Ben Jones analyses Hazlewood’s unique blend of accuracy and pace.
Go with me on this – let’s talk about Ginger Rogers. There’s a famous saying, about the American actress and dancer, that originated in a 1980s cartoon. The cartoon read: ‘Sure Fred Astaire was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did…backwards and in high heels.’
It’s gained a life of its own, as a phrase, as a light-hearted feminist slogan.
And, for obvious reasons, it’s always reminded me of the Australian seam bowler Josh Hazlewood.
Hazlewood’s accuracy in red ball cricket, is a thing of tremendous beauty. Only a handful of bowlers in the last 15 years have been able to match Hazlewood’s ability to pop the ball on both the optimal line, and the optimal length. 44% of his deliveries in Test cricket are in that hot zone, a staggering degree.
Yet what is so thrilling about Hazlewood’s accuracy, is not really the accuracy itself. It’s that it doesn’t exist in isolation; Hazlewood combines all that grace and precision with bowling speed that, in the hands of any other bowler on the planet right now, would negate that accuracy.
Hazlewood is reaching excellence in the most pragmatic and sensible of disciplines, but without denying himself the raw thrills of pace. He’s Anderson and Archer in one; Rabada and Philander; early McGrath, and Late McGrath.
Hazlewood has quietly made himself into a modern anomaly, the exceptional bowler that proves the rule. This is a man who has done away with the primary compromise of fast bowling at the elite level, maintaining world class pace with world class accuracy.
He’s doing everything that Anderson, Bumrah, Rabada are doing – but backwards, in high heels.
What’s more, all of this pace and accuracy is coming from a height almost unparalleled. In the entire CricViz database – the entirety of history, if we agree history began in 2006 – there are only seven seamers to release the ball from higher into the air: Steve Harmison, Stuart Clark, Chris Tremlett, Morne Morkel, Andre Nel, Andrew Flintoff, and of course, Jason Holder. The threat that Hazlewood offers is unique, given that not one of that group matched both Hazlewood’s pace and accuracy.
The effect is obvious. To watch Hazlewood bowl is to see a batsman receive almost every ball at the top of their bat, to see each delivery thunder into the splice, to see very, very few of his deliveries pass idly by. A vast majority of his bowling just seems to bounce a bit too much for the length they’re on, to hit the bat a bit too hard, to cause slightly too many problems, slightly too often, for anything to be simple. Hazlewood is a bowler who toys with the edges of a batsman’s technique, leaning on them gently, till they find themselves on the floor.
And this isn’t without explanation. It’s a direct consequence of the way Hazlewood operates in the upper echelons of all these metrics. Pace? Sure, I’ll be among the quickest. Seam movement? I’ll do my bit. Accuracy? Fine, I’ll be genuinely elite, but there’ll be no song and dance. Hazlewood’s superpower is that he’s a little bit better at every aspect of fast bowling than you probably think he is.
Part of this is about perception, and the perception of the ‘Fab Four’ more generally. None of these bowlers are Australia’s finest in isolation, though each has a case to be in the conversation, in different ways, in their respective disciplines. The more pertinent point is that rarely in their history have Australia fielded four bowlers – the same bowlers – with each of such quality, together on so many occasions. Should they each of the Fab Four play together in the First Test, then they will have appeared together as often as Shane Warne, Jason Gillespie, Glenn McGrath, and Brett Lee. As a quartet, they are leaving a mark on Australian cricket.
As important as any question of frequency, is that rarely has there been a group of four bowlers with each having such a clearly defined identity.
Pat Cummins, all Don Draper swagger. A face born on a billboard, a bowler born as the leader of the attack.
Nathan Lyon, the yeoman, the curator-done-good, the survivor, clinging onto his place in a culture of copycat leg spinners. A GOAT amongst sheep, you might say.
Mitchell Starc, the fastest bowler in the world, the barrel firing 150kph bullets. Mercurial, unpredictable, match-winning.
And then there’s Hazlewood.
The attack dog? No.
The enforcer? Not even close.
The metronome? Maybe, but so much more.
When you are picked alongside such a consistent group of players, your identity as a player becomes vested in them. The attribute you have, that none of the others do, becomes your identifier, your gimmick. Yet for Hazlewood, his lack of a ‘gimmick’ has meant he slips under the radar. It’s meant that he is under appreciated as the elite talent he is.
Australia v India is not typically a rivalry which rewards subtlety. Both countries are fiercely passionate about their cricket and it has lent the cricket, of late, a gladiatorial atmosphere. Even in the absence of David Warner and Steve Smith, Australia found fire and fury in their bowling attack, while India’s captain funnels it into everything he does on a cricket field.
Yet last time these two met, it was the quietest and most understated member of the touring party, Cheteshwar Pujara, who made the defining contribution. No gimmick, no “brand”, just runs – and lots of them.
It’s that sort of spirit which Hazlewood needs to rekindle, if he is to offer a similarly decisive performance. In amongst cricketing cultures which do place emphasis on those at the extremes, Hazlewood is a man who has quietly mastered a wide range of complementary skills, each skill mastered to the necessary degree and no more, nothing embellished or oversold.
With this skillset, you make your name not by moments, but by cold, hard achievements. People don’t remember your magic balls, but they remember the series wins. For all the best efforts, a drawn Ashes series last winter in England is not one of these achievements. A lost series in India, or in South Africa, isn’t even close. Swatting aside the last team to win on Australian shores might not hang too high in the gallery of Australian Test match achievements, but it gets you a foot in the door. It gets you respect. It gets you another series win.
And in 2020, that’s how guys like Hazlewood make their claim for greatness.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz. Follow @benjonescricket on Twitter.