ICC Men's T20 World Cup 2021
Out of the haze: Aussie quick emerges as T20 spearhead
Once an afterthought in Australia's T20 planning, Josh Hazlewood will be Australia's best prepared bowler for the World Cup
4 October 2021, 04:34 PM AEST
Two years ago when Australia's squad for the 2019 World Cup was picked without him, Josh Hazlewood got a rude jolt as to just how selectors viewed him as a limited-overs player.
Two years earlier, he had been ranked the No.1 ODI bowler in the world and to that point in his career, had taken 72 wickets at 25 and gone at just 4.73 per over.
His contribution at the previous 50-over World Cup had helped Australia win the tournament, which included him fighting back from losing his spot early in the campaign to be player-of-the-match in the quarter-final.
But the notion that Hazlewood was a T20 afterthought lingered.
As recently as last year, he suggested he would be an unlikely starter for the T20 World Cup, originally scheduled to be held in Australia in late 2020, and his absence from the 2019 tournament was due in part to a desire from selectors for him to focus on the Ashes campaign that followed.
It had been a similar story in 2016 for what remains the most recent edition of the T20 World Cup; while Hazlewood was picked for the tournament, it came after a two-year spell of having not played a single T20 game at any level. He featured in two pre-tournament games (one official, one not) before being parachuted into the side for their final two group-stage matches.
Over a six-year stretch between 2014 and 2020, those four games were the only T20s he played.
Now though, less than three weeks out from Australia's first game of this year's T20 World Cup in the UAE, Hazlewood is quietly emerging with the unlikely tag of being Australia's best prepared T20 bowler, having featured in 23 top-flight 20-over matches over the past two years.
Having played in eight of Australia's 10 T20s on their winter tours, the 30-year-old has now become the spearhead for the ladder-leading Chennai Super Kings upon the resumption of the Indian Premier League, which included a player-of-the-match effort last week to ensure they were the first team to qualify for the playoffs.
He has played five IPL games in the past two weeks and has possibly five more to come. In contrast, the seven other frontline bowlers in the Australian squad will have played a grand total of just two domestic 50-over matches in the preceding 10 weeks by the time the full squad has assembled in Dubai later this month.
Apart with Glenn Maxwell, Hazlewood is the only Australian to have played in all of his IPL team's games since the tournament recommenced last month at the same three venues that will host the main stage of the World Cup.
T20 bowling record since Jan 2020:
Games: 23 | Wickets: 25 | Ave: 25 | SR: 21.3 | Econ: 7.0
It has not been completely smooth sailing for the paceman; he was expensive (0-54 from four overs) in Chennai's first loss of this second IPL stanza over the weekend, while he identified room for improvement during Australia's series defeat to West Indies in St Lucia earlier this year having come in for punishment from a powerful top order led by Chris Gayle and Lendl Simmons.
Yet the sheer number of T20s Hazlewood has played for the Sydney Sixers, Australia and Chennai since January last year, performing a role similar to that he is expected to play at the World Cup, will be of great encouragement to Australia's brains trust.
For the Super Kings, the right-armer has predominantly been entrusted with two overs with the new ball at the beginning of the Powerplay and then two more towards the end of the innings, although he has largely not been used in the final three overs, which are considered the domain of specialist death bowlers.
That is not to say he is one-paced; for Australia, Hazlewood's knuckle-ball slower delivery (as shown below) will be a trump card that neither Pat Cummins nor Mitchell Starc bowl regularly.
While the role he has played with Chennai is not particularly new for him, there is some evidence to suggest his extended run of T20 games has seen him become more proficient at it.
Over the past two years, Hazlewood's economy rate during both the Powerplay (6.3) and the middle overs (5.6 between overs 7-14) is lower than it was in the first four years of his T20 career (between December 2009 and February 2014), during which he went at 6.8 during the Powerplay and 6.5 during the middle overs.
That gap between those two distinct periods is, of course, no coincidence; he received his Baggy Green in late 2014 and his status as a first-choice bowler for almost the entirety of his Test career has meant he has sat out several T20 series along the journey.
And even in the ones he has played, Hazlewood has conceded he has often not been at 100 per cent.
"I haven't played many T20s for Australia … Normally (they come) on the back of a Test series and you're pretty much cooked coming into it, and you're just getting through it game by game," he told cricket.com.au in July.
Little by little, the perception of Hazlewood is changing.
And when Australia pick their bowlers for their World Cup opener against South Africa on October 23, the paceman may well stand out as the most battle-hardened.