Umpires talk to Dennis Lillee about his illegal aluminium bat during the first Test against England at Perth, December 1979 © Getty Images
Dennis Lillee was not much of a batsman, but that did not stop him from making unique headlines with his bat – although not with his willow. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the December 15, 1979, when the legendary fast bowler made his way to the crease with an aluminium bat.
The brand was aptly named ComBat. Apart from the infamous fisticuff with Javed Miandad, this was the closest Dennis Lillee ever came to getting involved in actual combat on the cricket ground. Rodney Hogg, the Australian twelfth man feared for his head, and Greg Chappell – the captain of the team – almost lost his head to the flying aluminium bat.
Inspired by the way metal had replaced wood in baseball bats, the aluminium bat was the brainchild of Graham Monaghan. A former club cricketer who was also a close friend of Lillee, Monaghan’s target market for this inexpensive variety of cricket bat was the far less serious field of recreational cricket, schools and developing countries.
But, in December 1979, Dennis Lillee decided to walk out with this unorthodox piece of equipment bang in the middle of an Ashes Test match at Perth.
In fact, Lillee was Monoghan’s business partner. Later he admitted in his autobiography, Menace, that the gimmick was purely a marketing exercise.
ComBat on national television
Lillee had already used the bat in a Test match, 12 days earlier against the West Indies at Brisbane. The one time he had hit the ball had produced a resounding clunk. The aluminium had failed to connect with leather any further as Joel Garner had trapped him leg-before. The West Indians had not really been too bothered.
Now, after the first day’s play of the Ashes series, Australia had ended at 232 for 8. Lillee was batting on 11.
When Greg Chappell saw Lillee brandishing the metal bat in the nets the following morning, he was not too concerned. The idea was to annoy the Englishmen by batting as long as possible, and if Lillee wanted the bat to be displayed on national television, the captain could cut his premier fast bowler some slack. The clunk-clunk of the bat sounder horrid in the nets, but it could be tolerated for an over.
When play got under way, Chappell turned to twelfth man Hogg and said, “Mate, get Dennis’s willow bat and at the end of the over go out and bring the aluminium bat back.”
Hogg was apprehensive. After the over, he had gone into the field and come back with the willow still in his hand. Lillee was still wielding the aluminium version. Chappell asked Hogg what the problem was.
“All I could see was me getting hit over the head with an aluminium bat in front of millions of people on television,” Hogg responded.
But, when Lillee straight drove Ian Botham and the ball trickled back to the bowler, Chappell put his foot down. In his opinion, the stroke had been good enough to go for four and this stunt was costing his team runs. He turned to Hogg again and said, “Hoggy, get out there and get the bloody thing back at the end of this over.”
Umpires Max O’Connell and Doug Weser stopped to confer about the bat. Hogg ran out with a willow. But, Lillee carried two bats in his kit – a surprise to many because the prevailing opinion was that he couldn’t use even one properly. Now, he suddenly decided that he wanted the other one.
So Lillee trudged back to the dressing room to get his other willow. As he was walking out again, he passed Rodney Marsh, sitting near the door and enjoying the proceedings.
Never much of a passive observer, the wicketkeeper chirped, “You are not going to let the umpires tell you what to do, are you?”
Lillee stopped, turned around, threw down the willow, picked up his aluminium bat once again and marched out.
However, by now the England captain Mike Brearley had started to complain. The metal bat was damaging the second new ball. Play was stopped as the umpires had a long discussion with a seething Lillee.
Greg Chappell (second from left) walks away from Mike Brearley (second from right), showing his disgust at Dennis Lillee s aluminium bat, during the 1979 Perth Test.
On being asked, Hogg refused to play delivery boy again. So, Chappell himself walked out with the willow and approached the pitch. When he was about 22 yards from Lillee, he heard a whirring noise. The aluminium bat flew over his head, and landed some yards behind him. Chappell calmly handed his fast bowler the willow and walked to the dressing room, picking up the offending piece of metal on his way back.
However, Lillee was soon back – a ball from Botham having found the edge of the willow on its way to Bob Taylor.
What happened next
Lillee later claimed that Chappell’s motive was to prolong the showdown to get him fired up when he took the new ball. If that was indeed the case, the ploy worked to perfection. Lillee dismissed openers Geoff Boycott and Derek Randall for ducks and finished with 4 for 73. When Brearley came into bat, Chappell pointed towards him and said to Lillee, “You see that bloke at the other end? He’s the one who stopped you from using your aluminium bat.” Lillee ran in, shirt buttons undone, nostrils flaring. Brearley was given a terrible time, but he managed to top-score with 64.
Quite remarkably, neither did the umpires take any action, and nor did the captain lodge a complaint in spite of coming close to being decapitated. The Australian Board made do with a minor ticking off.
David Frith voiced in Wisden Cricket Monthly: “Any boy looking at the Lillee spectacle must have thought it was all an acceptable part of the showbiz into which cricket is being transformed.”
The incident nevertheless worked wonders for the sales. For all the national footage of churlishness, Lillee benefitted financially. However, within a few months the laws were changed and the stipulation was inserted that bats had to be made of wood.
The bat Lillee used at Perth still finds a proud place in his collection of cricketing memorabilia. At the end of the Test he even got it signed by both the teams. Mike Brearley inscribed it simply with “Good luck with the sales.”
The match itself ended in an enthralling finish, with Boycott carrying his bat for 99 not out in the second innings and Geoff Dymock bowling Australia to a 138 run win with less than 15 overs remaining.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)