Australia v India, 1st Test, MCG, 3rd day December 28, 2011

Hilfenhaus learns some new tricks

From a bowler who swung the ball but did little else, Ben Hilfenhaus has transformed into one with subtle variations that will test the best batsmen

Earlier this year, the former Australia fast bowler Max Walker noted, when reflecting on Australia's bowling struggles during last summer's Ashes, that against a good batsman a bowler might only get one or two chances in an innings. "Once you've shown him what you're going to do, it's all over," Walker said. "You have to come up with something else."

That might seem obvious, but it wasn't to Australia's attack last season. Nor was it apparent to their coaching staff. The prime swing bowler in Australia's line-up against England was Ben Hilfenhaus, who had become as predictable as Jonathan Trott's batting rituals. It took Hilfenhaus being dropped from the Test team and returning to Tasmania for his flaws to be rectified.

In his first 17 Tests, Hilfenhaus didn't manage a five-wicket haul. He was often described as unlucky. Too often, he was unvarying. In his first Test back in the side, he was unpredictable. That's why Hilfenhaus finally picked up his maiden five-for, in his 18th Test. He finished the first innings against India with 5 for 75. He led Australia off the MCG and raised the ball to the crowd. He was a new man.

The old Hilfenhaus swung the ball. He curved it away from the right-handers on a consistent basis. But he always seemed like a bowler who should have found more edges than he did. Gradually, as knee tendinitis took hold, his action shifted subtly. He lost pace, delivered the ball from too close to the umpire and swung it straight out of his hand.

That meant that, during the Ashes especially, batsmen were able to pick the line with ease and leave many outswingers alone, while other balls curved too much to touch the edge if they did play. Often he also pitched too short. He finished the series with seven wickets at 59.28.

The comparison between Hilfenhaus and James Anderson, arguably the best swing bowler in the world, was stark. Anderson hooped the ball late, just before it reached the batsman, moved it just enough in both directions and collected 24 wickets at 26.04.

There were times against India in Melbourne when Hilfenhaus again looked predictable, but that was when the ball had stopped swinging, during the middle overs. When it did move in the air, conventionally and with reverse-swing, he was difficult for the India batsmen to handle, for the ball curved later, less and in both directions.

His pace was also up, regularly in the low to mid 140kph region. He varied his length, tending to the fuller to encourage the batsmen to drive, and he used the crease more effectively, sometimes delivering from wider positions, sometimes from straighter spots. As a result he was rewarded.

On the second day, with the new ball, he moved the ball both ways, here a little bit, there a lot. He came from wider of the crease to help him swing it late. Gautam Gambhir edged behind when he didn't know what was coming. A quieter afternoon followed, and it was hard to tell if Hilfenhaus would be a threat again.

In the first over of the third day, he answered that question. Rahul Dravid was bowled by a peach, a delivery that was full enough to entice Dravid to play and nibbled just enough and late enough to beat the bat and rattle the off stump. It was the perfect start for Australia.

And when Michael Clarke asked Hilfenhaus to bowl the last over before the arrival of the second new ball, Hilfenhaus moved the old one away from the bat of Virat Kohli, who edged behind. As soon as the new ball was taken, Hilfenhaus accounted for MS Dhoni with a ball that was slightly different, a fraction shorter than those that preceded it, and Dhoni edged to gully.

The fifth came when Ishant Sharma drove hard and edged behind. Hilfenhaus pumped his arms in delight. His work had paid off. He had his five-for and he had bowled Australia into a strong position.

Most importantly, he had realised that against good batsmen - and India have a line-up full of them - subtle variations are key. He might still find it difficult when the ball doesn't move, but his new style should ensure that he makes the most of the times when it does.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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