Ben Hilfenhaus: The Thoroughbred Workhorse

Posted on December 9, 2011

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By SB Tang

On the 23rd of August 2009, Ben Hilfenhaus finished his maiden Ashes tour as the series’ leading wicket-taker, with 22 wickets at 27.45. He impressed all with his mastery of swing, work-rate and consistency in the face of the inconstant moon that was the nominal leader of the Australian pace attack.

Following in the footsteps of Bob Massie and Terry Alderman, Hilfenhaus not only practised the art of swing bowling in English conditions better than the English themselves, but made a key member of England’s batting line-up his bunny — Hilfenhaus dismissed Ravi Bopara five times in 56 deliveries as Bopara averaged just 15 for the series before being dropped for Jonathan Trott for the last Test; not quite as memorable as the legend of Graham Gooch’s answering machine in 1989 (“I’m not here right now. I’m probably out … lbw to Terry Alderman”), but close.

Less than two years later, the bricklayer from Ulverstone, Tasmania was dropped in the aftermath of Australia’s 2010–11 Ashes debacle. With the recent emergence of a battery of promising young Australian quicks, it is entirely possible that Hilfenhaus, at the age of 28, has played his last Test for Australia.

That would be an injustice. Hilfenhaus has done little wrong and still has a lot to offer the Australian team.

After his successful 2009 Ashes tour, Hilfenhaus’s career continued its upward trajectory. He opened the bowling for Australia in the following home summer’s First Test against the West Indies — match figures of 5/70 won him the Man of the Match award as well as praise from captain Ricky Ponting for having developed the ability to “get the early [top order] wickets that we needed” in less-than-swing-friendly conditions.

Then injury struck. Knee tendonitis sidelined Hilfenhaus for the next six months.

Hilfenhaus made his comeback in the happy hunting grounds of the mother country in a two Test series against Pakistan in July 2010. He looked underdone but still performed creditably with series figures of 8 wickets at 23.75. Next came a two Test tour of India — in conditions which have so often proven to be an Australian fast bowlers’ graveyard, Hilfenhaus was Australia’s equal second highest wicket-taker behind Mitchell Johnson.

Accordingly, leading into the 2010–11 home Ashes series, it looked to all the world as if Hilfenhaus remained safely ensconced in Australia’s first-choice Test XI. The First Test at the Gabba began well enough — Hilfenhaus removed England captain Andrew Strauss with the third ball of the series. But he failed to take another wicket in the match, finishing with figures of 1/142 and was summarily dropped for the following Test in Adelaide as the Andrew Hilditch-led Australian selection panel continued its embrace of the England-in-the-90s policy of “one bad Test and you’re out”.

Although Hilfenhaus was recalled for the remaining three Tests of the series, he was roundly criticised for his inability to take wickets as England inflicted Australia’s first three-innings-defeat home Test series loss in 134 years of Test cricket. His critics had a point — there can be no escaping Test cricket’s sine qua non of 20 wickets for victory and Hilfenhaus’s series figures of 7 wickets at 59.28 from four Tests did little to help his team satisfy this condition.

However, Hilfenhaus’s fellow Australian bowlers found the going equally tough against an outstanding England batting line-up — no Australian bowler took more than 15 wickets and only Ryan Harris averaged less than 30 with the ball. As badly as Australia bowled in that series, England deserve due credit for batting superbly, demonstrating the old-fashioned virtues of patience and discipline which seemed to desert their Australian counterparts. And even at his worst, Hilfenhaus provided an excellent economy rate (his series economy rate of 2.62 was the best of the Australian bowlers) and the ability to bowl a lot of overs (despite missing one Test, he bowled 21.2 overs more than any other Australian bowler); qualities which, much like the ability to occupy the crease, are infrequently mentioned and deeply under-valued in contemporary Test cricket.

Yet Hilfenhaus was the sole member of the Ashes-losing pace attack axed from the Australian squad for the subsequent winter tours of Sri Lanka and South Africa.

Like all Australian bowlers, Hilfenhaus labours in the shadow of the twin giants of Warne and McGrath. Warne and McGrath simultaneously provided both economy and wicket-taking potency so the expectation is that their successors will do likewise. But such expectations are unrealistic, if not harmful — Warne and McGrath were once-in-a-generation bowlers and their ability to simultaneously perform both the aforementioned functions is one of the primary reasons why. The reality is that, in a bowling attack staffed by mere mortals, the two functions will, more often than not, have to be separated and performed by different bowlers.

As Warne himself wisely and frequently observes from the commentary box: bowling, like batting, works in partnerships. Hilfenhaus’s all-too-brief days as the leader of the Australian pace attack are probably over, but even in his cricketing middle age he can play an important role for the Australian team by, at minimum, diligently tying up an end whilst the young tyros let rip from the other end.

Hilfenhaus has never been an out-and-out strike bowler. Rather, he is, and always has been, a thoroughbred workhorse. His breakthrough Sheffield Shield season of 2006–07 tells the story: he took 60 wickets at 25.38, the third most in the Shield’s history, and bowled an astonishing 509.1 overs to do it, nearly 200 more than any other Shield fast bowler.

Since being dropped, Hilfenhaus has hit the gym to improve his fitness and eradicated a technical flaw in his action. His hard work has already reaped early season rewards: he currently sits fifth on the Shield wicket-taking list (having played one less match than three of the other top five wicket-takers) with 20 wickets at 28.60. He has the second lowest economy rate (2.76) but the highest strike-rate (61.9) of any bowler in the top five.

New Australia coach Mickey Arthur’s signalling of more frequent squad rotation and Hilfenhaus’s continued selection in Australia A sides offer hope that he forms part of the new selection panel’s future Test plans. He deserves to.

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