Men's Ashes 2021-22
Chest, chin, win: The evolution of Josh Hazlewood
The stunning form of the NSW quick in recent years can be traced back to a lengthy period of sweat, hard lessons and time away from life on the road
Josh Hazlewood has a few simple training notes scrawled down that he sometimes likes to call to mind. They're in his head now – well, the two key words, anyway – as he pores over his bowling plans for next week's Ashes opener in Brisbane.
Two words that across the past two-and-a-half years have seen him evolve into arguably the world's premier fast bowler.
Their origins lie in the autumn of 2019, on the straw-coloured turf practice wickets just beyond the Sydney Cricket Ground. Hazlewood had come out of the previous season's battle for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy with his body broken and his ego bruised. Thirteen wickets across four Tests – one every 70 balls – represented his least effective Test series on home soil.
For much of it, he had been fighting a war against himself on three fronts: the pain of stress fractures; a technical issue with his action; and an imbalance in his physique.
As Australia cruised to a two-nil Test series win against Sri Lanka, Hazlewood rested. Then, when his body was ready, he began plotting his comeback. This time around, he was going to come back evolved. Matured. Better. And those two words were going to help him along the way.
"There's times throughout your career where it's not always smooth sailing," he tells cricket.com.au. "There's going to be troughs and rises.
"As a quick, the low points are when you're coming back from injury – but it's important to use that time wisely."
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Trent Copeland remembers a 17-year-old Josh Hazlewood blowing into the big smoke from Bendemeer – all arms and legs, without a single Sydney grade game to his name – and onto the SCG for his first-class debut against the touring New Zealanders in the summer of 2008-09.
"(Former NSW batter) Greg Mail came up with a nickname for him – the Loch Ness Monster – because he was always talked about but never seen; none of us had ever seen him at training or in grade cricket," Copeland says.
"But he looked huge out on the field even at that age, and he just bowled his stuff – it wasn't too different to what he's bowling now."
From that debut, the rookie quick walked away with match figures of 4-76, including the wickets of a renowned and well-set duo in Ross Taylor and Daniel Vettori.
A year later, Hazlewood was doing more of the same as an 18-year-old in his Sheffield Shield bow against WA, this time dismissing Adam Voges, Luke Ronchi and Shaun Marsh (twice).
At 19, he became Australia's youngest men's ODI debutant, and while the next legs on the journey were punctuated by the usual fast-bowling issues of stress fractures and other torturous ailments, few were surprised when he re-emerged on the international scene as a 23-year-old and took five wickets against India in his maiden Test innings.
All these years later, in an era where Australian fast-bowling talent has been at a surplus and quite a few of Hazlewood's 337 international wickets have been overshadowed by his peers, it is easy to forget that he was always considered something of a wunderkind. Nor did his laidback demeanour ever complement such a highfalutin notion.
Still today however, his NSW bowling coach, Andre Adams, jokes that Hazlewood is something of a "fast-bowling savant" for his rare ability to discuss a new plan or approach in training, and then promptly head to the nets and execute it.
"That might not necessarily seem that impressive," explains Adams, whose Blues fast-bowling stable also includes Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Sean Abbott and Copeland. "It might sound like that's what everyone should be able to do, but that's not the case."
It happens on the field, too. Adams recalls a KFC Big Bash qualifying final in January 2020, when the Sydney Sixers were playing the Melbourne Stars, to highlight his point.
"Without giving away too much, there was a plan for Nathan Coulter-Nile, who's obviously a very destructive batsman when he gets going," he explains.
"We had a plan for setting him up in a certain way and then executing in a certain way, and Josh was like, 'Oh yeah, mate that sounds good'.
"I was expecting a little bit of pushback, but he just took it on board.
"We got into the game, and within a couple of balls, he'd done it."
The example underlines another point that those who train with Hazlewood all attest to; his willingness to experiment.
"He's really open-minded when it comes to bowling," Cummins says. "Just about every training he'll be working on something; trying to get his rhythm slightly different, coming round the wicket, wide of the crease, working with an old ball, a new ball."
Adds Adams: "Some people would put a wall up and say, 'That's not how I bowl', but he's open to having a crack and finding out, and in most cases, he does it pretty well.
"He's also very observant. He sees what's happening in a game and then he can adapt to that. If your mindset is too closed, then you miss what's required in the moment.
"He's good at adapting and gives himself a chance to execute what he wants to execute, and if it's not working, he'll go to something else."
According to Adams, it is one of several traits that has made Hazlewood extremely coachable. The pair spent three days a week together for four months, largely one-on-one, through that first half of 2019 as the fast bowler worked his way into the best condition of his life, and addressed the problems that had been holding him back.
"If you looked at that series against India, he was bowling a lot of balls down the leg side," Adams explains. "That was because he was pulling out of his action early."
Hazlewood traces that issue back to the previous summer, when he took on an England side with a lot of left-handers, which over time created an inadvertent shift in his technique.
"We'd picked up that I was falling away … and some bad habits had crept in, so I had a few little niggles from putting myself in a bad position at the crease," he recalls.
"So we did a lot of work on getting all my weight going straight down towards the target. 'Dre' had a few little bits and pieces to get that to happen … basically just (ensuring my) chin and chest is to the target.
"As soon as anything goes back a little bit (in his action), the only way to get the ball down there is to go around yourself and fall away, so if everything's going forward – the chin and the chest – then that's a lot of weight, and everything follows that."
The technical work, which also entailed slowing Hazlewood's run-up, served the dual purpose of remodelling the fast bowler's action to make it as friendly on his body as possible, and crucially, enabling him to extract greater bounce off a length.
"Through those sessions, he became more familiar with how he could get all of himself going towards the target for longer," adds Adams. "Now he's in good nick, and he's strong, all of him is going in the same direction, and less things are working against themselves.
"And when you're a big fella like 'Hoff' (Hazlewood), and you've got all that in order, you're going to be pretty threatening."
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For Hazlewood, there were other benefits, both physical and mental, to that time away from the routinely demanding international cricket schedule.
Upon reviewing that Indian summer, he, Adams and strength and conditioning coach Ross Herridge identified that he had been "too heavy" to carry himself at his peak throughout four Tests. Given the varying requirements of the three formats, as well as the variables of weather and travel, a fast bowler's ideal weight (Hazlewood likes to play at between 97.5 and 98kg) can be difficult to maintain across the course of a summer.
Additionally, that weight needs to be the right kind of weight, in the right kinds of places. And so with Hazlewood sidelined, they took the opportunity to adjust his frame.
"He was a bit big up top – actually a bit too muscular," Adams says. "So he worked hard over that time, he dropped a lot of weight, and now he's lighter on top and he's leaner.
"He's got a strong core and butt – basically that middle half that you want to be strong. The perfect fast-bowler's build is like Brett Lee: big bottom, good core, light up top, powerful legs."
With his action sorted, and his physique fine-tuned, Hazlewood was able to turn his attentions to his mental approach. It played out in a two-fold manner.
First came perspective. Hazlewood has never been one to constantly obsess over the game, to value cricket above – or to the exclusion of – all else. He has at times found the professional climate a little suffocating, the calendar tedious. Time away can rejuvenate.
"I think you can get stuck, day-to-day on tour over five or six years, in a bit of a rut," he explains. "You're still bowling fine – you're not doing extremely well but you're doing enough to stay in the team – and I guess it can become a bit monotonous at times.
"Sometimes you need that four or five months out of the game to then realise how much you enjoy it, and how much you want to strive to do better.
"I guess when you're outside that bubble it's easier to see, and a few things can be pointed out to you, and if you tick them off, you come back and strive again."
Adams describes Hazlewood as "super driven" – a trait partly hidden from the public by the laidback persona he presents. That drive – which formed the basis of part two of his refreshed mental approach – revealed itself increasingly through that period in 2019. As their time together wore on, the paceman's desperation to return as a force strengthened.
"Injury can be quite helpful in that way, in that some days you turn up before you're injured and things can feel hard, but then when you get injured, you realise how grateful you are for what you do," the former Kiwi international says.
"Perspective can be pretty big like that – when you're actually looking at how good it is, rather than how hard it is."
Hazlewood's ambition became evident in a different way when he made plain his disappointment at being overlooked for a World Cup spot as he returned to full fitness that 2019 Australian winter.
"To be fit now while it's on," he said at the time, "it's hard to take."
Fifteen months earlier, he had been ranked in the ICC's top five ODI bowlers. A couple of months before that, in Adelaide, he and Cummins had run through the much-vaunted top order of eventual world champions England in Adelaide, with Hazlewood removing Jason Roy, Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler in a spell of 3-5 from 20 balls.
The pain of that World Cup omission was compounded when he also missed selection for the opening Ashes Test soon after, despite an apparent plan to build up his match fitness and bowling loads with an eye to that series.
The fitness issue notwithstanding, Copeland calls Hazlewood's World Cup exclusion "baffling", and insists the subsequent Ashes snub "would have really annoyed him".
"To put it frankly, there's no way he should ever have been left out of that game," the veteran Blues quick says. "It's never an easy decision when you're picking an XI for Australia, but I think Josh is in rarefied air really, with what he's delivered over a long period of time."
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From the moment Hazlewood did finally get his chance, through to Australia's recent T20 World Cup triumph in the Middle East, the results have been quite spectacular. No-one in international cricket – fast bowler or slow – took as many wickets at as low an average as the New South Welshman during that period (93 at 20.92).
While his nine-wicket haul in the third Test of the 2019 Ashes was ultimately spoiled by the innings of a lifetime from Ben Stokes, Hazlewood backed it up with the decisive spell in the following Test, claiming 3-15 in 27 balls to knock the heart out of England's batting on the third afternoon, and ultimately allow Australia to retain the urn.
He finished that Ashes with 20 wickets from four matches at 21.85 to rival the outstanding Cummins as the best with the ball.
Last summer, after taking 5-8 in India's record low of 36 in Adelaide, the right-armer claimed 10 wickets in the final two Tests even as the hosts let winning positions slip in both matches.
In ODI cricket, a year after the same opponents had dumped them out of the World Cup, Hazlewood took 3-26 from 10 overs in their first clash with England since, earning player-of-the-match honours and making a mockery of the original call to overlook him.
Similarly, in last month's T20 World Cup final, his figures of 3-16 and a tournament haul of 11 wickets made it clear that Hazlewood is a man for all formats, all conditions, all opponents.
All of it has been recognised in the ICC bowling rankings, in which he is the only man currently in the top 10 for all three formats (second in ODIs, fourth in Tests, sixth in T20Is).
Copeland insists the biggest change of recent times has been "some belief from others – particularly when it comes to selection in white-ball cricket", while Cummins points out the folly in confusing Hazlewood's consistency for a lack of variety, with the former sometimes masking the threat of the latter.
"Everyone always says, 'Top of off – you know what you're going to get', but that doesn't give him the full credit," he says.
"With the new ball, but especially with an old ball, he's got plenty of tricks; he'll come from wide of the crease, his seam control, those sorts of things.
"He's always been a gun … but in the last few years, it seems every single spell he bowls is threatening."
Hazlewood – and his new Test skipper – are certainly hoping that will be the case in the first Test at the Gabba, ahead of which England's Stuart Broad paid his Australian rival the ultimate compliment by stating his intention to repeatedly target a "Josh Hazlewood length".
Two-and-a-half years on from that extended time with Adams, Hazlewood still places great value in the wisdom gained.
"I learned a lot in that little period of time," he says. "There are times where I'll go back to those sessions, and a couple of those points that I wrote down, and really tick them off, just to make sure my action is in a good spot.
"Especially after white-ball tours, or subcontinent tours where different things can happen – it's just about getting back to that base and (ensuring) things are feeling good."
It's applicable now, as preparations are finalised just a few days out from the series opener. If Hazlewood can help ensure the men in Baggy Green retain the urn, those scrawled notes might one day take on a legend of their own: Ashes to Ashes. Chest to chin. If Hoff bowls well, Australia win.
Vodafone Men's Ashes
Australia: Pat Cummins (c), Steve Smith (vc), Alex Carey, Cameron Green, Josh Hazlewood, Marcus Harris, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Michael Neser, Jhye Richardson, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Swepson, David Warner
England: Joe Root (c), James Anderson, Jonathan Bairstow, Dom Bess, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler, Zak Crawley, Haseeb Hameed, Dan Lawrence, Jack Leach, Dawid Malan, Craig Overton, Ollie Pope, Ollie Robinson, Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood
First Test: December 8-12, The Gabba
Second Test: December 16-20, Adelaide Oval
Third Test: December 26-30, MCG
Fourth Test: January 5-9, SCG
Fifth Test: January 14-18, Perth Stadium