Hazlewood marks return to Australia XI with 'vintage' performance
Out of the XI for long periods with Australia recently opting for conditions-based attacks, the seamer showed he has plenty to offer
It had been two years since Josh Hazlewood bowled a delivery in Test cricket on his home ground. He could barely have produced a better display to mark his return.
It would be stretching things to say that Hazlewood needs a good performance - there is plenty of credit in the bank with 217 Tests wickets at 26.16 before today - but there is certainly competition for Australia's fast-bowling spots, especially when only two are included. Scott Boland, holder of Test average 12.21, is watching from the sidelines this week.
For Hazlewood this has been another frustrating summer interrupted by a side strain as the 2021-22 Ashes also played out. This is only his sixth Test in two years with conditions-based selection also keeping him out of the XI.
However, before this game he was confident the pecking order remained intact and this display was vintage Hazlewood.
With his second ball an edge from Dean Elgar flew wide of third slip and the South Africa captain was twice beaten before the over was complete. In Hazlewood's next over, a similar pattern with two skimming past the outside edge.
Hazlewood then took the edge from the first delivery of his third, with Steven Smith diving low to his right to hold what would have been one of great slip catches only for the third umpire, Richard Kettleborough, to decide after much deliberation that it was not quite a clean take. "I had a pretty good look and thought it was definitely out and think most the people out there did," Hazlewood said.
But Elgar, who has had a forgettable tour, was living on borrowed time. He almost fell to Pat Cummins when he fended a short ball off his gloves and it dropped just in front of short leg.
However, Hazlewood would not be denied. In the fifth over of an exacting spell he produced a brutal short ball from around the wicket which Elgar could only glove through to a leaping Alex Carey. With one innings left for the tour, Elgar held an average of 9.20 having been South Africa's main hope of standing up to Australia's bowlers.
It was reward for high-quality Test bowling, but Hazlewood was modest about his return performance.
"Was quite windy at times and it swirls here and it can be quite tough to get your rhythm, we probably saw a couple of no-balls from me and Patty, maybe due to that, but felt decent all day," he said. "Think your first hit-out back, you start blowing a bit quicker than normal just with a bit more excitement. It's different in a game to the nets so it's good to get that day out of the way and zero in tomorrow."
Hazlewood had one more over in his first spell and thought he had got through Henrich Klaasen but on the DRS there was ruled to be inconclusive evidence as to whether he had hit it, and it looked to be striking outside the line as well.
He was held back briefly after tea, but it did not take long when he was brought on to add to his success. In the channel outside off that has been the hallmark of his career he drew Temba Bavuma into a poke.
How many Tests in a row Hazlewood can string together remains uncertain and will depend on the conditions which present in India. Mitchell Starc is touch-and-go for the opening Test in Nagpur, but when he is available it is him and Cummins who will be first-choice if only two are picked, judging by how Pakistan and Sri Lanka played out.
While those sorts of decisions can only be made when they see what's in front of them next month, it may be worth Australia recalling how the 2004 side earned their series victory in India with a three-one attack of Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Michael Kasprowicz and Shane Warne.
Although the weather in Sydney has not allowed the pitch to break up as it might, the way that South Africa struggled against the brilliance of Hazlewood and Cummins suggests that Australia might have been better served with Boland to call on but there is a belief spin will still be key.
"Think it's the right call," Hazlewood said on the balance of the attack. "Would have been interesting to see the wicket after a full four day's play, think it would have been a nice wicket to bowl spin on. Still think it will be, but with a lot more traffic on it…think it's the right attack and the ball spinning into the bat is more dangerous."
If the fourth day was any indication, Hazlewood and Cummins will have a hefty workload as Australia seek to enforce the follow-on and take the 14 wickets that would secure victory. Neither will shirk the challenge and, after watching others take the spoils in the preceding four Tests, Hazlewood will no doubt savour his chance to at the centre of the action.
"You are there in that XI to win that Test match," he said of a potentially heavy final day. "Whatever it takes to win it, then you see how everyone's pulled up afterwards. In the back of your mind a little bit is we have three weeks off so we can burn ourselves tomorrow."
Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo