Hilfenhaus side injury exposes Australia again
Australia face the grim prospect of trying to win a Test with only three specialist bowlers for the second time in three matches after Ben Hilfenhaus shuffled off Bellerive Oval with a left side strain that has placed him in doubt for the rest of the Sri Lanka series.
After bowling the second ball of his 13th over to Sri Lanka's vice-captain Angelo Mathews, Hilfenhaus grimaced, felt for his hip or side, spoke briefly to his captain Michael Clarke and left the field, leaving Shane Watson to complete the over.
He later left the ground for further medical examination, and the team physio Alex Kountouris said Hilfenhaus was now doubtful for the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne. The New Year's Test in Sydney follows only three days after the end of the MCG match, a tight timeframe for fit bowlers, let alone those recovering from injury.
"With Ben, we'll probably know more in 24 hours. But it's probably doubtful, the fact that he's not bowling right now, you'd think there's going to be considerable doubt [for Melbourne]," Kountouris said. "It's on the milder side but not mild enough to be able to bowl in the second innings.
"These sorts of things, if you miss a week then you miss two weeks because they're not like batsmen who in a week's time they can get back and play. Bowlers need to come back, bowl a few times, prove that they're fit, make sure they've got through some sessions because we obviously can't put them in a Test match with any doubt."
Hilfenhaus had been considered alongside Peter Siddle one of the two durable, senior bowlers to be relied upon across the summer. They were outlined as critical to Australia's planning as the youthful group including Mitchell Starc, James Pattinson, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood could be rotated around them.
Of that quartet, only Starc has reached this point of the summer without being sidelined, while John Hastings, called up when both Siddle and Hilfenhaus missed the Perth Test against South Africa, is recovering from a back injury.
Siddle and Hilfenhaus were unable to be considered for the WACA match as a direct result of Pattinson's withdrawal midway through the draining Adelaide Test due to a side/rib injury, which left the older duo with a heavy workload across the second innings.
Nathan Lyon was also leaned on heavily in Pattinson's absence, and he, Siddle and Starc and can now expect another hefty shift while Hilfenhaus convalesces. Watson's return to the team in the interim as an allrounder will be of some help to Clarke's bowling options, but Australia's captain is reluctant to overbowl his deputy out of fear it will both detract from his batting and also cause another round of injury.
Pattinson, meanwhile, had exrpessed hope while watching the Melbourne Stars' BBL match at the MCG on Saturday evening that he might recover in time to be considered for the latter Sri Lanka Tests. Kountouris ruled out that possibility.
"When it comes to James, he's going to start bowling next week or this week sometime," Koutnouris said. "But I don't think he's going to have enough time to build up his workloads enough to be able to play on Boxing Day and probably the New Year's Test. The original plan for him was not to play those Tests and it's probably looking like that's what's going to happen."
Hilfenhaus' bowling has been the subject of considerable scrutiny so far this summer, as he appeared to lapse into the bad habits that bedevilled him during the 2010-11 Ashes series following a year punctuated by lots of Twenty20 assignments and precious little first-class cricket.
When Hilfenhaus was recalled after missing the Perth Test, having picked up a slight knee niggle in Adelaide while wrestling with his bowling action, the national selector John Inverarity described his halting progress, which has required plenty of time with Australia's bowling coach Ali de Winter.
"The history with Ben, he was doing well then the last series against England in Australia [in 2010-11] he didn't bowl to his highest level," Inverarity said. "He got things sorted out, a few niggles were sorted out and he got his bowling action right, and his bowling last summer was superb. He bowled at good pace and very well.
"His bowling in the first Test was a bit like against England, it wasn't as good as he'd hoped. So he needs to get 100% fit to perform, and his action so that he bowls like he did against India last summer, and we're hopefully that during this little break he'll be back to that sort of form."
In Hobart, Hilfenhaus did not generate his customary outswing, and struggled early on for his line as he drifted too often into the pads of Tillakaratne Dilshan. This angle proved more profitable against Dimuth Karunaratne, as a ball running across the left-hander caught an outside edge on the way through to Matthew Wade. As things stand, it will be his last major contribution to this match, and possibly the series.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here