BEN Hilfenhaus, Australia's outstanding bowler against India last summer, on Thursday begins a three-way tussle with Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon for two places in the attack for next week's first Test against South Africa in Brisbane.
The robust Tasmanian will bowl his first red ball in a match since April in the Sheffield Shield game against South Australia, starting in Hobart on Thursday, having puffed away some cobwebs while returning modest figures of 1-73 from 13 overs in Tuesday's one-dayer against the Redbacks.
Australia's bowling coach Ali de Winter is confident Hilfenhaus can overcome a disjointed preparation, caused by Champions League commitments with Chennai, to be somewhere near his best by the time the selectors choose the first-Test attack to face the Proteas.
De Winter, who helped restore Hilfenhaus' pace and swing before his renaissance last summer, said Peter Siddle and James Pattinson enjoyed a considerable advantage in their Test preparations from stringing shield games together, while Hilfenhaus and Starc bowled in short bursts at the Champions League.
The latter two have subsisted on the short formats since August, although Starc has done more competitive bowling than Hilfenhaus in that time.
''It's difficult to know how close he [Hilfenhaus] is going to be to his best. We all know how good his best is, but what we've known for a long time is that his preparation, as well as Starc and a few others, would be interrupted by short-form cricket, so we've put in place the best-possible measures that we think will get them ready for selection,'' de Winter said.
''The selectors have picked their 12 and we are pretty confident that Ben, along with Starc and the others, are going to be in a position where they can be as near to their best as possible without having the ideal preparation.
''More than one shield game would have been great, and we've seen with Siddle and Pattinson the benefit they have had from extra games. In Ben's case and a few others, that's not the case, but we have known that for a long time and we have dealt with it as best we can.
''We hope Ben bowls well and gets some wickets in Hobart, as we do Nathan Lyon, and we hope Starc gets through his shield game [for New South Wales against Queensland] with some good form as well, so the final XI for the selectors will be a difficult choice. We're pretty happy we've got guys who are fit and selectable.''
Hilfenhaus has experience, physical resilience and a fine domestic record at the Gabba on his side. The selectors regard him, and fellow workhorse Siddle, as the constants in Australia's pace attack, but Starc offers an appealing left-arm option. The selectors could yet opt for all four fast men, if the pitch is tinged with green.
Hilfenhaus, who took 27 wickets at 17.22 against India after he was recalled for last summer's Boxing Day Test, would presumably be a strong candidate to take the new ball, but needs to find his red-ball groove in the shield game.
De Winter, who was at the Champions League to monitor Australia's quicks, is confident Hilfenhaus and Starc have done enough full-throttle net bowling with red balls, and believes the Tasmanian's pace and action are in good order.
''The games he played for Chennai, having not played much competitive cricket, he came straight in and performed well for them up front with the new ball, with his pace up around the 140-mark, which we know is his best sort of pace. He swung the ball, challenged the defence of the batters and got wickets for them early,'' de Winter said. ''Everything we have seen so far suggests he is in pretty good form. I did watch him bowl on the television [against the Redbacks] last night, and he started quite well. We also have to remember he is only two or three days off a plane. He is a pretty robust and resilient kind of guy, so we don't have any concerns about him, or any of the others.''