When South Africa finished Day One of the First Vodafone Test on 2-255, the wolves were out for Australia’s bowling attack.
At the focal point was Ben Hilfenhaus, whose uncharacteristically sterile performance triggered many fans and pundits to immediately pencil in Mitchell Starc ahead of the burly Tasmanian for the side to play the Second Test in Adelaide.
However, a promising comeback by Hilfenhaus and the rest of the Australian attack on days Three and Five has left Hilfenhaus and Starc neck-and-neck in the selection battle for the final fast-bowler’s spot.
So who will John Inverarity and the selectors go for?
Starc got his chance to impress in the recent Bupa Sheffield Shield game against Victoria and while he wasn’t at his best, conceding 12 boundaries in his spell of 22.3 overs, he still managed to pick up four wickets including the scalps of Chris Rogers, David Hussey and Cameron White.
While less consistent than Hilfenhaus, Starc has the ability to produce a wicket-taking delivery out-of-the-blue, and that sort of potency could be invaluable against a well-set Hashim Amla or Jacques Kallis.
He also has the added advantage of being a left-armer which not only brings natural variety to the table but should create some handy footmarks for Nathan Lyon. This could be a key factor, as Lyon will be expected to play more than just a supporting role at Adelaide where the slower bowlers traditionally have a large bearing on the result.
There’s no doubt that Hilfenhaus lacked penetration and incisiveness on day one in Brisbane and over the course of the test James Pattinson and Peter Siddle looked more dangerous.
However, he was involved in Australia’s comeback on Day Three, bowling some tight spells and exercising the sort of control that didn’t allow Amla and Kallis to get away in the same fashion as Michael Clarke and Mike Hussey did for Australia. He also created plenty of pressure in South Africa’s second innings despite the wickets falling at the other end.
Hilfenhaus’ ability to bowl long spells and keep things tight will also carry additional weight now that it has been confirmed that Shane Watson won’t bowl if selected for Adelaide.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for retaining Hilfenhaus is his incredible record since coming back into the Australian side, with 39 wickets in eight matches at an average below 20. In 2012 his numbers stack up against any fast-bowler in international cricket, so it may be a bit harsh to drop him after only one sub-par performance. Starc himself agreed on.
Speaking at the conclusion of the Shield match last week, Starc said “I think Benny's probably been harshly done by in the media. He was fantastic for Australia last season against India and all of a sudden he's has one game where he hasn't taken five-for and everyone's over him.”
Something else to consider is the argument about “variety”.
It was something South Africa’s bowling attack clearly lacked on a flat Gabba pitch with five right-arm seamers and no spinner, however history suggests that having a left-armer at your disposal does not necessarily guarantee success. The all-conquering attacks of the West Indies and Australia which dominated the sport for a combined total of 30 years rarely employed left-arm pace bowlers, while more recently England and South Africa have risen to the top of the ICC rankings without the help of any lefties at the bowling crease.
Although that’s certainly not to say that Starc can’t offer plenty to this current Australian attack who will still have some doubts as to whether they can take 20 South African wickets on a historically flat Adelaide wicket.
Michael Clarke has shown that he is an attacking captain and has pointed out the need for his side to be the aggressor, with only a series win good enough to see the Australians back on top of the ICC Test rankings, so his vote may go to the potency and volatility offered by his fellow New South Welshman.
Clarke will also appreciate the consistency and stability provided by Hilfenhaus, especially at a venue like Adelaide, and given his impressive form over the past year or so the selectors might just wait until the final test in Perth to unleash Starc.
The opinions of the author in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Cricket Australia.
First Posted 20 November, 2012 3:21PM AEST