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SHEFFIELD SHIELD 2015-16

Swing king more grunt than glamour

24 February 2016

Hilfenhaus retires after 99 wickets from 27 Tests // Getty Images

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A look back on the Test and first-class career of newly retired fast-bowler Ben Hilfenhaus

About the Writer:
 @AdamBurnett09

Adam Burnett is senior news editor of bigbash.com.au. He previously wrote for and edited at Inside Cricket magazine and The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia and The Telegraph and The Guardian in the UK.

Through a decade that took him from laying bricks to wearing the Baggy Green, Benjamin William Hilfenhaus earned himself a reputation as one of the finest Australian swing bowlers of his generation.

And one of Australian cricket's most humble and well-liked individuals.

Quick Single: Hilfenhaus retires from first-class cricket

The workmanlike Tasmanian, who called time on his first-class career today a few weeks short of his 33rd birthday, built his career through a simple formula of line, length and a talent for outswing.

Those traits propelled him to cricket's highest level; between 2007 and 2012, he played 27 Tests and 25 ODIs, claiming a combined total of 128 international wickets.

Ben Hilfenhaus
Hilfenhaus took 27 wickets against India in 2011-12 // Getty Images

And it will forever be a statistical quirk in Hilfenhaus's career that he leaves the game with 99 Test victims to his name, after a side strain cut short his involvement in what proved to be his final match in Baggy Green, against Sri Lanka on his home patch of Hobart in December 2012.

Only 36 Australians have taken 100-plus Test wickets and while Hilfenhaus fell one shy of that particular milestone, there's no shortage of achievements the former brickie can hang his cap on.

As Glenn McGrath enjoyed a prolonged and perfect send-off courtesy of a 5-0 Ashes whitewash in the summer of 2006-07, a potential replacement for the legendary metronome had emerged south of the mainland.

Hilfenhaus had only debuted in first-class cricket the previous summer, but the laidback tradesman had impressed with good pace and accuracy – and 39 wickets, the most by any Tasmanian in a debut Sheffield Shield season.

And perhaps the best outswinger in the country.

Ben Hilfenhaus
Hilfenhaus burst onto the domestic scene in 2006-07 // Getty Images

While that international summer rightly belonged to McGrath and Australia's other departing heroes, the domestic scene was owned by Hilfenhaus.

With seven scalps in Tasmania's victory in the Shield final - the Apple Isle's first ever title in almost 30 years of trying - the right-armer became just the fifth player to claim 60 wickets in a single season.

Just as impressive was his tally of 509.1 overs from 11 matches, an incredible display of endurance in a campaign he rates as one of the highlights of his career.

"Just to be a part of that team and help put Tassie on the map as a cricketing state, to launch their attack on the competition, it was an amazing feeling to be a part of that," he told cricket.com.au on Wednesday.

"I had a captain (current Tasmania coach Dan Marsh) who was willing to give me the ball and always gave me one extra over after every spell, which was quite nice.

Ben Hilfenhaus
Hilfenhaus celebrates Tasmania's Shield win with Michael Di Venuto // Getty Images

"You can't do that sort of workload forever. I think I bowled 500 overs or something in that year, which is almost unheard of for fast bowlers so maybe that's taken its toll.

"But I don't regret any of it and one of the most memorable times of my career was winning that first Shield for Tassie."

It earned him a swag of awards, including Tasmania's Player of the Year, the Bradman Young Cricketer of the Year, and his first ODI cap, which came against New Zealand in Hobart. 

The following summer he was called up to Australia's Test squad for an injured Shaun Tait, though it would be another 14 months until he made his debut in the five-day game. 

That came under the captaincy of fellow Tasmanian Ricky Ponting, who had earmarked Hilfenhaus as a potential strike weapon on the key tours to South Africa and England in 2009. 

Debuting alongside Marcus North and the late Phillip Hughes in Johannesburg, the miserly quick complemented opening partner Mitchell Johnson perfectly, taking three wickets and going at under 2.5 runs per over across a marathon 56 overs as Australia surged to a comprehensive victory that set up a shock series win.

Ben Hilfenhaus
Australia's Jo'Burg debutants - North, Hughes and Hilfenhaus // Getty Images

Twenty-two wickets in the Ashes defeat that followed continued a fine entrance to Test cricket, despite the pitches not necessarily suiting Hilfenhaus in the manner his captain had envisioned. 

"If you look back to the Ashes there were a lot of conditions there that probably didn't suit his style of bowling, but he managed to find a way to get the job done," Ponting said after the series. 

"When you can ask a bowler to do a certain job for you and they can do it, regardless of what the situation the game is in or the conditions they're bowling in, means they are executing really well. And that's what you want as a captain."

Such is the nature of his craft, not all sailing was smooth.

Injuries intervened sporadically (and when it came to his knee tendinitis, chronically) and put paid to aspirations of a lengthy career at the top.

Ben Hilfenhaus
Hilfenhaus rips through Kevin Pietersen during the 2009 Ashes // Getty Images

But 27 matches for Australia, the most successful Test nation of all, is no mean feat. 

Ryan Harris, Darren Lehmann, Bruce Reid, Bob Cowper, Neil Hawke, Wayne Phillips and the great Bill 'Tiger' O'Reilly are all alongside the Tasmanian in a '27 Club' of their own.

It was enough time for Hilfenhaus to climb as high as number six in the ICC Test bowling rankings after a particularly purple patch at home against India in 2011-12.

After back and knee problems had curbed his effectiveness during a horror Ashes series the previous summer, he returned with vigour and venom, proving far too much for the touring Indians with not only traditional outswing but by moving the ball both ways, and at a pace he hadn't managed in years.

WATCH: Hilfenhaus falls just short of a hat-trick against India

The combination garnered him a maiden five-wicket haul, in his 18th Test, and he finished the series with 27 wickets at 17 in Australia's 4-0 whitewash. 

He played another six Tests in 2012 following the India series but it was the penultimate one of those that may have cost him long term. 

On a fifth-day track in Adelaide, he toiled relentlessly for 22 overs (adding to the 12 he'd bowled the previous night and the 19.3 in the first innings) as he and a depleted attack sought victory over a plucky South African side, all the while fighting both his action and an unrelenting knee problem.

A month later, having missed the decider against the Proteas in Perth, Hilfenhaus broke down with a side strain on day three against Sri Lanka. 

At the time it was considered just another hurdle for him to overcome, but with a healthy crop of young fast-bowling talent emerging, the winds of change blew in. 

There were rays of hope in the intervening years, most notably when selectors liked his skill-set for conditions in the UAE and promptly put him on the plane for their October 2014 tour against Pakistan.

Ben Hilfenhaus
The old and the new of Australia's pace attack in the UAE in 2014 // Getty Images

"I know that if I get back bowling to the way I was a couple of years ago then it’s hopefully going to be good enough to get another crack at that level,” he said at the time.

"It’s unfortunate for the blokes that are currently injured, but it’s given me another opportunity."

The chance never eventuated, despite Australia being thumped 2-0. 

Hilfenhaus was again left stranded on 99, and that was as close as he'd come to another Test match.

After appearing for Tasmania in three victorious Shield teams, his form and fitness began to fade at first-class level, but his subtle variations – particularly a couple of clever slower balls – remain part of a sought-after commodity in the Twenty20 world, which he will now call home.

In 2015 it was Ponting who recruited him at Mumbai Indians in the IPL, and though he was merely a squad member on the subcontinent, his move from Hobart Hurricanes to Melbourne Stars bore fruit in the form of 10 wickets and a maiden Big Bash League final for the franchise.

Ben Hilfenhaus
Hilfenhaus will continue his career as a T20 gun for hire // Getty Images

There was no fairytale in that BBL decider at the MCG, nor was there in what turned out to be the last of his 104 first-class matches, against Queensland in Hobart last November.

The right-armer worked tirelessly for 35 overs, with left-hander Nathan Reardon his final wicket, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the Bulls chasing down 273 to win by three wickets.

But perhaps for a man like Hilfenhaus, who has always been more grunt than glamour, it was a fitting enough way to bow out from the first-class arena.

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