Dennis Lillee: 10 little-known anecdotes about the premier fast bowler

Dennis Lillee, born on July 18, 1949, is one of the greatest fast bowlers the world has seen. Along with Jeff Thomson, he formed a lethal pace attack for Australia in the 1970s. Lillee went on to be a guiding force for many fast bowlers, given his remarkable comeback from an injury early in his career to become Test cricket’s leading wicket-taker. On the occasion of Lillee’s birthday, Nishad Pai Vaidya delves into his book ‘Lillee: My Life In Cricket’ and picks 10 little-known anecdotes. 

1.  The first selection

In 1969-70, Lillee was a young man plying his trade in club cricket in Perth. He was expecting selection that year as Western Australia needed pacers in the absence of Graham McKenzie and Laurie Mayne, who were on national duty. Lillee was representing his club when the announcement was to be made. So, he asked his father to blow the horn of their car if he was selected so that he gets to know on the field. When the team was announced, Lillee was in and his father duly hit the horn. “Spontaneously the other people seated in cars around the ground began to sound their horns. It was the best tune I’ve ever heard,” Lillee recalled in his book.

2.  FOT

In his young days with Western Australia, Lillee was not very interested in fielding and used to almost while away at fine-leg or third-man. The captain Tony Lock used to be irritated to correct him and put him in proper place. On one occasion, Lock shouted, “Come on, Lil. You’re like a Flipping Old Tart.” It was due to the last three words that John Inverarity named Lillee “FOT,” a nickname that was used by his teammates for years.

3.  The Aussie captain pulls a fast one

Lillee’s maiden Test series was the Ashes 1970-71 Down Under, which saw the incident involving Terry Jenner, where he was felled by a bouncer from John Snow. Lillee was the man who walked out to bat when Jenner was hit and stayed on till end of day’s play. The next morning, Lillee prepared in the nets with the bat before play when Ian Chappell, the Australian skipper, approached him and said that he could walk in to bat later as Jenner was fit to take strike. Lillee believed him and started his other workouts. When play was going to resume Chappell realised that Lillee had taken his joke seriously. “He [Chappell] had to send a runner to get me back to the dressing-room in a hurry to prepare to continue my innings. Boy, I was gullible,” Lillee said.

4.  The best off-spinners Dickie Bird saw

During an Ashes Test in 1975, Lillee was unhappy with the shape of the ball and complained to Dickie Bird, the umpire. When Bird refused to change the ball, Lillee argued. Bird was unmoved. He said, “Please, Dennis, complete the over.” Skipper Ian Chappell had to convince Lillee to do so. Lillee heeded, but bowled off-spin. To relieve tensions at the end of the over, Bird humourouly remarked to Lillee that “they were two of the best offies he’s ever seen!”

5.  Relegated to first change

In 1975-76, Lillee had missed one of the Tests against West Indies due to an illness. When he returned, he found that the new ball was shared by the express Jeff Thomson and the left-armer Gary Gilmour. Lillee was not aware of this change in order until he walked out onto the field and was very unhappy with it. “I was most unhappy to say the very least, firstly for not being given the new ball but mainly for the way I wasn’t told until the last minute,” he wrote.

6.  Playing a Test in tough personal circumstances

During the first Test against New Zealand in 1976-77, Lillee had a tough time in his personal life as his wife was ailing and was admitted to hospital in Perth. Lillee was miles away in New Zealand, getting ready for the first Test and was in no position to concentrate on the game, yet he played. He was almost convinced that he had to leave the tour to be home, but the doctor told him that there was no point in doing that as his wife Helen was to stay in the ward for two weeks. “It was a constant battle to stay with it — and the idiots around the ground didn’t help either,” he wrote. Lillee only settled down when he got word from the doctor that things were improving and he could talk to her.

7.  Asking the queen for an autograph during the Centenary Test in Melbourne

Queen Elizabeth had attended the final day of the Centenary Test in Melbourne in 1977 and greeted both the teams during lunch. Lillee nervously asked her for an autograph, having specifically carried a pen and a book for the opportunity. She said, “Not now.”  Lillee was helped by a cricketer administrator, who arranged for a photograph of their meeting to be signed by the Queen. Lillee cherishes that autographed picture and called it “one of his most prized possessions.”

8.  Scaring Dickie Bird and Ashley Mallett with a toy snake

During one of the tours to England, Lillee decided to play a practical joke on Bird. In a game against Lancashire, Lillee was rested and performed the duties of the 12th man. During a break in play, Lillee got a toy snake out and wrapped it in Ashley Mallett’s sweater. Mallett was shocked to see it come out of his sweater and shouted. Bird too was so scared that he tried to look for the closest exit from the pitch. All this happened during a game and not in the dressing room!”

9.  Struck by pneumonia

Lillee fell ill early during the tour of England in 1981 and was diagnosed with pneumonia. He had to be hospitalised and lost a lot of weight through his treatment. Since he was advised by doctors to ensure that his body was protected from the cold, Lillee would go to the pavilion at the end of every spell to change a sweaty shirt. He had to do that through the one-day series. The British media alleged that Lillee was in the dressing room for a drink or a shower; little did they know what he was up to.

10.  “He won’t break the record in this Test!”

The 1981-82 season was a momentous one for Lillee. He was on the verge of breaking Lance Gibbs’ record for the most wickets in Test cricket. Many expected him to break the record during the Melbourne Test against Pakistan. As a result, Channel Nine arranged for Gibbs to come to Melbourne to witness the moment and record an interview with Lillee. However, Lillee did not break the record in that Test and Gibbs had said in the interview, “I saw your first couple of overs and I said to myself, “He won’t break the record in this Test!” Lillee went on to break the record at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), but in the following Test against the West Indies in a devastating spell of bowling. Gibbs wasn’t around to see it, but Lillee’s wife and children were present to soak in the moment.

(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a Mumbai-based cricket journalist and one of the youngest to cover the three major cricketing events — ICC World Cup, World T20 and under-19 World Cup. He tweets as @nishad_45)