With the opening Test of the Ashes 2017 getting closer, the cricket produced in Sheffield Shield is getting better than ever. In eight days into the 2017-18 season, every day has been an audition for those who are in the race to bag the Baggy Green in the much-awaited Ashes 2017. Micthell Starc has managed to pull all the limelight to himself with record-breaking twin hat-tricks in Sheffield Shield and on the other hand, there is Western Australia’s opener Cameron Bancroft, who also set a Sheffield Shield batting record. With an unbeaten knock of 76 against a Test-strength side of New South Wales attack, he became the first-ever wicketkeeper-batsman to carry his bat through an entire Sheffield Shield innings.
By doing so, he surely has put himself ahead of Australia’s regular keeper Matthew Wade in the eyes of the selectors for the Ashes.
Then there is injury-return Josh Hazlewood, who has given a little preview to the English cricketers present in the WACA Stadium of what awaits them later in the month.
Ever since Hazlewood made his Test debut against India at home in 2014, he has not missed a single Test series Australia played since then. After Hazlewood’s debut, Australia have played nine Test series and that totals to 30 matches. Out of which, Hazlewood has missed only two Tests – one in England during the Ashes 2015 and one in Bangladesh during the 2017 tour – and this shows the amount of faith the selectors have shown in him and there is no doubt in the fact that the baby-faced fast bowler has always justified that belief with his performances. In 31 Tests, he has 118 wickets and that is inclusive of 5 five-fors.
Hazlewood suffered a left side injury in the first Test against Bangladesh earlier in August. Although he batted with the injury, he was flown back to Australia at the end of the Test. That kept him out of the second Test against Bangladesh, which Australia won and their limited-overs tour of India, which they lost in the ODIs and drew in the T20Is.
To a great delight for the Australians, Hazlewood’s recovery happened well ahead of the expected schedule. There was a concern again when Hazlewood decided to skip New South Wales’ opener match against South Australia in the Sheffield Shield 2017-18 season. There were rumours about him missing a couple more but then the pacer played the second match which was against Western Australia in Sydney. The four-day match ended in the favour of New South Wales where both the Test side’s quickies, Starc and Hazlewood led from the front.
The scenario in the match was plain simple as it is always for Australia. Starc, being the more aggressive one lived up to his image and this time one step further with the twin hat-tricks, while Hazlewood maintaining his consistency like every time, kept the run flow under superb control. Even Starc acknowledged the fact that Hazlewood’s consistency allows him to go berserk with his aggression that brings the best out of him.
“He’s been awesome the last few years for us. He allows the faster guys to be so much more aggressive because he’s so consistent,” Hazlewood’s New South Wales teammate Starc said.
Hazlewood boosts a baby face and that just does not allow one to imagine him being someone like Mitchell Johnson or Starc. And he does not even try to go that way. He knows his strengths; while Starc creates the fear from one end, taking advantage of the pressure Starc would have imposed, Hazlewood from the other end sticks to his lines and lengths and denies as many runs as possible to the batting team. If you check their last six innings, Starc has gone wicket-less only once, while Hazlewood was without a wicket on three occasions. This only suggests that Starc’s job is purely wicket-taking and on the other hand, along with occasional breakthroughs, Hazlewood’s approach is strictly restricting the opposition to as less total as possible.
This way, the combination of Starc and Hazlewood does wonders for Australia in the longest format. When Hazlewood puts breaks on the run flow, the batsmen under pressure tends to make mistakes and that’s where Hazlewood makes breakthroughs.
In New South Wales’ second match against Western Australia, there were both good and bad news for the national side. Let’s take the good part first. In a 10-minute devastating spell, Hazlewood wrapped the top-order of Western Australia, claiming three wickets in 11 balls. However, Hazlewood’s confidence booster spell of 3 for 24 in 13 overs came at the expense of the three players who were the contenders to clinch a spot in the Ashes squad. On return after a couple of months’ injury break, Hazlewood first had Shaun Marsh caught behind cheaply for two runs; he then trapped Hilton Cartwright for a duck in his next over before he bowled Mitchell Marsh when the ball drove between pad and bat for zero.
When Hazlewood bowled the stunning spell, Joe Root and his boys were at the WACA. Although they might not have witnessed it from the stands, the word would have quickly fired across the place and for sure the visitors would have kept this as a priority in their next discussion of the game plan.
However, by the end of the match everyone is talking about Starc’s historic twin hat-tricks in Sheffield Shield and Hazlewood’s 6 for 73 will get buried under Starc’s shadow. This is how it has always been; Starc is the spearhead but even he knows he needs the support from the unsung hero, Hazlewood, in order to bowl in his natural way keeping the pressure away.
When Starc (29 in 8) and Hazlewood’s (16 in 4) wickets are put together against England, it comes up to 45 wickets in 12 Tests. This certainly is expected to get better as the two have enough bonding and understanding between each other as bowling partners and the credit for this goes to the domestic cricket where they play for the same club.