Michael Parkinson

How the Test was won: the true tale of Sheriff and Billy the Kid

Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson were the fire and brimstone of fast bowlers

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Australia's partners in crime - Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, May 30, 1975
Partners in crime Hulton Archive / © Getty Images
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Players/Officials: Dennis Lillee | Jeff Thomson
Teams: Australia

Lillee and Thomson were the fire and brimstone of fast bowlers. Like all the best practitioners of their craft they tested the very limits of an opponent's nerve and technique. Add to that 50,000 people chanting their names or "Kill. . . Kill. vague idea of the sort of terror gripping their opponents who had already been told by Ian Chappell in the most direct possible manner which part of their anatomy was about to be knocked off.

They came together in 1974-75 against an England side led by Mike Denness. In the first Test on an under-prepared wicket in Brisbane, Thomson bowled with such speed and venom that Keith Miller, sitting in a commentary box, said: "Tommo even frightened me and I was 200 yards away." Colin Cowdrey was sitting at home watching the mayhem on television and thinking "rather them than me" when he received a phone call asking him to report for duty. A few days short of his 42nd birthday he found himself facing Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson on a bouncy track in Perth.

Out in the middle he introduced himself to Thomson and shook his hand. This confused Thomson for a moment but didn`t stop him plastering Cowdrey with bouncers. He wasn't the only veteran having a hard time. Fred Titmus went out to bat, propped forward to the first ball he received from Thomson which, according to Fred, pitched on a length and took his cap off. At least he thinks that is what happened because he didn't actually see the ball.

In his autobiography Mike Denness gave a graphic account of the way the two fast bowlers frayed the nerve of the bats- men. Describing David Lloyd returning to the dressing room after facing Lillee and Thomson, Denness wrote: "Within seconds of his dismissal the whole of Lloyd`s body was quivering. His neck and the top half of his body, in particular, were shaking. He was shellshocked . . . the reaction from his continual ducking and weaving to get out of the firing line."

In that series Thomson took 33 wickets and Lillee 25. Between them they took 555 Test wickets (Lillee 355, Thomson 200) and created a reputation which lasts to this day. At present they are reunited in a travelling talk show which is a cocktail of rumbustious anecdote and frank opinion. You can hear the authorised version on BBC Radio 5 Live on the eve of the Lord`s Test. They are also here as part of The Daily Telegraph's initiative to unearth a young fast bowler who will be given special coaching sessions by Lillee.

Anyone who finds it hard to believe two Australians would bother helping the Poms would do well to recall Arthur Mailey's comment when asked why he spent time discussing the intricacies of spin bowling with his opponents. Mr Mailey told his critic. "Spin bowling is an art and art is universal." Not that Messrs Thomson and Lillee would be so pretentious. What they believe is fast bowlers, whether they be born in Bradford, Brisbane or Barbados, are a different species and as such should be protected. What is more it takes one to know one.

Sometimes it is uncomfortable to meet retired warriors. It is like observing a mangy lion behind bars in a zoo. While it would be inaccurate to claim Lillee and Thomson nowadays are capable of exuding the menace of their heyday, there is still about them a formidable presence. Lillee has lost his pelt but he is broad-shouldered and barrel-chested and still slim enough round the hips to wear jeans without his belly flopping over the belt buckle. Jeff Thomson`s hair is now streaked with age as well as the sun but he has the physical set up and the stance of a decent light-heavyweight.

What made them formidable was their different approach to the same job. Lillee`s run to the crease was long and dramatic in its acceleration and gathering menace. In the delivery stride the left arm was cocked, the head still and aimed down the wicket with the left shoulder as the sight. Thomson by comparison ambled to the crease but in the delivery stride the casual was transformed into the dramatic. If I were to choose one photograph to illustrate the awesome beauty of Thomson`s bowling it would be Patrick Eagar`s portrait (above) of him in his delivery stride.

Lillee says that he worked on his fitness and technique and whatever reward he gained was through hard work. Thomson, on the other hand, was a freak of nature. Asked about the secret of bowling fast he said; "Aw, I just trot in and let it go." According to Lillee that is exactly what he did.

They first came across each other in a state game in Queensland. Lillee was the sheriff, Thomson Billy the Kid. When Lillee came in to bat Thomson bounced him and hit him painfully on the hand. Lillee came down the wicket. "I hope you can look after yourself when it`s your turn to bat," is a loose translation of what he said. Thomson told him to mind his own business (another approximate translation of what was actually said).

Lillee knew he had found a soul-mate. He said: "I used to love standing close in when Tommo was bowling. You could see the fear in their eyes. The psychology of fear is an important ingredient in fast bowling." As Maurice Leyland once famously observed, putting the batsman`s point of view: "None of us likes it but not all of us lets on."

Though different in style, both Lillee and Thomson share the same hero, Fred Trueman. Tommo says: "I loved the way he got up the batsman`s nose. He was a ratbag." Lillee admired him for his thrilling approach to the wicket, his classic style in delivery stride and, more than anything, the way he was able to swing and seam the ball so that even when his flame began to subside he remained a constant problem to even the very best cricketers.

Similarly Lillee was the complete fast bowler, able to sustain a career well past the time when most of his breed were retired. He reckons the time he spent playing for Haslingden in the Lancashire League was crucial. It taught him to bowl a fuller length and swing the ball away from the bat.

There is a famous story of Lillee delivering a swinging yorker into the pads of an opening batsman and yelling an appeal. The batsman was plumb and the umpire gave him out. Lillee was surprised when the player didn`t move but stood, propped on his bat, at the crease. "Owzat," yelled Dennis again. "That`s out," shouted the umpire. Still the batsman didn't move.

"That`s out you Pommie *******," said Dennis. "Now bugger off." Whereupon the batsman said: "I'd love to, Dennis, but I can't. You see, I think you've broken my bloody leg." And he had.

Thomson came to England at the tail end of his career and played for Middlesex. Incensed at being left out of the Australian team to tour England in 1981, he made his point by flattening Graeme Wood, the Australian opener, when the tourists played Middlesex at Lord`s.

It was only when he found himself egged on by his team-mates to do even more damage to the Australian team, he realised what he had done and told them if they wanted to put any more of his former team-mates in hospital they must make their own arrangements.

Neither man has a good word for county cricket. Thomson says he enjoyed playing for Middlesex but his enthusiasm was not shared by the other players, who seemed bored by the routine of the county circuit. Lillee, who had a season with Northamptonshire, made much the same observation.

What he found most disturbing was the lack of cricket in English schools. During an enforced lay-off because of injury he made it known he was available to coach children. He had six pupils in a month. He hopes there will be a better response to their search for a fast bowler. We shall see.

The two of them will make a noisy and robust contribution to the cricket this summer. All else apart they are giving their opinions on Test Match Special and if they are ex- pressed in the forthright manner employed at Lord`s the other day Mrs Whitehouse will have a fit. The rest of us will have a laugh.

For all their larrikin reputation they share a ripe sense of humour. Thomson was the man who greeted David Steele when he made his way to the wicket on his England debut with the words: "Cripes, they've picked bloody Groucho Marx." It was Lillee who had a Sussex batsman plumb lbw with a ripe apple and who gave Dickie Bird a sweater concealing a rubber snake. Mr Bird was over the fence and on his way to the gate when he was finally caught and persuaded back to the middle.

Anyone who saw them bowl will never forget them. Anyone who meets them now will remember why.

Source :: The Electronic Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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