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Australia's unassuming hero

Hilfenhaus took 4-60 during England's humiliating innings defeat
Hilfenhaus took 4-60 at Headingley during England's humiliating innings defeat

By Anna Thompson

Before the Ashes series began, not many people were expecting Ben Hilfenhaus to be the leading wicket-taker going into the final Test.

At Australia's media day at Hove back at the start of the summer, I was one of very few journalists interested in his thoughts, with the rest of the media pack gravitating towards Brett Lee, Stuart Clark, Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle and Nathan Hauritz.

To my shame I did not even write up my chat with him, with my boss insisting that Hilfenhaus was too far down the bowling pecking order to feature in the Ashes... how wrong we were!

He has taken 18 wickets - six more than his nearest England rivals - in four Test matches so far, at an average of 26.38, including 4-60 at Headingley.

And with the quiet and unassuming Aussie suddenly one of the stories of the series, I dug out my dictaphone to revisit our conversation.

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It started awkwardly, with the softly spoken 26-year-old clearly not at ease talking to the media as he admitted with a nervous laugh: "I don't like this at all... I've nothing to say."

But after chatting for a few minutes he seemed to grow in confidence and explained just what it meant to him to be a part of an Ashes squad.

"It's something you dream of as a kid of being part of. I'm looking forward to savouring every moment and enjoying it," he said.

In my defence, Hilfenhaus arrived in England having played only three Test matches against South Africa in which he recorded unremarkable figures of just seven wickets at an average of 52.28.

But he has been a revelation with the ball for the Baggy Greens, ironically looking like a good old-fashioned English swing bowler.

Despite his success, Hilfenhaus has not hit the headlines. A series of quietly impressive performances in which he has chipped away at England have been the order of the day.

But it could have been a very different story had Lee not injured himself during the warm-up match against the England Lions at Worcester.

If Lee had been available then Hilfenhaus would probably have missed out, a familiar feeling for a player who has endured a frustrating wait to get into the Test side.

BEN HILFENHAUS FACTS
Overall Tests: 7
versus England: 4

Overall wickets: 25
versus England: 18

Bowling average: 33.64
versus England: 26.38

Best bowling: 4-60 (v England)

Despite being named Bradman Young Cricketer of the Year in 2007 after being the leading wicket-taker in domestic cricket with 75 wickets at 25.17 for Tasmania University Cricket Club, he missed out to the likes of Shaun Tait and Doug Bollinger.

But he finally made his Test debut against South Africa at Johannesburg in February of this year, thanks to the absence of elder statesmen Lee and Clark.

And he made a perfect start, snaffling the wicket of Hashim Amla with only his second ball in Test cricket.

But he was realistic about his chances of playing in the Ashes and had got used to being selected for the squad, only to miss being picked for the final XI.

"With Lee and Clark coming back in they are great bowlers so it's up to the selectors what they decide the make-up of the side to be," Hilfenhaus told me.

"Whichever way they go, we will respect that as the ultimate goal is taking 20 wickets.

"You can't afford to get down about it. Just being here representing your country is a great honour."

The conversation then turned to another great passion of his - golf - and he became very animated as he reeled off the Belfry and Forest of Arden as courses he had already enjoyed playing.

Hilfenhaus plays off an eight handicap but revealed: "I'm definitely not the best golfer in the team, Ricky Ponting is by a mile. He plays off two and he's even better than that!"

Hilfenhaus is congratulated by his team-mates after taking first wicket of the Ashes
Hilfenhaus took the very first wicket of the 2009 Ashes

Nicknamed 'Gentle Ben' by his team-mates, Hilfenhaus has great respect for Australia bowling coach Troy Cooley, the man many laud as a key factor in helping England reclaim the Ashes in 2005 when he worked in Duncan Fletcher's backroom team.

"I've done a fair bit of work with Troy," said Hilfenhaus. "He's great to have around and good at fine-tuning your action.

"He comes up with different ways to do different things. He's very open to ideas."

And he was relishing bowling in English conditions and said, with what has since become probably the biggest understatement of the Ashes: "Hopefully the conditions will help my swing bowling."

Whereas Johnson and Siddle struggled early on with their line and length, the strapping 6ft 1in right-hander grabbed his chance with both hands - taking the first wicket of the Ashes when Alastair Cook was caught by Mike Hussey.

And he seemed to be the only Aussie bowler able to generate genuine swing, giving Ponting (his second cousin, believe it or not) a reliable option when Siddle and Johnson lost their bearings.

He may not have their ferocious pace but the fast-medium bowler's metronomic accuracy together with his ability to swing both new and old ball, have many calling him a latter-day Terry Alderman.

Just as Alderman reduced Graham Gooch to jelly in 1989 (so much so England's best batsman asked to be left out of the Test team), Hilfenhaus has turned Ravi Bopara to a quivering wreck in this series.

He has taken Bopara's wicket five times in four Test matches so far - but he may not get the chance to be his nemesis at The Oval as Bopara's place is seriously under threat.

Hilfenhaus took a bit of time away from the Ashes pressure cooker by heading to Paris with his partner before the squad reassembles in Canterbury at the weekend to face the England Lions.

Whether he will end the series as the top wicket-taker remains to be seen, with Johnson and Siddle both just two wickets behind him.

But the former bricklayer can be proud for laying a strong foundation for retaining the Ashes urn - and for finally cementing his place in the team.



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see also
Aussies win to level Ashes series
09 Aug 09 |  England
England v Australia photos
09 Aug 09 |  Cricket
Aussies defy England to earn draw
03 Aug 09 |  England
Australia draw with England Lions
04 Jul 09 |  Australia
Flintoff inspires England victory
20 Jul 09 |  England
Defiant England cling on for draw
12 Jul 09 |  England
Hopkinson ton frustrates Aussies
27 Jun 09 |  Australia


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