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Dennis Lillee lifts sagging spirits of Australian team on debut against England at Adelaide in 1971

Dennis Lillee took five wickets on debut against England © Getty Images
Dennis Lillee took five wickets on debut against England © Getty Images

Dennis Lillee, the legendary Australian paceman had a truly remarkable career, where he waded through marshes and swamps to come out as a true winner. Bharath Ramaraj looks back at the very first Test the champion fast bowler played against England at Adelaide on January 29, 1971, in the 1970-71 Ashes.

As the dusk fell on another hot Australian summer in January 1971 in Adelaide, the team’s think-tank cut a forlorn figure. The Western Australian fast bowler Graham McKenzie had carried their attack manfully on his shoulders, or rather, on his dodgy knees, in the 1960s by bowling over after over and hitting the bat hard with those nip-backers. But once he retired at the age of 29, the fast bowling cupboard looked bare.

From 1960s to early 1970s, the likes of Dave Renneberg, Eric Freeman, Tom Veivers, Laurie Mayne, Graeme Watson, and finally the much-hyped, Alan Thomson played without much success. Alan Connolly and Neil Hawke were decent pacers, but Australia were desperate to find that genuine fast bowler who could charge in like a crazed bull with a fiery mongrel-like temper to become the primal force of the team.

Just like a crystal clear night sky shining with glorious expanse of twinkling blues and light shades of white reds, Dennis Lillee came out of Australia’s fast bowling stables to lord over opposition teams in 1970-71. He had already showcased tremendous potential by bowling with furious pace and frightening New Zealand batsmen to death under the captaincy of Sam Trimble for the Australian B team in 1969-70. More importantly, he had towered over other pacers in that series most notably, the much ‘Great White Hope’, Alan Thompson.

Yet, it had taken time for Australia’s Chairman of Selectors Don Bradman to throw him into the deep end in the cauldron of bubbling tensions of Test cricket. However, with England already 1-0 up, they needed just a couple of draws to regain the Ashes by the time the game at Adelaide was played, it was time for selectors to unleash the fearsome young spark called Dennis Lillee — a man with scant respect for batsmen.

It was also time for the Australian cricketing tribe to take revenge and give it back to a confident English team who with John Snow and a young tearaway Bob Willis had smashed them to smithereens in 1970-71.

Curiously, Australia had already tried eight to nine bowlers in the series including McKenzie who was close to being put to knackers’ yard after rendering yeoman services for Australia. Even the journeyman swing bowler Charles Duncan known for producing that odd breathtaking spell played in Ashes 1970-71. So Lillee, the last choice to be picked was the one who went onto wow the Australian crowds for a longtime to come with his timeless brilliant performances.

Those days, Lillee’s raw talent shone like red lightning. In the Test at Adelaide, he bowled with hair rising pace and menace, and was finally rewarded with the wicket of the stoic, John Edrich. By then, England already had racked up 276 runs on the board. In fact, Edrich known for meticulous judgment outside the off-stump along with Geoffrey Boycott and Keith Fletcher virtually had taken the life of Australian quickies with their unquenchable concentration prowess. It was rather surprising that Lillee finally found a thick edge from Edrich’s bat which flew towards Keith Stackpole standing at gully to take the catch. Even now, Lillee reckons that he found Edrich the most difficult batsman to bowl to.

Once he took the first of many wickets to come in his twinkling career, it was a different story altogether. The luck changed for him as Alan Knott, the sprightly English wicketkeeper was done in by a fuller length delivery that kissed the edge of his bat and was caught by the safe hands of Ian Redpath in slips. Raymond Illingworth and Snow had no clue to the sheer pace of Lillee, and their stumps were shattered to vicious nip backers that shaped back into them at venomous pace. The last man, Bob Willis soon was sent packing back the pavilion for four runs by Lillee. Lillee had a five-for in his very first Test and Australian players knew that they had found someone who could lift their sagging spirits. Incidentally, he bowled with the heart of a lion during the final Test at Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) as well and added three more wickets to his kitty.

What followed?

Despite Stackpole’s brilliant counter-attacking knock in Australia’s first innings, they found themselves behind by a deficit of 235 runs. However, in the second innings Ian Chappell and yet again Stackpole stonewalled England with their magnificence to take Australia to safety and draw the Test.

Dennis Lillee had a monumental career for Australia and went onto take 355 wickets for his country — a world record for highest number of wickets by any bowler at that time. Turning back to 1970-71 Ashes series, England won the six-Test Ashes series (seven, if one counts the abandoned game at MCG where not even a single ball was bowled leading to the birth of ODI cricket) 2-0. Australia’s captain Bill Lawry was sacked before the final Test and a new era was ushered with the aggressive no nonsense captain Ian Chappell taking over the mantle.

Intriguingly, Lawry was not informed by Bradman about his sacking. He came to know of it over the radio! History, though, would remember the rather tepid series for the dawn of one of the greatest fast bowlers Australia has ever produced in Dennis Lillee.

Brief scores: 

England 470 (John Edrich 130, Keith Fletcher 80; Dennis Lillee 5 for 84, Greg Chappell 2 for 54) and 233 for 4 decl. (Geoffrey Boycott 119; Alan Thompson 3 for 79) drew with Australia 235 (Keith Stackpole 87; Peter Lever 4 for 49, Bob Willis 2 for 49) and 328 for 3 (Keith Stackpole 136, Ian Chappell 104; Bob Willis 1 for 48).

(Bharath Ramaraj, an MBA in marketing, eats, drinks and sleeps cricket. He has played at school and college-level, and now channelises his passion for the game by writing about it)

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