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Sunday, January 24, 2021

Josh Hazlewood: Small-town hero

Adelaide's man of the hour Hazlewood's immaculate control was a hallmark at grade matches during his early years in Bendemeer.

Written by Sandip G | Updated: December 22, 2020 10:12:14 am
Australia's Josh Hazlewood during their cricket test match at the Adelaide Oval (Source: AP)

Moments after Josh Hazlewood fashioned a famous victory against India at the Adelaide Oval, en route picking the most economical figures for a five-wicket haul by an Australian, he got a congratulatory text from his father. “Well done, son. It’s nearly as good as my 5 for 4 when I played against Nemingha in 1985,” it read. Trevor, his father told local newspaper The Leader, that he could hear his son’s crackle from far away.

In his younger days, Trevor was the local tearaway, breaking arms and shattering toes before he took up golf and then turned his attention to steel fabrication business. In an interview to Fox Sports TV, he admits he was not the guiding figure in his son’s cricketing development. “I was busier when Josh was young and he probably picked it from his elder brother Aaron. But I always used to encourage them,” he recounted.

But Hazlewood credits him for a different reason. “A lot of whatever talent I’ve got came from my dad and I’m the same size and build,” he once said in a podcast with Trevor might be shorter by a few centimetres but is broader and sturdier.

The backyard of the Hazlewood household, in Bendemeer, 300 kilometres north of Sydney and with a population of 300, was so large that Aaron and Josh had almost an entire cricket ground to themselves. There were not too many kids in the neighbourhood.

India vs Australia, Josh Hazlewood Josh Hazlewood ended the innings with a historic five for eight. (AP)

The Bendemeer High School where they studied had just 30 kids. The brothers would spend endless afternoons playing cricket. There were little distractions. One of them was Grey Fergie Tractor Muster, a local fair.
The town put on a bit of a show, with tractor events, bush poetry, shearing demonstrations, markets and food stalls and the fair attracted people from everywhere. But apart from this, it was just cricket and school. When Aaron entered his teens, he joined the Old Boys Cricket Club in Tamworth, some 30 odd miles from Bendemeer. And soon his younger brother would tag along.

But Hazlewood had noticeably outgrown his brother. Some of Aaron’s teammates used to wonder who was the elder of the two. One of their club-mates Ben Middlebrook recollects an incident to this newspaper: “Josh might have been around 12 or 13, when we played a grade match and Josh just blew away the other team. So after the game, an umpire asked me why we were playing with 20-25-year-old players. I told him he was just 13. He was shocked.”
Not just the physique, he had the pace and maturity that was beyond his age. “He was too good for us. And he was a good batsman too, scored some hundreds. He was always going to go somewhere,” he says.

Initially, it was Aaron who made the heads turn with his all-round sparkle, and scouts used to come from Sydney to track him. But his father always had more faith in his younger son’s skills. So he would tell his acquaintances: “I’ve got a better one coming along.” So many heads he turned that some of his father’s friends took a 50/1 bet on him winning the Baggy Green before he turned 30. He made his Test debut at 23. Just a fortnight away from his 30th birthday, Hazlewood has already featured in 52 Tests, in which he had shaped the destiny of many matches with his immaculate lengths and precise lines.

Josh Hazlewood fashioned a famous victory against India at the Adelaide Oval (Source: Reuters)

Hazlewood says he was shaped by his countryside upbringing. “I think my upbringing was great and it played a huge role in how I am and what I am. It’s a lot of hard work out there and probably I got those traits from there. And of course, always trying to stay grounded and helping each other out,” he said in that podcast. It’s the reason perhaps he’s the least demonstrative of Australian bowlers. He seldom loses his temper, barely sledges or stares.

Bendemeer loves him back too. At the gateway to the town reads a yellow billboard: “Welcome to Bendemeer—the hometown of Hazlewood.” Wherever in the country he plays, a dedicated group of fans would attend the game with a banner reading, “From Bendemeer: The hometown of Hazlewood.” A classmate of his even travelled to the UK for the World Cup with a banner. They also gave him a rather feisty moniker: “Bendemeer Bullet.”

Whenever he’s in town, he turns up for the Old Boys Club. “The whole of Tamworth would unload into the ground just to watch him,” says Middlebrook.

It brings the best out of his brother too. Last time he played a game — only as batsman as he was recovering from an injury — his brother grabbed nine wickets and rattled out a quick 80. “Just to show I am good too, bro.” he later told a local channel. Their father, Trevor, though would pleasantly dispute: “Nearly as good as my 5-4 when I played against Nemingha in 1985.”

McGrath comparison

‘The next Glenn McGrath’. Josh Hazlewood had been probably hearing this comparison from his adolescence. The parallels are irresistible. Like Hazlewood, McGrath was a country boy from Narromine, 300-odd kilometres from Sydney.

Glenn McGrath, Glenn McGrath (Source: Express Photo)

He’s a McGrath-type of bowler too, fast enough at around 85mph but not a tearaway, with enough bounce to perplex the best batsmen. The soul of their bowling is the immaculate line and length. The chastened Indian batsmen would offer painful testimonials. It’s what Hazlewood’s childhood coach John Muller saw in him some time in the mid-aughts.

“Well, it’s what I thought of him when I first saw him. Maybe, it was his height and physique. He was quite skilful, and I needed to do was polish him a bit, especially his action,” he tells this newspaper.
He realised that his release point could be higher. For that, he needed to bring his bowling arm closer to his body and the run-up needed to be slower. “I used to tell him don’t rush, gradually build up and then release the ball before following through. A bit like McGrath, well I try to teach a lot of kids that action. But Josh learnt it pretty fast,” he remembers.

The former left-arm seamer also instilled in him the virtues of hard work and dedication. “I used to tell him that only hard work took him to places, and he would listen. He was very dedicated to his craft and continues to be so,” he recollects. The McGrath comparison always flatters him.

“It’s flattering when you read your name in the same sentence as McGrath and you’re being compared to him, it means you’re going all right. Although, I try not to read too much into it,” he once told in a press conference. Even McGrath sees a shade of McGrath in him, even tipping him to break his Test-record haul for Australia. “Sky’s the limit for him,” he once said. Muller agrees too.

Javelin champion

David Tarbotton, a statistician at the New South Wales Institute of Sports, is among Australia’s most reputed scouts. Some 18 years ago, while sifting through the numbers of the Combined High School U-13 and U-14 championship, he stumbled on a remarkable number.

A 12-year-old boy had flung the javelin to a distance of 53.11 m. It was a state school record. Tarbotton sensed a potential Olympic gold medallist. “If groomed well, he could have been. His early promise indicated he could’ve gone on to become an Olympian.’ I don’t know the details why we could not bring him here,” he told Sydney Morning Herald.

But Hazlewood admits he never took throwing seriously. “I was 12 when I first threw it. I went on through the levels at school and onto state CHS. I eventually ended up at the nationals and picked up a few gold medals there. It was good fun, I only did it for something to do in the winter and I loved the competition,” he told Sydney Morning Herald.
Batsmen would wish Hazlewood was rather content hurling the iron ball than being the spearhead.

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