Heavy metal at the WACA
Dennis Lillee will be remembered as one of the game's great fast bowlers. He will also go down in history as one of cricket's most controversial characters, whether it be for his infamous kick aimed at Javed Miandad in 1981-82, or for putting £10 - and winning £5000 - on Australia to lose against England in the historic Headingley Test of 1981. But one of the most bizarre incidents involving Lillee came at Perth in December 1979.
Australia were playing England in the opening Test of a truncated three-match series and at the end of the first day Australia were in some trouble at 232 for 8 with Lillee, the No. 9, 11 not out. The next morning he resumed his innings, not with a conventional willow bat, but with one made of aluminum.
The brainchild of Graham Monaghan, a friend of Lillee and former good club cricketer, the bat was intended for recreational use only. Inspired by the way wood had been superseded by metal in the manufacture of cheap baseball bats, Monoghan come up with a process which produced an inexpensive cricket bat. Lillee was Monoghan's business partner and, as he admitted in his autobiography Menace, the decision to use it in the Test was a pure marketing exercise.
Lillee had actually already used the bat - trade name the "Combat" - in a Test, 12 days earlier against West Indies at Brisbane. On that occasion he had hit the ball once - with a resounding clunk - before falling lbw to Joel Garner for 0. West Indies had found the episode mildly amusing. Mike Brearley, England's captain at the WACA, did not.
The trouble came on the fourth ball of the second day when Lillee straight-drove Ian Botham. Aside from the disconcerting metallic noise, nothing seemed too untoward. But Greg Chappell, Australia's captain, thought that the shot should have gone for four, and, blaming the metal bat, sent Rodney Hogg, the 12th man, out with two conventional bats for Lillee to use.
While this was going on Brearley complained to Max O'Connell and Don Weser, the umpires, that the bat was damaging the ball. The officials consulted and told Lillee he had to change it.
Hogg and the spare bats were sent packing by Lillee. "I could see myself on national television, before a packed ground, and Dennis hitting me between the eyes with his metal bat," Hogg later recalled. Brearley, Lillee and the umpires held animated discussions about the situation. The other players sat down and watched, the crowd hooted, and the stand-off went on and on.
The argument continued for almost ten minutes before Chappell emerged from the pavilion, grabbed a bat off the bemused Hogg, and marched towards Lillee, making it fairly clear that the game had to go on. Realising that he was not going to win that particular battle, Lillee hurled his metal bat away in disgust and the match finally resumed.
If, as Lillee later claimed, Chappell's intention in allowing the showdown to go on so long was to get Lillee fired up, then it worked. He ripped through England's top order, dismissing both openers - Geoff Boycott and Derek Randall - for 0 and finished with 4 for 73 as Australia won the match by 138 runs.
Remarkably, Lillee escaped censure for his tantrums. The following morning, the umpires announced that they would take no action, and a fortnight later the Australian Cricket Board decided that a ticking-off was a sufficient punishment. David Frith wrote in Wisden Cricket Monthly: "Any boy looking at the Lillee spectacle must have thought it was all an acceptable part of the showbiz into which cricket is being transformed."
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack was even more forthright. "The incident served only to blacken Lillee's reputation and damage the image of the game as well as, eventually, the Australian authorities because of their reluctance to take effective disciplinary action."
If Lillee's reputation was damaged, his bank balance certainly wasn't. Sales boomed, but the benefit was short-lived as a few months later the laws were changed to specify that the bat had to be made of wood.
And how good was the bat? Lillee admitted that it was never meant to be anything other than a cheap alternative for schools, youngsters and developing countries. Enamel-covered, it looked nothing special and people who tried it quickly discovered that it had no sweet spot - in fact, no discernible middle at all. That said, a couple of years ago Justin Langer used one in the nets and appeared to be hitting the ball quite well.
Lillee kept a few of the bats that remained after the ban ended sales, and they have become sought-after, with Lillee claiming to have been offered as much as A$3000 by collectors. The actual bat he used at Perth remains in his collection of memorabilia. At the end of the Test he got it signed by both teams. Brearley, astute enough to recognise a marketing gimmick when he saw it, inscribed it simply: "Good luck with the sales."
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