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