Ben Hilfenhaus: A prized work horse in the Australian stable

Despite Australia losing the Ashes, Ben Hilfenhaus was the leading wicket taker for the series claiming 22 wickets at an average of 27.45. This was a prime example of the working class cricketer © Getty Images

By Ian Reid

 

On January 5, 2007 Ben Hilfenhaus was rewarded for his outstanding achievements at the Allan Border Medal award ceremony where he won the Bradman Young Cricket of the Year Trophy. He won it convincingly receiving 97 votes in total. His performances for Tasmania sparked a fair bit of interest from the National Selection Panel and on that night it was clear that Hilfenhaus was well on track for a future with the Australian cricket team. 

The award was one suited to the young, working class man who had been a bricklayer prior to becoming a full time cricketer. He is man who knows about hard work and as humble a man as Hilfenhaus is as well, he had plenty to boast about after the 2006-07 Pura Cup.

After 11 matches he sent down 509.1 overs taking 60 wickets, the most for the season at an average of 25.38. Andy Bichel took the second most for the season with 45 wickets. Even Glenn McGrath stated that he viewed Hilfenhaus to be “very impressive“. 

On that evening in Melbourne, Hilfenhaus declared, “it’s been a fast ride“. The ride had been a fast one for the working class bowler to get his name on the radar and although it was going to be a ride that would continue, there would be many, many bumps along the way. This article takes a brief look at this journey.

Given the massive workload in that breakthrough period, stress fractures and injury niggles caused minor setbacks to his emerging career. He returned the following season with modest figures in 2007-08 claiming 28 wickets at an average of 43.82. 

Having debuted for Australia in Twenty20 and ODI cricket and shown reasonable consistency in First Class cricket, he was given the nod to join the Test squad during periods of 2008 but lucked out due to injury concerns, an unfortunate pattern that would mean he’d have to wait until 2009 to receive his Baggy Green cap. He continued to do what he could do best and that was to take as many wickets as possible for the Tasmanian Tigers when he was fit. 

He just missed out on debut for the final match against South Africa at the Sydney Cricket Ground but come January 25, 2009, the 1st Test in South Africa at the Wanderers Stadium, he would finally receive his Baggy Green cap alongside Marcus North and Phillip Hughes. It would be the first time since 1985 that three players would debut in a Test match for Australia. 

Before receiving his cap, Hilfenhaus was reflective upon the possibility that the stack of wickets and seemingly never ending hours of bowling was going to pay off, stating, “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.” 

He would pick up the golden wicket of Hashim Amla with his second delivery in Test cricket, a sharp catch being taken by fellow state team mate Ricky Ponting at second slip. Although it would be a hard initiation for Hilfenhaus – only taking seven wickets at 52.28 – the Baggy Greens won the series 2-1 and it looked as though Australian cricket was back on track. 

His work ethic and natural ability to swing the ball meant he was a vital contender for the 2009 Ashes series in England, where conditions would be ideally suited to him. He was named in the touring squad and although he wasn’t a guaranteed starter, Brett Lee would injure himself in a warm-up match and as a result Hilfenhaus was named in the starting XI for the 1st Test in Cardiff. 

The Ashes Urn was lost that series and it was heart-breaking for Australian supporters as there was little doubt our players had individually outplayed the English players but an inability to win key moments collectively meant England would walk away victorious. A historic day for English cricket supporters. 

Hilfenhaus had troubled the English batsmen and the conditions had worked in his favour. Despite the loss of the Urn, he was the leading wicket taker for the series claiming 22 wickets at an average of 27.45. Hilfenhaus had given it his best. This was another prime example of the working class cricketer. He put in the hard work and even upon conclusion of the series he was very much an under-rated bowler whose effort was given little praise. 

He also started a pattern for finding a way to claim a key victim each series he played, dismissing Ravi Bopara five times from four of the Tests in the 2009 Ashes series. Other “bunnies” would be Virender Sehwag (India) and Kraig Brathwaitte (West Indies). 

Hilfenhaus is the work horse of our bowlers, while Peter Siddle compliments him by working on an overload of emotionally charged power overs. He’s the bowler that has to focus and graft over after over for the results. He has to build the pressure from his end to enable the strike bowlers to crack through a batsman’s defense under the pressure. It’s a thankless job and even when the going is good, the praise still seems minimal. The flip side is that when things start to get shaky, the criticism will come tumbling after. 

In his first Test in Australia, Ben Hilfenhaus would continue his good form as he claimed the Player of the match award against the West Indies at the Gabba during the summer of 200910. 

He took five wickets for the match with regular top order scalps – this knack would follow when teams met again in the 2012 Frank Worrell Trophy – but during the Test match Hilfenhaus looked troubled on the outfield. He was in pain showing obvious signs of discomfort. Something was not right. The diagnosis came back that he had knee tendonitis and would be out of cricket in order to recover from an injury that was extremely serious and threatening to the pursuit of any longevity. 

After a long lay-off, Hilfenhaus played in the two match Test series against Pakistan in England. It was a return for Hilfenhaus to the hunting ground where he’d bowled magnificently in the Ashes. Although it was a return he had to ease into, it will be remembered as the series where he scored his maiden Test half-century. As a bloke who loves playing golf it was a chance to play as many powerful strokes in an innings bringing 56 runs as a he would do so in a round of 18 holes.

The performances earned Hilfenhaus a spot to play his first series against India. The catch is that it would be in India. Although the scheduling was out of the ordinary, it was important tour as it was the only “ideal” preparations for Australia as a squad ahead of the 2010-11 Ashes series where we were all promised an almighty fight back to regain the Urn. 

The Baggy Greens were unable to win the Indian series and didn’t paint the best picture heading back to Australia. The 1st Test in Mohali was a thrilling encounter which Australia should have won hands down, but a concerning threat returned to the side. This threat was an inability to win key moments, as we saw in the 2008 Test series against South Africa, as well as 2009 Ashes series. 

On the back of the team’s performances, Hilfenhaus had gone okay taking six wickets but he still hadn’t looked right, technically speaking. There were slight modifications to his action and it seemed as if the injury risk was somewhere at the back of his mind. It looked like he was holding back over so slightly. 

The Ashes series arrived and Hilfenhaus claimed the first wicket of the series just as he had in 2009. The tone was set and the day would get even better as Peter Siddle claimed a hat-trick. Unfortunately a nightmare awaited and England would convincingly win the series 3-1. Hilfenhaus was dropped from the side having only taken seven wickets at an average of 59.28 from four Tests. 

Being dropped meant Hilfenhaus would go through the motions as many players have to in their careers. Even his fellow mates Peter Siddle, Mitchell Johnson and batsmen such as Michael Clarke and Ricky Ponting had been given the axe at some point. 

Discussions would emerge on a critical level that he lacked pace, was delivering the ball from too close to the Umpire and was fatefully swinging the ball far too early. He had become predictable. 

To get back into the squad he had to follow through with his one and only choice. He needed to do what he’d done five years before. He had to go back to Tasmania and take wickets. This would mean he’d have to work through the mental barrier with a lingering injury carrying serious consequences for his future, but most importantly he had technical aspects of his game to address. It wasn’t just about taking wickets. It was about becoming a bowler re-born, a bowler who would burst back onto the radar and do so in front of his home crowd to raise that public profile. 

What was the basic idea to fix it? 

George Bailey (Tasmanian and Australian T20 Captain) was instrumental in challenging Hilfenhaus to get back on track and force him to change his ways. The major aspect addressed was to make him use the crease more, in other words bowl wider from the crease and not so close to the Umpire. This would subtly improve his control when swinging the ball, most resulting in later swing and movement making it harder for batsmen to combat the line. He was also encouraged to develop more deliveries into his repertoire. 

It took a little while for Hilfenhaus to accept the change and adopt them but the results started to show and he was given a recall into the Test squad for the Border-Gavaskar series against India in Australia. Many doubted this move and it seemed as though there was little support on offer. As a quiet bloke who keeps a low profile off the field, he would really need to make his actions speak louder than words. To use an exhausted statement, his performances would need to do the talking. 

He’d started off steadily, adjusting to the demands from skipper Michael Clarke, but slowly but surely the confidence returned. His bowling action looked solid and far more controlled. Importantly he was taking wickets and doing so in a menacing fashion. All the variations and corrections that George Bailey had spoken of were on display for all to see and the results were showing. Hilfenhaus was back on the radar! 

Australia went on to the win the series 4-0, a massive contrast after the Ashes loss the previous summer for both the team and the Tasmanian swing bowler. 

It was also a huge contrast for Hilfenhaus and the Australian supporters realised it. He was given respect for efforts and he was the top wicket collector for the series with 27 wickets at an average of 17.22. Hilfenhaus didn’t just take those wickets with short bursts of the Twenty20 flavour that had played a minor role in his comeback. He had to graft as he sent down 168.0 overs for the series in true Test cricket style. 

A mind-boggling statistic was that Hilfenhaus had yet to take a five wicket haul in a Test match, but against India it finally happened where he took two five-for in the series. It was another small measure of major improvement. He also claimed the big wicket of Virender Sehwag three times and sent down some memorable deliveries to bowl the recently-retired Rahul Dravid. 

The performances even gave Hilfenhaus a fresh chance to play ODI cricket again for Australia where he took 5-33 in his comeback match. 

It was really special to see Ben Hilfenhaus and Peter Siddle rock the Indians as the two of them had seen mixed fortunes in their careers. Fortunately it all came together during a victorious summer. They were unsurprisingly called into the touring squad for the West Indies series. Unlike 2008, Hilfenhaus was ready for 2012 and made the trip, while also having the opportunity to play more ODI cricket for Australia as well.

His Test series was a positive one where he built upon his home summer performances in slightly tougher conditions for the fast bowlers. He left the Caribbean having taken 10 wickets and had even stepped up as a leader in the series having been given the responsibility as the senior bowler to take the new ball in the 3rd Test, which the Baggy Greens won on the final day to take the series 2-0. 

It was fitting that Ben Hilfenhaus’ Test return would be secured in the Caribbean having missed out on the 2008 tour due to injury and having fallen from the initial peak in his career against the same team in 2009 after receiving Player of the match due to injury. 

A player who had been unfairly dismissed by many as ordinary secured a spot in 2012 Indian Premier League for the Chennai Super Kings, entered the top 10 in ICC Test rankings (#7) and has the following statistics behind his name since his return against India: 
Played 7, Innings 14, Overs 269.0, Maidens 78, Runs 673, Wkts 37, BBI 5-75, BBM 8-97, Avg 18.19, 5-for (twice) 

This doesn’t strike me as an ordinary player and as I think back to that evening in February 2009 before his debut when Hilfenhaus stated, “I’ll just try and do everything I can to represent it well”, he can take pride in the knowledge he has done just that for the Baggy Greens. 

He has shown hard work, dedication and bounced back from devastating career setbacks to keep his dreams alive and win matches for his team, just as players like Brett Lee and Shane Watson have had to. It hasn’t been an easy journey from Ulverstone, Tasmania to the shores of the Caribbean islands, but it’s finally started to see a reward as a true testament for Australia’s working class bowler, Ben Hilfenhaus. 

 

(Ian Reid runs http://www.thebaggygreen.blogspot.com. In doing so he aims to encourage other supporters around the world to support the team and open their minds to the challenges Australian cricket faces. He comes from the Steve Waugh era of cricket, so he tends to be very optimistic and enjoys the in-depth aspects of this great game. Ricky Ponting inspires him and states that it has been an honour to have followed his career since 1994-95. Ian is a supporter of the South Australian Redbacks and The Wallabies)