Dennis Lillee (left) and Bill Alley    Getty Images
Dennis Lillee (left) and Bill Alley Getty Images

He took his time to find his groove, but Dennis Lillee was slowly easing into the demands of the English conditions on the Ashes tour of 1972. Once he got going, however, he decided to have some fun none more outrageous than what he did at Hove on July 23, 1972. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the incident and an apt response from umpire Bill Alley.

The Australian selectors dished out several caps on the 1970-71 home Ashes. Bill Lawry was sacked midway. Ian Chappell replaced him. It was, after all, the first time England regained The Ashes since Jim Laker s series of 1956 and they did that on Australian soil.

Dennis Lillee was one of these men. He was still raw, and very, very fast. In less than a year s time he would later bowl scorching spell on a Perth morning against a star-studded World XI one that would catapult himto the next level; but that was still some time away.

He opened bowling with Thomson (Alan, not Jeff) on debut, at Adelaide, taking 5 for 84 in the first innings. At Sydney he had 1 for 32 and 2 for 43. There was no way he could be left out of the 1972 Ashes tour after that.

Touring alongside Lillee was Bob Massie. Both Lillee and Massie hailed from Subiaco, a Perth suburb. Massie later made his way into history books when he routed England with 8 for 84 and 8 for 53 a debut haul bettered by only Narendra Hirwani. Lillee took the other 4 wickets, and they occupied the last two slots on the batting order. Their wives, Nancy (Massie s) and Helen (Lillee s), were close friends as well.

Western Australia, ignored by the Australian cricket fraternity till then (despite Graham McKenzie s illustrious career), finally found recognition:even if they overlooked Massie s debut as a flash in the pan,Lillee and Rod Marsh were too difficult to ignore.

England won the Old Trafford Test by 89 runs, but that was despite Lillee taking 2 for 40 and 6 for 66. John Snow turned out to be more than a handful for the tourists. Massie then created history at Lord s.

Lillee s antics began at Lord s. The Test got over in the fourth morning, which put the organisers in conundrum of sorts. The tea-break on Day Four of the Lord s Test is, of course, when the Royal Family meets the touring cricketers. The meeting with the royalty was eventually scheduled for 5 PM at Buckingham Palace.

Obviously, there was protocol to be maintained, but Lillee being Lillee, simply greeted Elizabeth II with G day Queen, leaving Chappell dumbstruck.

There was hardly anything surprising about this: five years down the line Lillee would ask her for an autograph.

Australians steamrolled over Leicestershire in the tour match at Grace Road (Massie took 6 for 30 and 4 for 33 after Paul Sheahan scored a hundred). Playing for Leicestershire was McKenzie, the man from whom Lillee inherited the mantle of the spearhead of the Australian bowling attack.

McKenzie, from Perth, was already hailed as a Western Australian legend by the time Lillee burst on to First-Class cricket. They knew each other well, and Lillee decided to have some fun: as McKenzie took guard, he conjured a tennis ball out of nowhere, steamed in, and hurled it at the unsuspecting batsman.

By the time the sides reached Trent Bridge Lillee was already hailed as a star. He took 4 for 35 and 2 for 40 on a flat Trent Bridge pitch. The crowd wanted Lillee during dull phases of run-scoring: Chappell, let de tiger loose, let de tiger loose…

Derek Underwood (4 for 37 and 6 for 45) won the Fusarium Test for England at Headingley (Lillee took 2 for 39 and 1 for 7). England retained the urn, but Australia hit back at The Oval: leading the rout was Lillee, with 5 for 58 and 5 for 123.

The series was levelled. Marsh got on to a table in the dressing-room and sang till his voice went hoarse. The song Under the Southern Cross I stand still remains the Australian team song.

In between came the Sussex match.

Alleyway

Sussex CCC were celebrating their centenary that season. The oldest of the English county cricket clubs, Sussex had played their first inter-county match on June 6, 1872, against Gloucestershire at Hove.

A hundred years after that they played a thriller at the same ground. Sussex captain Mike Griffith declared with a 2-run lead; Chappell set Sussex 261 in under two sessions; and Geoff Greenidge (of no known relation with Gordon) anchored a spectacular chase with 125 not out to go with his first-innings 99. Sussex scored at 5 runs an over in the fourth innings.

The match was played on Saturday, Monday, and Tuesday. A 40-over match was scheduled on the rest day. Lillee, who had been left out of the three-day match, was included for this.

The match itself was washed out after 15 overs. Graeme Watson got Mike Buss and Lillee trapped Roger Prideaux leg-before, but Greenidge and Tony Greig led a recovery. Rain started at 61 for 2, and play never resumed.

A word or two about Bill Alley will not be out of place here. A professional boxer (he had a streak of 28 undefeated matches), Alley was marked out as a potential Test cricketer by Don Bradman (he even bought cricket shirts in anticipation, but the cap never came his way).

The Test dreams were never fulfilled. World War II took away a chunk of his early twenties. Then came The Invincibles. Then he broke his jaw. He eventually moved to England to play for Colne and later Blackpool. He was a star of such stature at Blackpool

Unorthodox and belligerent, Alley had a fantastic career for Somerset. He scored 19,612 runs and claimed 768 wickets in First-Class cricket. 3,019 of these runs came in 1961, when he became only the eighth cricketer to top the 3,000-run mark in a single season.

Alley warmed to the culture of the rough shoot and the skittle alley, wrote David Foot wrote of him in The Guardian. The Australian Board never liked him migrating. It was mutual, for when Alley scored 134 and 95 against the Australians in 1961, it gave him inordinate pleasure .

He later became an umpire after playing till almost fifty. Even at that age they felt he still had it in him. Geoff Boycott, no less, invited him to play for Yorkshire.

His dry sense of humour remained with him for the rest of his life. When he had his knees replaced in his seventies he let the world know that a comeback was on the cards not to umpiring, but stuff that, mate I m talking about playing!

Where were we? Ah, the Sussex match. Lillee, perhaps to enhance the festivities, decided to have some fun. He sent down, in his own words, a shiny red apple . To add to the confusion, he appealed, probably for leg-before.

Even someone as seasoned as Alley was taken aback. He had probably not imagined (let alone seen) something of this nature before. Dickie Bird mentioned Snow bowling a soap that exploded upon being hit, but like most Bird anecdotes it remains unverified (and is probably untrue).

But Alley was quick to respond. He was the umpire;it had to be a relevant response; so he turned down the appeal with a nonchalant no ball . One can assume that the accent was enough to send the message across that Alley did not mean an extra run but a quantitative adjective followed by a common noun.

Lillee was impressed to no ends: a very quick play on words, as Lillee recollected later in Menace, his autobiography.

Brief scores:

Sussex 61 for 2 in 15 overs against Australians: match abandoned.