swinging the game Super Kings' way.
"Working on a range of things [in T20 cricket]," Hazlewood told Star Sports during the IPL. "Probably it's about putting it into practice at the right time in these situations and every game throws up something different. They [the opposition] can come hard at the start, through at the middle or in the end. It's just about reading the play, I think, and I guess what you're working on training, implementing that at the right time and executing it.
"I think it [Test-match] length can work at certain times and the batter is probably going to use his feet or get deep in the crease or try something. You got to sort of be ready for that and try and pre-empt that I guess."
That Test-match length has worked for him in the powerplay, but it will become a slot length in the slog overs, a phase in which Hazlewood has conceded 9.62 runs an over since the 2016 T20 World Cup. Kane Richardson, in comparison, has gone at only 8.81 runs an over in T20 cricket during this phase. Richardson also brings with him more experience and hence could be a more compelling option at the death along with Mitchell Starc, the leader of the pack.
It would be a tough call for the team management but having had sustained success for Australia - and Super Kings - in recent times, Hazlewood appears most likely to start the T20 World Cup with Starc and Pat Cummins.
Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo