Dennis Lillee knocks over six Englishmen in the Centenary Test

Dennis Lillee takes six for 26 to rout England for 95 in 34.3 eight-ball overs © Getty Images

March 13, 1977. As old English and Australian cricketers assembled from over the world for the match to mark the centenary of Test cricket, Dennis Lillee produces a remarkable spell of bowling that knocked England over for just 95 in the first innings. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the first half of what turned out to be a fascinating game of cricket.

It would be hundred years since the first Test match was played in 1877.The cricket world was shuffled around to arrange an incredible celebration.

It was Hans Ebeling, former Australian bowler and vice-president of the Melbourne Cricket Cub, whose inspired idea made it happen. Why not make the two oldest Test playing nations meet in the same ground which saw the first ever Test match, in which Dave Gregory’s Australian side had beat James Lillywhite’s professional English cricketers by 45 runs?

The Richmond Police Paddock field of a century ago had transformed into the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Sponsors were sought, arrangements made. The Test match was scheduled at the historic venue. The English team under Tony Greig, at that moment playing in India, was requested to extend their tour and stay back for the momentous occasion. And Ashes contestants from various nooks and crannies of the terrains of time assembled in the city.

It was a time for memories, embraces, nostalgia and merrymaking — the occasion was blessed by a magnificent game of cricket, with a result straight out of fairy tales.

The star cast

There were 244 surviving cricketers who had played in England-Australia Tests matches. Invitations were sent to all of them. As many as 218 turned up.

Jack Ryder, the former Australia captain under whose leadership Don Bradman had made his Test debut, made his way to the ground. At 87, he was the oldest cricketer to attend the event. Percy Fender, three years younger, was the senior-most to make the long journey from England. This former Surrey captain had all but lost his sight by then, his grandson Jeremy tagged along to describe the action.

Herbert Sutcliffe could not make it because of ill health. For the same reason, Frank Woolley was prevented from making a trip from Canada.

Some of the journeys were fraught with adventure. Colin McCool, marooned in Queensland due to floods, had to be airlifted from his front lawn in a helicopter that flew him to the airport. The evergreen Denis Compton, after sudden discovery that he had left his passport in a Cardiff hotel, broke away from a pre-flight champagne party in London and hopped into the car of a friend, blazing down M4 to retrieve the document and return in time for the flight.

Harold Larwood, Peter Loader, Tony Lock, Barry Knight, Frank Tyson — Englishmen all — made their way from the various parts of Australia they had settled in. Neil Hawke, the Australian, flew in from his home in England. All of them gathered in the Hilton Hotel, one of the sponsors of the tournament, happily located across the Jolimont Park, two hundred yards from the Melbourne ground.

The five days that followed combined tradition, history, merrymaking and enthralling action. The evenings were made special bystar studded gatherings that saw the likes of Harold Larwood, Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller at one corner of the room with Peter May, Don Bradman and Ted Dexter at the other.

It was the time for ‘moomba’, the Aboriginal word that approximately translated to “let us all get together, get sloshed and enjoy”. The first day started with a champagne breakfast, followed by ex-Test skippers walking into the ground with the teams.

Quick wickets

Overnight showers had freshened the pitch on the first day. A gold coin, specially minted for the occasion, was flicked up in the air by Greg Chappell. It landed in accordance with Tony Greig’s call. The English captain decided to field. Many of the venerable onlookers from the glorious history of Ashes perhaps felt it was a defensive ploy. But, Dennis Lillee would have been a handful with the heavy atmosphere and moisture in the wicket.

The decision seemed vindicated when Bob Willis made the ball fly. It hit Rick McCosker on the hand as he tried to hook, deflected on to his face and dropped on the stumps. The jaw was fractured. Chris Old and John Lever supported Willis gamely, while Derek Underwood operated at his accurate best. The catching was spectacular, the captain pouching three. Only Greg Chappell, batting amidst the ruins of the rest of the batting, managed to resist for nearly four hours before being ninth out for 40. Australia collapsed to 138 all out.

When England batted, Lillee ran in with six slips and a short leg stationed, very step of his action oozing intimidation. Woolmer was brilliantly taken in the first slip by Greg Chappell. England ended the day on 29 for one.

Day 2: Dennis the Menace

The next morning, after the addition of a solitary run,a short ball from Lillee moved away off the seam,took the edge of Brearley’s bat and flew to David Hookes, one of the men crowding the slip area.Poor Underwood had done his job as the night-watchman, but could only edge Max Walker to give Greg Chappell another catch. Walker also accounted for Dennis Amiss, making it four for 40.

At the same total Lillee ran in from his hostile lengthy run up. Once again, the ball moved away off the seam from short of good length. Derek Randall followed it with his bat, and the famed combination of Rodney Marsh and Dennis Lillee went up on the scoreboard yet again.

Greig counter-attacked with three boundaries, but was a bit too aggressive for the situation. Walker rattled his stumps as he tried to go for one stroke too many.Soon after that Keith Fletcher fished outside the off-stump against Walker to make it 65 for seven.

Lillee, now bowling with the breeze, bounced one at Chris Old. It kissed the bat even as Old tried to draw it away, and the edge flew to Marsh. As the umpire raised his finger, Old looked quite happy to go.

Alan Knott was batting with his usual spirit. Lillee, changing ends again, brought one back off the seam. The English wicketkeeper shuffled across and tried to nudge it to the leg side. The ball struck the left pad. Lillee, buttons undone all the way down the chest, stood with feet bent in a semi-squat, arms upraised, index finger pointing in an archetypal appeal. Knott was asked to leave. John Lever now drove at one that moved away outside the off stump. The edge flew fast and Marsh moved across to take it in front of first slip. Lillee had taken six for 26. Walker finished with four for 54. England were all out for 95 in just 34.3 eight-ball overs.

It was a blazing display of top quality fast bowling by one of the greatest exponents at the peak of his powers. The 218 old cricketers in the stands watched enthralled.

What followed

That brought an end to the dominance of the ball. Australia proceeded cautiously to 104 for three by the end of the day. The next morning, David Hookes, making his debut, hammered Tony Greig’s experimental off-spin for five boundaries in an over. A lofted off-drive, a leg-side hoick, a drive through the covers, a whip off the legs and another hit through the covers, executed in the course of a single over, pitch-forked Hookes into instant stardom. Rodney Marsh went on to play his most important innings in his Test career.

By the morning of the fourth day, Australia had set England a demanding target of 463 runs. The match had been set up for a fantasy finish.

(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)