Dennis Lillee: A template for fast bowling greatness

Dennis Lillee… the man who amalgmated science and art to take fast bowling to a new high © Getty Images

Dennis Lillee, born July 18, 1949, was one of the greatest fast bowlers of all time who is considered the patron saint of skilful intimidation by the modern speedsters. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of this immensely colourful man, who battled through pain and debilitating injuries to end his career as a legend.

It started as raw, volcanic vigour and a fascination for hurling balls down in a fiery spark, making them leave the hand and zip across 22-yards in the least possible interval of time.

During the second stage it was hostility laced with skill, a near-perfect weapon of untamed primal force with fast sprouting guile. The flame of aggression singed the best of batsmen, most often burnt them to cinders. Yet the fire suggested burnout. Something had to give. And his back did. There were an interlude of inaction, frustration and agony.

When he came back, it was as if he had been forged by the scorching travails, the artillery of the past enhanced with the science cultivated through months of reflection. The action was remodelled, the hostility remained intact. The offerings were sharpened to cutting edge fast bowling.

And finally there were the riches of experience, enhancing his trade into the highest level of art. As a senior pro he was the veritable text book of his profession. Even a phenomenon like Richard Hadlee had a magic formula that spelt his success, a simple question which ran: “What would Lillee do?”

Dennis Lillee’s career evolved through these phases. It overcame pain, it snipped out the shortcomings to chisel lasting perfection; it won over the inevitable fraying brought about by age. And it ended as one of the most successful of all fast bowling tales in the history of cricket.

The palpating raw talent

In the beginning was the primal force that blew out of Perth. It was a celebration of fast bowling as a destructive physical release. The figure would approach from a distance where the eyes had to squint to see, the wild mane would fly about, the moustache brisling menacingly, the gold chain dangling from the neck, oscillating with abandon, freed by a shirt unbuttoned down to the limits. The legs would sprint in fast, furious and spindly. The arms would flay everywhere before the red cherry would shoot across at the batsman waiting with trepidation.

It was this Dennis Lillee of brash, unbridled tearaway pace that cleaved out the soul of the South Australian batting with seven for 36 in 1969-70. It was this same Lillee who put the fear of God amongst some hapless New Zealand batsmen in a tour of First-Class matches that same season. Yet, it was the same Lillee who, a season later, stood with a bemused expression as Barry Richards raced to 325 not out in a day for South Australia, Lillee’s figures at the end of the innings reading a pitiable none for 117 from 18 overs. It was evident that a lot of fine tuning remained to be done before the promise could be unleashed with dreams of fulfilment. Yet, after a none-too-flattering showing against the visiting England side for Western Australia, Lillee was drafted into the Test side in the sixth match of the series at Adelaide.

There were reasons. Australian selectors were desperate for pace, with John Snow and Bob Willis holding their batsmen at ransom. And Lillee did not disappoint, tearing in like a man possessed, capturing five for 84 in his first innings.

Australia was rapt. After nearly a decade, a successor of Alan Davidson had been discovered. Someone who bowled genuinely fast, gripping the batsman’s heart with the cold hand of fear. Graham McKenzie had plodded honestly for years, Neil Hawke and Alan Connolly had lent some significant support. But, the streak of menace that comes with a genuine fast bowler had remained absent from the Australian cricketing firmament.

The early refinement

And then came Haslingden of the Lancashire League, with its slippery footholds and curious conditions. Raw pace was not the answer, not even a possibility. Finesse was added to this rough-hewn reservoir of talent from the Australian outback. The virtues of accuracy and movement off the pitch made their mark, and Lillee returned to Australia with hostility laced with lethal skills.

These multiplied ammunitions were unleashed in a volley of fantastic fireworks as Garry Sobers and his band of men from around the world were bowled out at Perth in 1971-72.  All Lillee wanted that day was rest. Having dismissed Sunil Gavaskar with a snorter before the little man had scored, and having bagged Farokh Engineer with a similar delivery, he felt tired and ill. Some virus that had been going around Perth, and seemed to have snared the young paceman. He asked captain Ian Chappell to give him a break. Chappell asked for one more over. Lillee proceeded to enjoy the best hour of his career.

As six men crouched in the slips, Tony Greig was caught at slip slashing at a searing short delivery. Sobers walked in and was puzzled by the 25-yards that separated Rodney Marsh and the slips from the stumps. “What are you guys doing back here?” the great man asked. Marsh replied, “You’ll find out.” The third ball Sobers faced took his glove and flew to the keeper — a peach of a delivery, virtually unplayable and one that the great left-hander will never forget.

The Rest of the World folded for 59 in just 14.1 overs. Lillee ended with figures of 7.1-3-29-8. Since requesting his skipper for a break, he picked up six wickets from 19 balls.

Graham McKenzie, who had bowled from the other end, later recalled, “I think that spell made him (Lillee) believe that he could get into the best of the best. After that summer, he went to England and destroyed them too.”

It made the world sit up and take notice of Lillee as a fast bowler of rare pedigree. And very few took their eyes off his exploits for the next dozen years.

When Australia toured England in 1972, there was breath-taking speed along with the newly minted weaponry of guile. As many as 31 wickets tumbled in front of his flashing fast offerings, intimidation with the sharp edge of skill. Even Bob Massie, who picked up 16 wickets in a dream Test debut at Lord’s, confessed that it was Lillee’s presence at the other end that made it possible.

He started with six for 66 at Manchester and ended with five in each innings at The Oval. As Gideon Haigh later wrote of his bowling during the tour, “It looks like a brilliant and crazy machine bound sooner or later to disintegrate — which it duly did.”

The injury

The disintegration came soon, and it was very nearly debilitating. Lillee’s back gave up on him, an advanced version of the fashionable fast bowling affliction of modern times — stress fracture. His lower vertebrae were fractured in three places during the tour to West Indies in 1973. And in those days of limited rights and privileges meted out to players, he was left alone like an outcast by the Australian Cricket Board. Neither could he bowl, nor did the administrators care. Recovery was left to him, without the hotline to world renowned specialists that cricketers enjoy today. Even the monetary support he received was nominal, negligible. The great fast bowler could well have ended his career with 51 wickets from 11 Tests had it not been the stroke of fortune of finding Dr Frank Pyke, Lillee’s physical instructor at his old Belmont High School.

It was under Pyke that Lillee underwent rehabilitation, and the remodelling of his action. Pyke had a serious sporting background, with experience in top class Australian rules football. He was also an opening bowler at Lillee’s Perth club. The recuperation was carefully planned, each exercise tailored to the needs of a fast bowler. Recovery was important, so was return to top class cricket. Pyke scripted the roadmap, and Lillee followed it assiduously.

The one and a half years away from cricket was a landmark period in Lillee’s career. He got to know his body in intimate detail, the limits and the workarounds, a working knowledge of pushing through the barriers of physical constraints. It perhaps sowed the secret seeds of his longevity. His return was a triumph of both sports science and human tenacity. And what a comeback it was.

The return of the menace

When he ran in for Australia again, it was with Jeff Thomson at the other end. The lethal legend of their partnership was born. The visiting Englishmen of 1974-75 were battered and bruised by Thomson’s express pace and Lillee’s sustained hostility. The batsmen were at the end of their wits and tether. Eventually a 41-year-old Colin Cowdrey had to be flown in to reinforce the side against the fastest bowler of the world. Max Walker was the ideal first change and Ashley Mallett cleared the debris of destruction from the remnants of the innings. Australia triumphed 4-1. Thomson captured 33 wickets, Lillee 25, Walker 23 and Mallett 17. Lillee was back in a remodelled version that spewed fire and venom in equal proportions. At the University of Western Australia, he was measured bowling at 154.8 kilometres per hour. Not too bad for someone whose career had been recently derailed.

By this time, Lillee had cultivated a change of pace, had developed canny cutters to go with his habitual out swing, and even the bouncers were sent down with varying speed and subtlety.

The following summer Australia won in England by a slim 1-0 margin. At Lord’s, Lillee destroyed the Englishmen in 15 overs simmering with controlled excellence, picking up five wickets for 15 runs. It was the only result of the series. Lillee finished with 21 wickets in the four Tests, Thomson picked up 16 and Walker 14.

The summer ended with the supremely tense encounter in the final of the Prudential World Cup. Lillee and Thomson, with bats in their hands, carried Australia on the verge of a miraculous win against West Indies, before falling 17 short.

The following series in 1975-76 against the West Indies was touted as the tussle between two best teams of the world. In the end it turned out to be an infamous one sided rout. Through a sequence of top class fast bowling, physical, visual and verbal intimidation, and relentless aggression, Lillee and Thomson terrorised the West Indian batting. Australia won 5-1, and Lillee accounted for 27 wickets. In many ways, this humiliation led the West Indians to pursue the formula of pace for the two decades to follow.

This phase of the post-injury Lillee was perhaps the best in his magnificent career. He was a master of fast bowling and was on his way to elevating it into an art. Indeed, he wrote The Art of Fast Bowling published in 1977, a crystallisation of his experience, in many ways the output of all the concentrated thoughts during his one and a half year of injury-driven isolation. Every idea of that period was tested and perfected during his voyage of rediscovery. There was a science behind every act on the field. From his crouching appeal to the words exchanged with the batsman, everything was geared towards the goal of picking up wickets. No verbal exchange played on his mind as he walked back to his mark. Lillee concentrated as hard during deliveries and between them as did the best of batsmen.

It was now Thomson’s turn to be injured. He could play little in 1976-77 and Lillee had to shoulder the major burden of the attack. His response was typical of the man, 47 wickets in six Tests against Pakistan and New Zealand. This included 10 for 135 at Melbourne against the touring Pakistan side and 11 for 123 at Auckland.

And he rose to the momentous occasion of the immortal Centenary Test at Melbourne with a sterling performance. John Arlott revelled in describing, “seagulls on the top of the stands as vultures recruited for Lillee.” His six for 26 shot out England for 95 in the first innings, and he returned with a controlled spell of five for 139 to clinch the game on a nail-biting final day of twisting fortune and ups and downs. But, the extra effort of the months came at a cost. There were symptoms of his back falling prey to stress yet again. It led him to stand down from the following summer’s tour of England.

The Packer interlude

We arrive at the hiatus from the world of official cricket. Lillee was soon one of the many top class fast bowlers sprinting in and sending down their thunderbolts in the parallel circuit started by Kerry Packer. In a field boasting Garth le Roux, Mike Procter, Imran Khan, Joel Garner, Andy Roberts and Max Walker, Lillee picked up the highest number of wickets in the SuperTests, his tally being 67. The lack of official status has relegated the two seasons of World Series Cricket to obscurity, but it did contain some of the most fascinating duels between the best batsmen and the most fantastic of bowlers.

This period between his comeback and the World Series saw Lillee claim 120 wickets in 21 Tests at 23.20 with eight five wicket hauls and three 10-fors. He was indeed the best fast bowler of the world during this phase. And given the era, this is saying a lot.

Dennis Lillee: A template for fast bowling greatness

Dennis Lillee at the end of his magnificent bowling run-up © Getty Images

The Master of the Art of Fast Bowling

When Lillee came back to Test cricket, he was over 30, bowling for Australia in the curious overlapping couple of series against England and West Indies. It was another face of the great bowler on display. He picked up 35 wickets in the six Tests, although 23 of them came against England, and the superior group of West Indian batsmen played him with significantly more ease.

Lillee did run in more often from a shorter run, but each step was utilised to optimal levels. The series against England saw a match at Melbourne, played on a pitch with little life, a surface that would have seen a story of frustration for a younger version of Lillee. Yet here he pitched his off-cutters and leg-cutters with supreme cunning, using various angles and the full breadth of the crease. Geoff Boycott, at the peak of his powers, shouldered arms to a ball that looked harmless till the angle cut suddenly and brought it onto clip his bails. Lillee picked up 11 wickets on that track, a testimony to the immense guile that had been developed with the years of experience.

The Aluminium Bat and Miandad episodes

This was also the phase when the ego of the fast bowler underwent exponential enlargement. While performances remained consistent at the elevated levels of perfection, the incidents became more and more murky. The aluminium bat was unfurled at Perth, in December 1979. When captain Greg Chappell asked him to exchange it for a more conventional one made of willow, the ComBat model flew across the air, whirring over the skipper’s head.

Then there was that incident with Javed Miandad in 1981-82. The image sticks to memory — umpire Tony Crafter stepping in like a boxing referee, Lillee with hands raised in the classical pugilist’s stance, ready to take on the rushing batsman and Miandad wielding his bat like a deranged javelin thrower. The noble game can almost be seen in person in the background, brought down to its knees by this unprecedented ugliness.

Lillee had picked up five wickets in just nine overs in the first innings. But, he was still wicketless in the second and obviously frustrated. When Miandad turned him behind square and ran a single, and Lillee moved into his path. A collision resulted, after which the versions of the two players differ. Lillee claimed that as he had turned to go back to his mark, Miandad struck him from behind with his bat; while Miandad countered that Lillee had kicked him as he passed.

Whatever be the truth, Lillee turned to confront the middle-order maestro, and the latter lifted his bat above his head with a technique which will never enter the MCC cricket coaching manual.

The media and the eyewitnesses unanimously agreed that the blame lay with Lillee. Bobby Simpson wrote that it was the most disgraceful thing he had ever seen on a cricket field. Keith Miller, in the Sydney Sunday Telegraph, added that Lillee “should be suspended for the rest of the season.” Ian Chappell remarked that Lillee’s actions were those of “a spoilt, angry child”.

The fast bowler was fined Australian $200, a decision which attracted almost as much anger as the incident itself. The two umpires, Crafter and Mel Johnson, were vocal about the kid gloves with which the offender had been handled. The Australian Board swiftly reduced the fine to A$120 while adding a two-match ban. Cynics noted that the punishment resulted in Lillee missing two low-key One-Day Internationals (ODIs), and none of the Tests.

Things were not helped when, in 1983, the two combatants met during a double wicket tournament in Calcutta — an event that also featured Gary Sobers and Wes Hall. Lillee, not bowling at his full pace, unleashed a bouncer at Miandad. The Pakistani batsman missed the attempted hook and was felled as the ball struck the back of his head. It was obviously unintentional and Lillee rushed up to the batsman immediately, but the press had a field day in linking the accident to the age old rivalry between the two.

The World Record

But, the wickets kept coming. The Indians of 1980-81 suffered from his scorching deliveries, and during the series he became the highest wicket-taker for Australia surpassing Richie Benaud. He also became the fastest to 250 wickets — getting there in 48 Tests. Even when when Lillee and Marsh were at loggerheads with skipper Kim Hughes during the 1981 Ashes, Lillee scalped as many as 39 wickets in the six-Test series. At the same time, he and Marsh courted some amount of infamy by betting against Australia in that famous Headingley Test and winning stupendous amounts as Ian Botham performed the miracle.

In the same series that saw him come to blows with Miandad, he crossed 300 wickets, becoming the fastest to get there as well. However, the crowning glory of this phase of his was probably the first Test of the 1981-82 series against West Indies at home.

It was the wisdom of Lillee against the firepower of the Windies weaponry. Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner and Colin Croft sent down a relentless pace barrage, and Lillee had only a young Terry Alderman as his partner. Yet, at Melbourne, after the Windies pacemen had dismissed Australia for 198, he charged in to capture seven for 83, ending the West Indies first innings at 201. It took him past the 309 wickets of Lance Gibbs and placed him on the top of the bowling world. He captured three more in the second innings as Australia won by 58 runs.The series was squared, and Lillee ended with 16 wickets at 19.81.

The subsequent series were perhaps not so successful, and it was the end of an era when Lillee, Marsh and Greg Chappell bade farewell together after the Sydney Test against Pakistan in early 1984. Chappell scored 182 in his final innings, Lillee captured four wickets in each innings, and Abdul Qadir became the 95th and final dismissal of the ‘caught Marsh bowled Lillee’ combination. This record has not been eclipsed yet. Marsh played all but one of the 70 Tests of Lillee.

Dennis Lillee: A template for fast bowling greatness

Rodney Marsh (left), Greg Chappell (centre) and Dennis Lillee, three of the greatest cricketing legends, in the Australian dressing room after announcing their retirement simulatenously from Test cricket in 1984 © Getty Images

This final phase of Lillee as the senior statesman — even if not exemplary in all respects — from his return after the Packer days to the retirement saw him play 38 matches and capture 184 wickets at 24.32. The different periods of Lillee’s career hence did not really demonstrate much fluctuation. His methods underwent modification, but the figures remained unerringly constant — the sign of lasting class and quality.

Phase Period T W Ave 5WI 10WM
1 1971-Feb 1973 11 51 24.15 4 1
2 Nov 1974-Mar 1977 21 120 23.2 8 3
3 Dec 1979-retirement 38 184 24.32 11 3
Overall 70 355 23.92 23 7

The story in numbers

The career figures of Lillee read 355 wickets at 23.92. It places him among the rarefied echelons of the most brilliant fast bowlers of the world. What stands out in the numbers of that era is the dependence of Australia on Lillee’s firepower. Australia won 31 and lost 16 when he played. When he missed matches, due to back problems or Packer circus, they won 15 and lost 28.

Seldom handy with the willow, even less with the aluminium version, Lillee nevertheless scored one Test half-century, a swashbuckling 73 not out with three sixes at Lord’s in 1975.

He did not play too many ODIs, yet his numbers are more than impressive, with 103 wickets at 20.82. He was also the first bowler to claim five wickets in an innings in ODIs with five for 34 against Pakistan in the 1975 World Cup.

Dennis Lillee: A template for fast bowling greatness

Dennis Lillee (right) poses with his son Adam Lillee after the two of them took six Pakistan wickets (Dennis three wickets for eight runs and Adam three wickets for 29) during the Pakistan versus Australian Chairman’s Eleven Festival cricket match played at the Lilac Hill cricket ground in Perth on October 26, 1999. The Chairman s XI won the match by seven wickets. It was Dennis Lillee’s last official cricket match at any level © Getty Images

Dennis Lillee: A template for fast bowling greatness

Dennis Lillee’s heroics has been acknowledged by having a bronze statue of his bowling action in from of the Melbourne Cricket Ground © Getty Images

Post-retirement

Lillee did come back to First-Class cricket in 1987–88 playing for Tasmania. It was dramatic as well, with a wicket off his very first ball. In the summer of 1988, he turned out for Northamptonshire in eight matches before suffering a severe ankle injury. It was mentioned in his autobiography that he had been charting out a comeback trail at the insistence of the Australian skipper Allan Border. However, it did not come to fruition.
Since then till very recent times, Lillee had been involved with the MRF Pace Foundation in India, coaching youthful fast bowlers. He has also mentored young pace bowlers who have gone on to represent Australia with honour and pride and not a little success. Two of his protégés were Brett Lee and Shaun Tait.

In 1999, Lillee played his last competitive cricket match, taking three wickets for ACB President’s XI against Pakistan playing alongside son Adam.As in his playing days, Lillee has often courted controversy in later years. One of the more significant occasions was when he branded the Australian batting line up ‘Dad’s Army’ after their defeat in the 2005 Ashes.

Yet, to the Australians as well as the rest of the world, he remains a legend, a talismanic figure in the history of fast bowling. The thick mane has gone to reveal a balding head, and the moustache has become grey with the passage of time. Yet the face of menace is recognisable still, through the many inundations of age, and it harks back memories of supremely skilled, intimidatory fast bowling at its absolute best.

In pictures: Dennis Lillee’s cricketing career

(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://twiter.com/senantix)