Heaven can wait
When Australian cricket fans talk about the twelfth man it's a fair bet they're referring to the comedian Billy Birmingham. Or maybe Andy Bichel, who carried the drinks a record 19 times in Tests. Over the past couple of years they might have been speaking of Ben Hilfenhaus, who has been slowly chipping away at Bichel's mark. Four times Hilfenhaus has been called into Australia's Test squad without getting a game.
The day before the Wanderers Test, Hilfenhaus was nervously waiting to find out if it would be five from five. He was in the 12 and the humid, cloudy conditions would suit his swing bowling but the whole situation was frustratingly familiar. A round of golf - Hilfenhaus has a useful handicap of seven - with the touring selector David Boon and the coach Tim Nielsen didn't shed any light on matters.
"I'm really just looking forward to getting the first Test out of the way and going from there," Hilfenhaus said, hoping that moment would come in Johannesburg. "Getting your baggy green is every kid's dream. I'd be really excited just to get that and hopefully if I do I'll just try and do everything I can to represent it well."
Since he first made it into a Test squad in November 2007 there have been setbacks, notably back stress fractures that stopped him from embarking on his first Test tour when Australia set off for the West Indies last year. There have been disappointments as other fast men such as Doug Bollinger and Peter Siddle overtook him in the pecking order. Hilfenhaus didn't complain. He's not that sort of bloke.
He worked as a labourer for a bricklayer when he first moved to Hobart and then took on a different type of back-breaking toil when he sent down 509 Sheffield Shield overs two years ago - nearly 200 more than any other state fast bowler. It was a tally that led to concerns over his workload and the worries only increased when his injury arrived the following year to end his Caribbean dream.
"In a way it was [frustrating]," Hilfenhaus said. "It's very disappointing when you get selected and you find out that you're injured. At the end of the season I actually didn't feel that bad but general check-up scans revealed otherwise. I probably see myself more as a bloke who bowls a lot of overs. That's a role that I enjoy."
Clearly Hilfenhaus knows a thing or two about hard work. He impressed the coaches during his stay at the Centre of Excellence for being prepared to tackle any problem head-on. When critics began to question his ability to take wickets when the ball failed to swing away, he went off and worked on some new tricks.
"If you've only got one tool in your bag, you get a bit predictable," he said. "I've definitely worked on a few different things to counter for that and hopefully have an answer when blokes start getting on top. As well as the outswing I'm trying to develop one that goes in a little bit or straightens. Just to keep them guessing a little bit. There's a couple of different slower balls that I'm working on."
|He worked as a labourer for a bricklayer when he first moved to Hobart and then took on a different type of back-breaking toil when he sent down 509 Sheffield Shield overs two years ago - nearly 200 more than any other state fast bowler|
But for Hilfenhaus the outswinger is still king. The conditions in Hobart usually help him bend the ball in the air and the humidity and cloud cover in South Africa will do the same. Then of course there is the Ashes tour later this year. A swing bowler who can hurl the ball down with genuine speed could be a major weapon in England. If all goes to plan, 2009 could be the making of Ben Hilfenhaus.
If that turns out to be the case, it couldn't happen to a nicer guy. The son of a plumber from Ulverstone in country Tasmania, he calls his father, Hans, "the old man" and would like it if he could be in South Africa should a debut arise but thinks it's a bit far to travel. There's not a hint of cockiness in Hilfenhaus, who speaks openly but succinctly, with only the faintest trace of a rural Aussie drawl.
"I still see myself as pretty laidback," he said. "I don't like to over-analyse anything. Just enjoy my cricket and when I'm not playing cricket I enjoy playing golf and spending time with my girlfriend."
That he has a girlfriend no doubt disappoints the women who snapped up this year's Men of Cricket calendar. Hilfenhaus, who wouldn't look out of place taking over from Hugh Jackman as the drover in the film Australia, features as Mr September and shows off a set of muscles that would rival anyone in the Australian set-up.
His mother, Lynette, was so happy with the charity production that she gave the calendar pride of place in the family kitchen. It might have to be moved aside if a photo of Ben in a baggy green becomes available.
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo