“Dizzy, don’t be so modest,” repeated the shocked interviewer, with a frown that seldom left his face. Seeing his stunned expression, Jason Gillespie repeated the line all over again: “(Mitchell) Starc and (Josh) Hazlewood, without doubt, will be the best fast bowling combination Australia has ever produced.” Still dazed in disbelief, the interviewer followed up: “Better than you and McGrath?”, and Gillespie replied: “Better than all of us.”
It’s not that Gillespie’s sense of history was deluded to put them on a higher pedestal than himself and McGrath, just that he was hyper-excited at the skills they’re armed with. “Starc (is a) really fast, aggressive, nose-and-toes attacking option who can swing the ball late at pace. And then you’ve got Hazlewood, who is an aggressive bowler, but in a different way. He’s aggressive with his relentless line and length.”
Hazlewood, experts reckon, is cut from the same cloth as the indubitable McGrath. Add five more yards into the inscrutable McGrath-like length-line precision, and you get Hazlewood. Merge the sharpness and cutting edge of Gillespie with a left-armer’s angle, and you get a frightening new-ball dealer in Mitchell Starc. Add Pat Cummins, who can switch between the ploughing workhorse to the explosive hangman in the flick of a second, and Nathan Lyon, the character actor who became a lead man, Australia probably have the best bowling quartet since the dismantling of the McGrath-Gillespie-Brett Lee-Shane Warne axis. We are talking about a similarly combined quality as the one which snared 1918 wickets amongst them. The current set have less than half those many wickets to their name -721 – but the collective dread they generate is comparable.
Moreover, they present a fine maze of skills and angles – a corridor-pounding Hazlewood, capable of splitting the ball both ways, spitting the shock heavy ball. Starc’s length is fuller, he bends the ball deviously late into the right-hander, can make the ball hold its length, and as Gillepie said, attacks the toes and nose. Cummins can rattle with sheer speed and awkward bounce from relentless pounding of the ball on the deck. Lyon, without resorting to anything remotely violent, can tie the batsmen down as much as attack them.
Hazlewood could not wax more eloquent on Lyon. “He’s the key for me with the four of us, you have Starcy who bowls shorter spells and sometimes Patty too, so to have Nath, it even worked well two weeks ago when we played the Shield game. Nathan pretty much bowled from one end after the new ball and we filtered through from the other end. He takes wickets, it’s good to have that down the other end and he makes that group what it is,” he said.
At their best, as they have been, great attacks feed from one another with styles that complement. The opposition are given no respite, the captain able to call on each and every one in the knowledge that no one is to be hidden away. Tim Paine has at his disposal a great balance.
The only imperfection is that they can be quite moody at times. And some of them, especially Cummins who missed 63 Tests between 2011 and 2017, have fragile physiques too.
In defying them hinges hopes of a legacy-shaping series triumph. As much as it could be Kohli versus the bowlers – the linear narrative in the series build-up – it could be equally about how the Indian batsmen deal collectively with them. They, of course, have been battle-hardened (and possibly wiser) facing as assorted a crew of bowlers as Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi, James Anderson and Stuart Broad, Sam Curran and Moeen Ali.
The numbers they’ve generated, though, offer contemplation than conviction -Murali Vijay averages a shocking 12.80 in five matches, KL Rahulhas just scored double the runs of his opening partner, though still averaging a lowly 23.18, Cheteshwar Pujara’s scarcely respectable 29.8 and Ajinkya Rahane’s a sorry 26.16. Only Kohli stands tall among them, aggregating 54.93 overseas in this span.
Hazlewood was quick to prey on the anomaly that a lot of experts reckon could be India’s undoing. “They’ve played a lot at home since we played them last in Australia. They toured England and South Africa, and it was only Virat who stood out. A lot of the other haven’t scored too many of the runs,” he added, before playing the nice host, saying India’s is one of the best batting units in the world.
The over-dependence on Kohli is clearly the reason the narrative of the pre-series build-up has been woven around him, the trope being if Australia could regularly control Kohli’s magnificence, they will have decoded a mystery which has tormented the best bowlers in cricket, and all but assured of winning the series. Like the recurring theme of the 90s, messers Tendulkar and Lara instead of Kohli.
But despite their recent poor form, the batting unit is not as fragile as India’s in the mid 90s. Both Rahane and Vijay racked up runs last time around, Rahul scored his maiden century here. If they could reprise the form of that series, they could well rally for a collective cause. Only that it means sheer hard work, showing courage and resilience, the virtues that have gone into hibernation when travelling abroad this season.
In Australia, they hope, they will get better batting wickets than in South Africa and England. Hard, bouncy tracks that complement strokeplay, and a brand of ball that doesn’t swerve around as the Duke. But then, they have to contend with Starc and Co. Vijay had a bit of a trailer in the warm-up match, against Victorian left-arm seamer Jackson Coleman. Twice he had Vijay stabbing indecisively at balls pitched on the fifth-stump line. Once it beat his outside edge, and the other time it kissed the shoulder of the bat and evaded the lone slipsman.
Now imagine someone 10 yards quicker, which Starc certainly is. And unlike the old-fashioned Coleman, Starc can seam it back in, hold it off the line and slant it across.
Coleman’s only wicket of the match was Rahul in the first innings, driving loosely, a shot that left batting coach Sanjay Bangar aghast. “He’s finding new means to get out.” But it’s the old ways of getting out that he should be more wary of -lunging for the drive from the crease, or missing the inswinger, due to the tangle he gets into with the back-and-across shuffle he has devised in England to guard his off-stump. Imagine the tendency against someone like Starc, with his late swing, or Hazlewood’s incoming delivery. It could be fatal. Unlike both of them, Pujara had shown the guts to fight, whether it was in Johannesburg or Southampton, and was studious enough to make technical changes as the conditions demanded, like tucking the elbow in to neutralise the tendency to drive. He surely would have dissected at length the reason for his failure in Australia last time, where despite his sturdy defensive technique, balls snaked in through the gate, and despite his supreme judgement, he was caught behind, and despite getting into double figures each time, he could only manage one half-century. He claims the past wouldn’t torment him this time around. “It will be a fresh start and I don’t want to focus too much on what I have done in the past,” Pujara said.
Even Kohli is not entirely invulnerable. Ricky Ponting feels he’s still susceptible to the fuller ball, the proclivity to drive with hard hands still persists. It surfaced a few times in England, and Australians are said to be considering the full-ball strategy as their default setting. But Hazlewood is smart enough to figure out that a batsman of his calibre can’t be targeted in a uni-linear pattern. “We have a lot of options for him. It’s dangerous to go with just one plan. It’s just about weighing that up and assessing how long we stay at each plan. We might stay at it for 20 balls or 80 balls, depending on how we feel, and it’s about adapting once we’re on the field,” And they won’t be fretting over who to throw the ball to.