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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Roo on December 29, 2011, 23:53 GMT

    @Dravid_Gravitas... Yes - Swann was also just average in Aust last summer... Except 1 good innings, he averaged only 2 wkts per match in the other 4 Tests... Swann world ranking has dropped since peaking 16 mths ago... Noticed this coincided with playing Bangladesh & Pakistan when both were very weak... His ranking has been dropping since playing Aust, Sri Lanka, India... He's turning 33 early next year, so not a young pup coming through... Anderson only does well on tracks that suit him, mainly England & did well in Aust during an unusually rare wet summer... NZ bowlers did better in India, so shows his lack of adaptability...

  • Roo on December 29, 2011, 23:47 GMT

    @5wombats :- "We're not so sure Hilfenhaus has improved - he's just up against less good opposition"... lol... Perhaps you need new glasses... I've been a critic of Hilfy in the past, but this Test he has shown himself to be an improved bowler... Also India have 4 batters in the top 25 ranking... SA we drew against has 4... SL we beat have 3... After Englands paltry few months at top of the Test rankings, we are on the rise & you peaked & are going down... See you on the way past...

  • Azfar on December 29, 2011, 5:31 GMT

    One down, three more to go. Well done Australia. Lyon will not work against India. Four fast men many be a better choice.

  • Naresh on December 29, 2011, 5:25 GMT


  • Sikandar on December 29, 2011, 4:55 GMT

    As I mentioned before the series - in Laxman's interview piece, Laxman is going to fail....guess what, see the result! hmmm...aussies are too fast for our indian greats!!! hahaha! Gambhir has no clue how to bat..and is overrated!! to my fellow indians - less talk and more mettle on the field:!!!

  • Kapil on December 29, 2011, 4:32 GMT

    Come on guys... He has played only one test and everyone is saying he is good and all.. The bowling is ok but the batting and the shots which got the wickets were ordinary.. India can do much better then this... Please do not give too much credit too early... Watch out.. its not over yet...

  • David on December 29, 2011, 4:23 GMT

    anderson?? haha youre kidding me, right? what about steyn?

  • Warrick on December 29, 2011, 2:22 GMT

    I have to say I raised an eyebrow when Hilf was selected again, but the selection has paid off hansomely, a super effort. Whilst McDermott may have the praise heaped on him, possibly rightly so, I think Clarke must take plenty of plaudits as well. It was hard to put the finger on with Siddle & Hilf. Both very successful bowlers domestically & started their international careers well, then dropped off. I remember seeing Punters bowling plans change mid-over last summer, which not only showed a lack of patience but is asking a lot from a bowler. So McDermott is telling them to bowl full but Clarke must have better plans and more convictions to stick with these guys. The bowling is certainly looking stronger, but the batting needs some urgent attention!

  • Srinivas on December 29, 2011, 2:18 GMT

    @Front-Foot-Lunge, I too thought Swann is the best spinner in the world. But, he didn't do anything of note in the English summer (on spin unfriendly conditions) barring a good performance in the last inning of the last test, I guess. And after noting his ineffectiveness just a few weeks back, and fresh from those delightful memories in India, where he had to run for cover, I began to feel that he is over-rated. Let us give him another chance and provide him the best conditions for spinners, I mean India, and see how he does. Anderson is the BEST swing bowler in the world? You can't be so serious when we have Steyn and Zaheer still playing. Anderson is a greatly improved bowler now, just like Broad. I saw how Anderson struggled in pace unfriendly conditions in the World Cup when Zaheer was giving a hard time to the opponents. Anderson is a world class bowler but not in the league of Zaheer and Steyn IMO.

  • Martin on December 28, 2011, 21:18 GMT

    @Front-Foot-Lunge; spot on. We're not so sure Hilfenhaus has improved - he's just up against less good opposition, that's all. Against England a year ago he couldn't buy a wicket because he was up against Cook, Trott, Prior, KP, Bell, etc. Now Hilfenhaus is only bowling against people like Dhoni - who is not Test class batsman (out today to yet another terrible shot....). For India bowling the position is the same; India bowlers are not great; They are not bowling against England now - they are only bowling against Australia. Anyway, seam bowling is not indias strength, so we are reliably informed. Harris would make a big difference to this Australia bowling line up. With Harris there we would say Aus will win the match from here. But without - not so sure.... But we are not seeing "injuries" mentioned by Aus fans at all. How very refreshing!

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