Hilfenhaus not so predictable this time
Ben Hilfenhaus has lifted himself out of the rut of predictability that made him look so innocuous during the Ashes last summer, and will be a far more versatile performer should he bowl against India's batsmen on Boxing Day.
So says Hilfenhaus' state captain, George Bailey, who was frank in his assessments and advice to the Tasmanian swing bowler on his return to Sheffield Shield ranks after Alastair Cook and others in the England batting line-up had so humbled his methods.
Under the guidance of Bailey and the Tigers' bowling coach Ali de Winter, 28-year-old Hilfenhaus has endeavoured to use a wider range of angles on the bowling crease this summer, a favoured tactic of skilful bowlers for more than a century. He is also striving for a fuller length.
"Hilfy last year had become quite predictable," Bailey told ESPNcricinfo. "He could replicate the same ball over and over but at Test cricket, once players were in he found it hard to actually break through and get a wicket.
"So aside from getting over some niggling injuries, which he's carried for quite some time - he's certainly bowling a bit quicker and is a bit stronger this year - is just a bit more variety at the crease, being able to bowl wider of the stumps, and bowl different balls rather than just the outswinger."
The adjustment of Hilfenhaus' approach has not been an entirely seamless process, for his dependable, uncomplicated character does not always take readily to change. Bailey said Hilfenhaus had needed to see results in his new methods before he committed to them fully. He also had to return his bowling action to the full-bodied style that first earned him a Test spot, rather than the self-protecting adjustments he had made to alleviate the pain of knee tendinitis, to the detriment of his pace and swing.
"He's certainly trying to come from different areas [on the crease] a bit more, Bailey said. "He's also had a bit of trouble with knee tendinitis, and I don't think he did it consciously but he just slightly adjusted his action and was bowling around his front knee a bit more. And he does bowl from quite close to the stumps, so if he was swinging it, it was swinging a little early, rather than coming a little wider of the crease and angling in at the stumps before taking it away.
"Hilfy is someone who needs to see the results before he believes something, but there is no doubt I think if he can learn to use the crease a bit more, come from wider and angle in before taking it away, he will not need to swing it as much as he thinks he needs to.
"He's certainly done that for periods, he's starting to bowl a better length that suits him, giving him the chance to move the ball, because he has got a skill that not a great deal of bowlers in Australia have in terms of being able to swing the ball at pretty good pace. He's still working on those things and working pretty hard."
Bailey sensed a certain impatience about Hilfenhaus last summer, as his hard-won place in the Test team was slipping away from him. Seeking a startling bag of wickets to re-assert himself, he may have lost sight of the patience and persistence that gave him a baggy green cap in the first place.
"We've challenged him a bit this year at Tassie to bowl into the wind a bit more, rather than being a strike bowler all the time," Bailey said. "Whether Hilf felt it or not, I felt at times he felt his way back in was to take a big bag of wickets and so he was bowling to try to take wickets every ball, whereas this year he's been a bit more patient and willing to do the roles.
"If he's taking wickets that's fine, if he's not then he can tie up an end and help Luke [Butterworth] or James [Faulkner] or Xavier [Doherty] take wickets. He's just got back to enjoying his cricket a bit more and working hard for the team while providing a bit more variation. I'd still like to see him bowling a little fuller, but that's something we'll keep discussing when he gets the chance to play for Tassie.
"No doubt when he's at his best he's in Australia's best handful of fast bowlers. Looking at the Test series coming up and where they're going to be in their focus, being in England in 2013, I still think he's got a big part to play. It is good to see he's back in the mix."
Hilfenhaus returns to an Australian pace battery that is now singing from the simple hymn sheet of Craig McDermott, who has stressed the importance of bowling a full length to draw batsmen into drives and edges, even if a few more runs may accrue. Bailey said the method was neither new nor complicated, but could certainly be effective.
"It's not new information there, I think Greg Chappell before him was big on that, if you talk to Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie that's the length they bowled as well, I don't think it is rocket science in terms of a mantra," he said. "But that is the challenge, particularly as a young bowling group when you're playing against great batsmen and certainly some of these Indian players are.
"It can be pretty daunting to just keep throwing the ball up there full because you can get hurt a little bit on the scoreboard. The flipside is the rewards wickets-wise can be a lot greater, and it is as much about learning when you can go hard at that full length and when you need to restrict things and tie up an end."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo