February 9, 2000

Zimbabwe pacemen meet Dennis Lillee

Two of Zimbabwe's most promising young pace bowlers, David Mutendera and Douglas Hondo, have just returned from a ten-day coaching course under Dennis Lillee at the MRF Pace Bowling Foundation in Chennai (formerly Madras). Both are members of Universals Sports Club; Doug is a member of the CFX Cricket Academy in Zimbabwe, while David was there last year. In this interview with John Ward at the Academy headquarters at Country Club, Harare, they talk about their experiences there.

Selection for the two pacemen sent annually to the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai can come as a surprise to those concerned. One day they may be playing club cricket with no inkling that any change is on the horizon; two days later they may be in the plane on their way to India.

This was how it happened with David and Doug. David was playing for the Zimbabwe Board XI against Northern Transvaal at Harare South Country Club in January when Ali Shah, also a member of the Universals club and a national selector as well, told him of his selection. A day or so later, on the Monday, Doug received a phone call from the Zimbabwe Cricket Union informing him, and asking him to bring in his passport and have his shots for yellow fever and cholera in a hurry. On the Wednesday, 19 January, they were on the plane.

The plane journey came in three stages, as they had to catch connections at Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and at Mumbai (formerly Bombay). It was not the most restful of trips, as a plane delay at Harare had them leaving at 1.30 in the morning. They were met at Chennai by Ganesh, one of the administrators whose responsibility it is to look after the needs of the students. They were driven to the place where they were staying, a house known as the Guest Inn, which they shared with three young Nottinghamshire players - Usman Afzaal, who was there for his batting, left-armer Matthew Whiley and Andrew Harris. It was now just before lunchtime, a day and a half later, and all they wanted to do was sleep! They did pay a visit to the gym in the afternoon and received their schedule for the next ten days, which they discussed with one of Dennis Lillee's assistant coaches, former Indian Test player T A Sekar.

There was a similar guest house about ten minutes' drive away, where other MRF students, Indians and Sri Lankans, were staying at the same time. Their meals was cooked at this other house and brought over for them; they found it rather monotonous fare of rice, with some chicken or pasta.

The next morning they were driven to the headquarters and began their regular programme, which consisted basically of gym work or other training in the mornings and nets in the afternoon. Lillee arrived that afternoon from Australia via Singapore. Gym training was from 7.30 to 9.00, after which they had the rest of the morning free. Then they had their afternoon sessions with Lillee from 3 to 6 p.m.

Each of the groups had 45 minutes' coaching with Lillee. Lillee started them off bowling from a short run-up, just concentrating on the basic action. "It was like crawling before you start to walk, walking before you run," Doug comments. They were not to worry about where the ball was landing, but just to concentrate on perfecting their individual actions.

After the bowling came a video session, playing back tapes of the bowling they had just done and discussing them. David soon found that he was 'locking himself in' when bowling, his front leg going too far across the pitch and landing in the 'danger area' of the pitch and preventing full freedom of action. He also learned the principle of 'short levers' - Lillee had him tucking his left arm in when he bowled rather than extending it right in front of him. They were taught how to bowl 'within the line of their bodies' for balance, to give them maximum output.

Both David and Doug are front-on bowlers, as was Malcolm Marshall, whose pace comes from running through the crease and rocking back. Most people think that pace comes primarily from the shoulders, but Lillee taught them that strong arms and a strong abdomen are vital. If they were to 'lock themselves up' by putting their front legs too far across the crease, they would use their shoulders too much and lose pace. They were to bring their left arms down as hard as possible rather than their bodies, and follow through well.

Doug described how they did 'shadow practising', going through their actions and running through the crease in a natural run-up without a ball. 'Just as if we were running from a dog,' they were told, as having a ball in the hand has a psychological effect on them and unconsciously alters the way they run in. They were surprised to find how much better they ran up this way, without being distracted by thoughts of where the ball was going to land.

"It doesn't come right in a day," David says. "I was getting it wrong the first three days, but I could see myself improving every day. I used to deliver the ball from behind my hand instead of having it in front of me. I have the video, and sometimes I go through it, watching myself and how I've improved. It's not easy; it's something we have to work on every day."

Doug found it quite difficult trying to change the habits of several years in his action. He had to learn to run up straighter, adjust the position of his left foot and use his left arm correctly.

Net practice then consisted basically of just 45 minutes' intensive hard work in the heat each day, not the quantity one might expect, but of very high quality. They did help with fielding and also picked up a few extra tips while the other groups had their 45-minute sessions. One of the English bowlers, for example, used to push the ball out of his hand rather than get full benefit from a high free action over the top. A common problem seemed to be that of bowlers locking themselves up by placing their left legs too far across, thereby forcing their right legs to come up awkwardly over their legs.

The video session afterwards was a vital part of it and brought about much discussion and development. Lillee's policy is that once the basic action is right, everything else will come right, and therefore erratic bowling at first is not to be of any concern at all.

They also learned how to bowl good leg-cutters and develop their variations, including slower balls. They usually had their net practice after other groups, meaning that they had to use older balls, but they soon learned that this is not necessarily a great disadvantage - although reverse swing was not discussed. They were encouraged to experiment during net practices, especially varying the angle of the seam, to find what they could develop and what suited them best. Lillee did most of the coaching himself, but was assisted by Sekar and also an experienced local Ranji Trophy medium-pacer, Divakar Vasu, a very small man. Sri Lankan coach Dav Whatmore was also there for five days with his Sri Lankan charges.

In the mornings they did a lot of training with a 'swissball', as it is called in Australia, which is like a larger, lighter version of a medicine ball. They strengthened their abdomen muscles by sitting on it and working through a series of exercises. They also did a lot of stretching exercises and swimming.

At the end of the course, Lillee made it clear to them that they were still not the finished products but have to keep working on what they had learned. They have kept copies of the videos, and David says that at times when he has not bowled well in matches he has gone home to study the tapes again and reminded himself of the principles he learned and developed there.

Travelling home by the same torturous route, they arrived back in Harare on Tuesday 1 February. They are full of gratitude for what they learned there and to the Zimbabwe Cricket Union who selected them for the course.

"People might just think that we have come back changed bowlers, bowling like Curtly Ambrose," David warns. "It's not that easy. There are things we have to work hard at - it's a learning process. You can't just go to university and graduate in your first year. It's not that easy - you just have to keep working on it. Dennis Lillee told us, 'Don't worry if you don't get things right. That's why you've got the video; keep working on it. It's not easy to change you from what you've been doing for seven years.' People may think that because we've been to Dennis Lillee they can expect a lot from us. But we're not computers that have been programmed. It's something that will come as time goes on. We've got most of the things he taught us, but we're still working on them. As soon as we get it right we can feel it, and it becomes subconscious. But at the moment sometimes we do it right, sometimes we do it wrong. It becomes like the Waughs, the way they bat, when everything just flows for them. We keep going to the gym to strengthen our muscles - everything he told us, we've got to keep doing. People expect a lot, but it's a learning process."