Josh Hazlewood really shouldn’t be this good at T20 cricket.
In a world where the Mitchell Starcs and Jasprit Bumrahs and Shaheen Shah Afridis made you look up from your smart phone and pay attention, ‘Hazlewood is taking the new ball’ was less likely to distract you from tweeting.
For so much of his career, the words used to describe him seem to be the antithesis of the adrenaline-fuelled, thumping soundtrack of the shortest format.
Josh Hazlewood: reliable, consistent, line-and-length, metronomic, top of off. Yawn.
Before the first match of Australia’s tour of Sri Lanka, even Hazlewood admitted he was less likely to blast out opponents with sheer pace than some of his teammates.
He doesn’t need to.
In the past year, Hazlewood has proved himself to be a sponge, learning at a seemingly exponential rate with each tour and tournament. He has swung from using his natural Test cricket lines and lengths to attempts at unpredictability before settling somewhere in the middle ahead oflast year’s successful T20 World Cup campaign.
He is currently the only quick in the top five ICC T20 bowling rankings and the only Australian pace bowler inside the top 40, a bona fide IPL star who can now command the big bucks.
So it was no surprise to see Hazlewood take the new ball in tandem with Starc after Aaron Finch won the toss and elected to bowl in the opening T20. Nor was it unusual to watch him bowl those tight lines – generally just short of a length, how boringly conventional! – in his first miserly over, giving up just two runs.
But what did raise an eyebrow or two was Finch’s decision to replace Starc and Hazlewood with Mitch Marsh and Glenn Maxwell after just one over apiece.
Australia’s strategy of fielding three quicks and one specialist spinner was fruitful in last year’s World Cup and they believe it gives them the best chance of defending their title at home later this year, relying on overs between Marsh, Maxwell and Marcus Stoinis to make up the rest of the overs.
But Sri Lanka’s opening pair of Pathum Nissanka and Danushka Gunathilaka saw an opportunity; Marsh and Maxwell went for 14 and 12 off their respective overs, the victims of a combination of power, sweeps and innovative scoops.
Royal Challengers Bangalore captain Faf du Plessis made the same decision to take Hazlewood off after one over in RCB’s qualifying playoff against Rajasthan Royals during this year’s IPL.
Jos Buttler had scored his first six runs off Hazlewood’s opening over but, once he was taken out of the attack (Maxwell also bowled in that period) the Englishman broke loose and by the time du Plessis brought Hazlewood back for the sixth over much of the damage had been done; Rajasthan was 0-61 and Buttler was set on 40.
On that occasion Hazlewood did the unexpected and it worked. His first ball back into the attack was a wide half-volley that Yashasvi Jaiswal carved straight to point. It wasn’t enough to swing the game back RCB’s way and it left the question hanging of whether Hazlewood should have bowled another over early.
Perhaps realising there was a danger Sri Lanka might similarly get away, Finch brought Hazlewood back for the fifth over. The first ball was short and rather inelegantly scooped to the boundary by Gunathilaka.
The second ball was also short but, like Jaiswal in the IPL, Gunathilaka carved it straight to a fielder, this time at deep point. Bingo.
But Sri Lanka were still travelling fast and relatively smooth. When Hazlewood came back to bowl his third over, the home side were 2-102 and looked set for a challenging total.
By this stage we should all be expecting it. Mr Reliable of line-and-length Test bowling humdrum has transformed into Mr Drop Everything Now because he makes things happen.
Finch must have sensed it, too. He brought mid off and mid on up, tempting Kusal Mendis to go over the top and Hazlewood charged in, eschewing anything quirky for that stock-in-trade (so predictable and ho-hum, right?) nagging length.
Mendis went for the heave but could only manage a top edge, easily claimed by Ashton Agar, another victim of Hazlewood’s knack of taking a wicket when he comes back into the attack.
Three balls later, it was another stock standard red ball delivery and it brought a Test match dismissal, as Bhanuka Rajapaksa fiddled outside off stump and edged to the wicketkeeper.
Hazlewood rounded out his over of piercing accuracy with another scalp, Dasun Shanuka smashed on his front pad while swiping across the line to a ball that would have ripped out middle stump.
It did rip all the impetus out of Sri Lanka’s innings; they had been 1 for 100 in the 12th over and were bowled out for 128 and it was a comfortable cruise to a ten-wicket victory for Finch and David Warner.
Hazlewood finished with figures of 4 for 16 and there will now undoubtedly be even more scrutiny on how and when Finch uses such a precious weapon, particularly in the powerplay when he looks threatening.
It would not have seemed astonishing this time last year to note Hazlewood had only played nine T20Is in his career; after all he is a Test bowler, through and through.
But now he is cricket’s dance remix of Nessun Dorma, a timeless classic that has been remade for the modern age but loses none of its spine-tingling majesty in the process.