November 23, 2010

A swinger for all seasons

No one-trick pony, Ben Hilfenhaus has developed into an all-conditions performer of substance

Ben Hilfenhaus was the non-striker when Australia handed back the Ashes at The Oval last year, but it is not the memory of Michael Hussey's dismissal that hurts the most. That moment came when he watched the England players on the podium, receiving the urn. "It's something you don't like to see as a player," he said. "That sort of heartache makes us stronger and makes us want it really bad."

Hilfenhaus has his first chance to channel the disappointment into English wickets from Thursday, and he will do it at a ground that has been made for him. In an age when bowlers hurl the ball into the pitch, Hilfenhaus comes from an older era and starts every innings by trying to swing the new ball. The Gabba always offers early movement and if the conditions remain humid and overcast he will be a threat throughout the game.

The first England men Hilfenhaus will see are Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook. For someone who doesn't like bowling to left-handers, he has an outstanding record against them and they account for 23 of his 48 Test wickets. He picked up Strauss four times in five Tests in 2009, although he doesn't remember being so effective. "I wouldn't say I enjoy bowling to them, I think they're harder to bowl to," he said. "I do get a fair few left-handers out, but it's harder for me to bowl to a leftie."

When Cook and Strauss are starting out slip cordons are always on alert, but the fielders will be extra attentive when Hilfenhaus trots in. He carries a three-pronged danger with balls that curl into their pads, cut across them, or do nothing. The deliveries that don't swing, or go straight because he's lost his wrist position, are just as dangerous as the ones that do. "Whether it's a mistake or natural variation, it depends on which way you look at it," he says as he laughs. "If it doesn't swing, you've got to find a way."

The matured version of Hilfenhaus is on display as he speaks at the Australian squad's training day at Allan Border Field. A year ago, as he sat next to Ricky Ponting across town at the Gabba shortly after beating West Indies, a press conference started with an official asking if there were any questions. The first reply was a whispered "no". It came from Hilfenhaus, the Man of the Match.

Jason Gillespie used to be like that at the start of his career, a shy but thoughtful fast bowler who was most comfortable with the protection offered in the dressing room. In retirement one of Gillespie's early roles was as a commentator and he was opinionated, humorous and insightful. The easy thing would be to let Hilfenhaus be, but he has a fabulous story and people want to know more about him. A former brickie's labourer from northern Tasmania (one of his nicknames is "Buildahouse"), he has developed into the country's leading swing bowler.

A master of curving the ball, he has proved in 13 Tests that he's not just a guy who smiles when the clouds come over or the surface is verdant. He can bowl when it's hot and the pitch is flat too, like he did in India last month when he bounced out Virender Sehwag in the first innings in Bangalore and had him caught behind playing off the back foot in the second.

"When the ball's not swinging for me the role does change a little bit," he said. "The more I play the more I'm learning of ways to change my role and do the best I can. I see myself more as a dot bowler than a wicket-taker like Mitch [Johnson] when the ball stops swinging for me. I've just got to build pressure and do the team thing."

The ability to perform in all conditions is gaining Hilfenhaus more attention and he is valued so highly that it will be Peter Siddle and Doug Bollinger who will jostle over the next couple of days to make the XI. Despite being a regular when fit since debuting in South Africa in 2009, Hilfenhaus has played only one Test at home.

When Cook and Strauss are starting out slip cordons are always on alert, but the fielders will be extra attentive when Hilfenhaus trots in. He carries a three-pronged danger with balls that curl into their pads, cut across them, or do nothing

While earning the Man-of-the-Match award at the Gabba last year, he entered the final stages of a knee tendon injury that would keep him out for the rest of the summer. He didn't return until the Pakistan series in July and the problem still nags him. "It's a lot better," he said. "It's hanging around for a while, but it's at a stage now where it's very manageable and we're doing everything we can, so I don't have to miss any more cricket. It doesn't restrict me in any way."

So far the reputation of Hilfenhaus has been mostly developed in Tasmania, South Africa and England, but he is a player local supporters will fall for quickly. He currently has forestry-worker stubble and a moustache for Movember. And he can bowl outswingers in the 140kphs.

For those not craving fame, being a good cricketer thrust into a high-profile world is intimidating. Until he started jetting around with the Australian team, Hilfenhaus had never really travelled. A small-town boy was catapulted into the big time and it has taken time to adjust. He didn't want to look stupid in front of the cameras; didn't think he had anything to say.

At 27, Hilfenhaus is polite and ready to laugh, but would rather be joking with his team-mates and staying out of the public glare. In his job it is impossible. "I don't know if I'm comfortable with it, but I'm accepting it more," he said. "It's part of the game."

Before he played for Australia people didn't chase him for autographs or want to know everything about him. From what he does in his spare time (he's a member of the Tasmania Golf Club and played off eight before he hurt his knee), to whether he can remember every wicket like Glenn McGrath (he can't), or if he drives a fancy car. He has upgraded his Holden ute, but won't say what to. "It's not an Aston Martin."

One of his biggest hobbies is playing Scrabble with his mates on his phone. Hilfenhaus doesn't look or sound like a wordsmith, but his approach is similar to his bowling. "I keep it simple: small words, just location." Pick the right spot on the pitch and collect the points.

His bowling spoke loudest during the 2009 Ashes, when he gained a series-high 22 victims, but Australia didn't win. Would he give up taking wickets to get his hands on the trophy? "As long as we get the urn back I'll be happy."

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Gopalakrishna on November 24, 2010, 21:11 GMT

    @Karthik132, come on its just we would trade a win in indo-pak series for any number of India-Aus series .. And Ashes has more history than that :) So folks here are talking about emotion here, which would be missing in an India-Aus series or India-SA series.. I find it absolutely logical..

    But what I fail to understand is why should we compare different series??? I've said this thousand times, will say it again.. We are living at a time when test cricket is still considered the best by atleast many cricketers and we get to see some of the best in the world in RP,SRT,RD,VVS play.. We would regret the day these 4 players call it a day, for the pleasure they gave us cannot be given by anybody else!!! So enjoy test cricket mate. Let the Ashes begin, India-SA begin - I need test cricket thats it!!!

  • John on November 24, 2010, 15:14 GMT

    Landl, what you say is perfectly true, and don't get me wrong, James Anderson is a very skilful bowler. - However, like nearly everything that comes from England, has been ridiculously over-hyped by the British media. Anyway, Hilfy has only played a handful of games in non-swinging conditions, Anderson has played far more. The difference between the two is not how many wickets each has, but the fact that Hilfy still looks very dangerous in flat conditions, whereas Anderson's deadly late outswingers become front foot flat track fodder, and he struggles to make necessary adjustments. Anderson, in conditions where the ball is not swinging around corners looks about as harmful as a cream slice. - On the other hand, Hilfy retains all of his bowling menace. And don't get me wrong Landl, I don't dislike you at all. - You make for some very interesting conversations. All I can say is may the best team win the coming series. =)

  • John on November 24, 2010, 13:35 GMT

    Something_Witty, I did watch Hilfenhaus in India and while (as I said in my first post) I think he is a fine bowler, the fact is that near misses don't equal wickets. Every opening bowler has near misses, just as every opening batsman plays and misses- it's the nature of those positions. However, when a pattern emerges, it's for a reason. Anderson had to learn to be able to bowl economical spells which hopefully that will result in more wickets for him when the ball isn't moving and the same applies to Hilf. At any rate, Hilf thinks so. I take the view that when a bowler talks about his own bowling and the figures back up what he says, then he's probably more likely to be right than you are. Nothing personal, of course! However, when the ball moves around, as looks likely in Brisbane, Hilf is the biggest danger to England- just as Anderson is the biggest danger to Australia.

  • Bob on November 24, 2010, 10:19 GMT

    Hilf is a good bowler, but not quite as intelligent as everyone says. He'd be alot more dangerous if he learnt to use more of the crease when he bowls. Hilf keeps bowling in the same channel - close to the stumps, outside off. But he would be more effective to right handers by occassionally delivering from a bit wider on the crease - curving it into them and bringing it away. Maybe Hilf struggles with this as he struggles to bowl to left-handers - same action required. He might find it hander but he still takes wickets.

  • Karthik on November 24, 2010, 9:42 GMT

    @ pauld - How can I be jelous? I am an Indian! And in India all sorts of tournaments get hyped up. You wouldnt believe the hype in the media with Sachin expecting his 50th ton!! And the major sport is cricket here unlike Eng and Aus. I was just saying that this Ashes is too hyped, especially by the English, backed by their supposedly good run. But alas, I feel Australia will win easily.

  • M on November 24, 2010, 8:59 GMT


  • Dummy4 on November 24, 2010, 6:39 GMT

    Never saw Hilfanhaus bowl until he bolwed in India. Dont let his bowling average fool you. He was awesome against a great batting lineup on bowler unfriendly conditions. He is the one to watch out for, for England. Aussies bowling is vastly underrated and they might be in for a big surprise from the aussies pace bowlers. Aussies 3-1 I say.

  • Rahul on November 24, 2010, 4:14 GMT

    Instead of mcgrath, gillespie, lee and warne we are looking at hilfenhaus, siddle, johnson and doherty this time around. And radar less johnson leading the much for the mcgraths 5-0 scoreline prediction. Poms must be quacking in their boots about facing this bunch in the 1st test.

  • Aadith on November 24, 2010, 3:51 GMT

    He can't reverse swing it.Hard worker he might be,but he doesn't have great skill & bowls too many drivable balls.& No he didn't 'bounce out' Sehwag either.It was a slower ball that got sehwag out in the first innings.Good thinking but no bouncing out there. BTW what is up with the aussies cribbing about the heat in india.Australia is the hottest country on the planet & you don't play in the winter in India(primarily Dec,Jan) when temps are very low.

  • James on November 24, 2010, 2:38 GMT

    @ Adrian - On what basis can you say Hilfenhaus is better overseas than at home?!?! He's only played one test in Australia, and he got man of the match for it, albeit against sub-par opposition. Pretty sure he won his national spot by running through domestic batting lineups on home soil. I would have preferred Bollinger to Siddle too, since I think Siddle still bowls too short, but there is no way that Harris gets a gig over Hilfy (although I am a Harris fan). And BTW, he swings the Kooka ball further than the Duke. He'll be our leading wicket taker again unless Johnson finds his form of 18 months ago.

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