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The man who needs no introduction

He went from Wild Thing to nothing to everything a fast bowler should be

Gideon Haigh

December 6, 2010

Comments: 43 | Text size: A | A

Dennis Lillee bowls, England v Australia, Centenary Test, Lord's, 4th day, September 1, 1980
Not the fastest, but the most deadly accurate © Getty Images
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Dennis Lillee still does television advertisements in Australia. There's more hair under his lip than on his head these days, and it's decidedly grey. He also has this signature gesture of pointing to the camera no matter what he's promoting, which he's been doing at least 20 years. But what's interesting about Lillee's ads is that his provenance is never explained. There's no: "Back in the days when I was bowling to Viv…" Nor is there any attempt at an expository caption: "DK Lillee, 355 wickets at 23.92." Nope: here is a man who needs no introduction, and he won't be getting one.

Maybe explanation is just too hard. This is the era of the speed gun, yet Lillee wasn't the fastest of his era by a long way. This is the age of getting it in "good areas", of just nagging away, of waiting for the batsmen to make a mistake, yet Lillee reminded you always why it is a "bowling attack", not a "bowling defence". This is a time of instant and perishable celebrity, yet more than 27 years after bowling his last delivery in Test cricket, Dennis Lillee remains one of his country's most recognisable cricket faces, despite his having remained a stranger to commentary, and making comparatively few public pronouncements - the ones he does make, like lauding Mitchell Johnson to the skies or calling the Australian top order "Dad's Army", tend accordingly to be treated as ex cathedra truths.

So why did Lillee capture Australian imagination - and then not give it back? Firstly, he emerged in barren years. For most of the 1960s, Australia got by on the smooth control of Garth McKenzie, with a bit of brawn from Neil Hawke and some persistence from Alan Connolly. The most menacing bowler around was Ian Meckiff, famous for all the wrong reasons. Lillee's hero growing up was not Australian at all. Just as Ray Lindwall first thrilled to Harold Larwood, so Lillee was inspired by watching Wes Hall bowl for West Indies at the WACA Ground in November 1960. He emerged as a teenager with a marathon run and wild eyes. To watch footage of Lillee in England in 1972 is to see fast bowling at its raw, riotous best. The legs pump, the arms are everywhere, the mane flows. It looks like a brilliant and crazy machine bound sooner or later to disintegrate - which it duly did.

This leads to the second aspect of Lillee's greatness. For fast bowlers these days, stress fractures are almost as hip as tattoos. In those days, they went undiagnosed, usually until it was too late, and when Lillee's back gave way in the Caribbean in 1973, his spine was fractured in three places. In those days, too, a cricketer's physicality was his own affair. There was little or no support from the game's administration. Lillee's recovery came under his own steam, and by his own resources, thanks to a doctor, Frank Pyke, who had been Lillee's physical education instructor at Belmont High School.

Pyke was a top-class Australian rules footballer, a runner-up in his league's Sandover Medal, and a first-grade opening bowler at Lillee's club, Perth. This was important. The treatment and exercise programme Pyke devised was specifically with cricket in mind. It was about rejuvenation as well as healing. It left Lillee aware as perhaps no bowler before him of his body, or its limits and of how to extend them; it contributed also to Lillee's sense of individuality, and mistrust of authority. Which leads to the third and fourth aspects of Lillee's significance.

In coming back from being perhaps as far gone as a bowler has been without actually quitting, Lillee worked his way towards what he condensed in the title of his second book, The Art of Fast Bowling (1977). Bradman had defined The Art of Cricket (1960), but his were batsmen's parameters. Bowling fast was commonly seen as an act of brute force and ignorance; in writing their book, Lillee, with Pyke's assistance, was crafting something as improbable as The Art of Bulldozing.

 
 
For Richard Hadlee, it was a case of WWLD: "When things are going badly I often think, 'What would Lillee do?' And the answer is: 'He would not give up'."
 

In the second half of Lillee's career, he did more than any other to expand the grammar of fast bowling. Having started his career simply with an outswinger, Lillee developed a change of pace, a yorker, leg and offcutters, a fast bouncer and slower bouncer. He perfected a shorter run. He experimented with different angles at the crease. Perhaps the definitive essay in Lillee's transformation was a Test in February 1980 on a low and pebbly Melbourne pitch, on which he would not have known how to bowl five years earlier, but on which he now obtained 11 English wickets for 138 bowling impossibly accurate cutters. Geoff Boycott, in prime form, shouldered arms to a ball two feet wide of off stump, only to see the width of Lillee's angle and the wickedness of his cut drag it back to kiss the timber.

For fast bowlers the world over, Lillee became a touchstone, in temperament as well as technique. "As far as I am concerned, the sign of an outstanding player is his ability to perform well constantly under pressure," said Imran Khan. "He must always be a complete team man. The bowler who stands out is Dennis Lillee." He remembered Lillee coming over to sympathise with and encourage him after a Melbourne Test in which Lillee had bagged 10 for 135 and Imran 5 for 237; Imran bagged a dozen in the next game. For Richard Hadlee, it was a case of WWLD: "When things are going badly I often think, 'What would Lillee do?' And the answer is: 'He would not give up'."

Most interestingly, perhaps, Lillee became a master of concentration, often discussed in the context of batting, almost never as a factor in bowling. He called his first autobiography Back to the Mark (1975), and he always made this walk a fascinating sight. He headed back straight, unsmiling, eyes ahead, gazing into a middle distance. He had this characteristic gesture: a single finger to the forehead. It went from the centre to his left, then back to the right, flicking off sweat like a windscreen wiper. The ball by this stage would have been conveyed round the Australian in-field to mid-off, who would be polishing it furiously. Lillee would turn his head just slightly right, and extend his arm just above shoulder height. Mid-off's throw would have to be timed precisely so that Lillee did not have to alter his stride, and could catch the ball in one hand. The ball would then continue with Lillee the length of his run, being shone meditatively the rest of the way. As he turned at his bowling marker, all was genuinely in readiness.


Dennis Lillee walks back to his mark as Ian Both reaches his fifty, England v Australia, 5th Test, Old Trafford, 3rd day, August 15, 1981
The famous walk back © PA Photos
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With the whiff of a wicket, Lillee then revealed the most minatory appeal in the business, and also the coolest. He had all the moves. He could entrechat like Barishnykov; he could be king of the club like Tony Manero. One personal favourite was the twist in the air to land on spread feet, right index finger aimed straight at the umpire's heart - perhaps it's where he got his pitchman's fingerpoint for advertisements. No wonder that Shane Warne's hero growing up and playing backyard games with brother Jason was "the great DK"; no wonder the great SK developed an appeal that made umpires quail.

Finally, there's that fourth and final dimension of Lillee's historical import, his wakening radicalism, his evolving contempt for the administrators of his time and awareness of his growing commercial value, which made him one of the first to take the Packer shilling, and with Ian Chappell probably the most influential. He fitted comfortably into Channel 9's pantheon of larrikins, lairs and knockabout ockers, as born to television as he was to cricket. "From a shy, gullible bloke when I first met him, he developed an unbelievable supreme ego," said Greg Chappell of his close comrade. "It's not a criticism. Most of us were the same." In "Ego Is Not a Dirty Word", the title track of a chart-topping 1975 album by the Australian band Skyhooks, the band's lead singer Shirley Strachan presented the pro argument:

"If you did not have an ego
You might not care too much who won."

With which Lillee would hardly have disagreed. The ad men are right. Dennis Lillee's need for an introduction, professional or personal, has long since past.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

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Posted by waspsting on (December 9, 2010, 21:25 GMT)

@Engle re: who would you rather watch? - Hadlee lacked aggresion in certain situations. Marshall was just as hostile and at the batsman as Lillee anyday. Imran was wonderful to watch because of the easy to follow sideways movement - all the others had much more subtle movement which you couldn't notice as a spectator. @TheOnlyEmperor - Thomson was no "support bowler", mate. he was awesome. in any case, Lillee's support was certainly stronger than Hadlee or Imran Khan. Plus, is this a point for or against? - it was the lack of support that allowed him to take more wickets per match than the West Indians! (like Murali versus Warne). @Thecompletebatsman - agree with you 100%. Calling Lillee great - absolutely, but why the "greatest"? on what basis ahead of Imran, Hadlee and Marshall? At best their equal, and IMO, just a tad under them.

Posted by Engle on (December 9, 2010, 16:00 GMT)

Lillee was a firebrand cricketer, the type that get's people to sit up and take notice. Sparkplugs are essential to excite the team and make things happen. Also, they add color and character to the game. Hadlee, Marshall lacked Lillee's aggression. Lillee was the total package, the complete fast bowler. Put another way, who would you rather watch ? Lillee, Marshall or Hadlee ?

Posted by TheOnlyEmperor on (December 9, 2010, 7:59 GMT)

@CompleteBatsman : ".Lillee certainly wasn't a lone ranger like Hadlee, Kapil and Imran. He had bowlers like Thomson, Hogg and Pascoe aroun him."

Thomson, Hogg and Pascoe were fast, but they weren't great bowlers. They were like Brett Lee and Shoab Akhtar of the modern era - good but essentially support bowlers. Contrast this with Marshall's bowling companions or even Wasim Akram who had to bowl with Waqar.

Posted by the_complete_batsman on (December 9, 2010, 3:29 GMT)

I only want to ask this - on what specific basis is Lillee rated ahead of Marshall, Hadlee and Imran? I mean, all those bowlers have better stats than he does, have bowled successfully in the subcontinent and were hardly any less versatile than he was, (especially Marshall). What more should they have done to be acknowledged as being better than Lillee?

Posted by BillyCC on (December 8, 2010, 20:00 GMT)

Zack1, if Lillee never played in the subcontinent, then we will never know whether he would have been successful or not. He may well have been. See my earlier post, he did not avoid the subcontinent at all. For your quote arguing the greatness of Marshall, there are plenty of others that argue for Lillee. Agree with your comparison of India vs Bangladesh. You need to scale it down however for the professionalism era. Players today are paid and need to perform constantly.

Posted by harshthakor on (December 8, 2010, 17:00 GMT)

I would like fans to note that in a statistical anlalysis conducted by Ananth Narayan of cricinfo in 2009 Dennis Lillee just edges Imran and Hadlee by about half a point.He is rated about 2 points above Mgrath and Marshall.In a second revised rating Lillee again is rated 2 points above Marshall and Mcgrath.,but half a point below Hadlee.Lillee was one of the greatest match-winning bolwers and took 5 wickets per innings ,which Mcgrath nad Marshall did not.This analysis of Ananath Narayan weighs a huge scale of factors which proves Lillee's ascendancy.

Posted by Dr.K.H.Iyer on (December 8, 2010, 16:07 GMT)

Malcolm Marshall and Richard Hadlee are way ahead of Lillee! They performed EVERYWHERE! And let us not forget Glenn McGrath! He lived & DELIVERED in the age of batsmen!

Posted by Seether1 on (December 8, 2010, 11:28 GMT)

Any idea where I can view videos of Dennis Lille vs Viv Richards? Youtube has a few clips but that doesn't really tell the story of the rivalry

Posted by ray1777 on (December 8, 2010, 9:42 GMT)

I suspect not many of the contributors here have played Test cricket (self included). I think it is worth noting that Lillee is generally considered by opponents as the greatest fast bowler they have played against. Certainly Lillee, Marshall and Hadlee are possibly the best of the past 40 years. Stats alone do not tell the true picture. For those lucky enough to see him play would appreciate the tremendous skills he possessed. It is a shame that the calibre of fast bowlers that were around in the 70's, 80's and early 90's are not around today. It would certainly balance what has become a game where mediocre batsmen now average 45+ in test cricket.

Posted by Browndog1968 on (December 8, 2010, 7:46 GMT)

It's a little boring hearing the comments "He didn't prove himself in the sub continent" Every player highlighted as a great generates that comment from our sub continent brothers. OK using that logic, how many Indian, Sri Lankan or Pakistani cricketers have proved themselves elsewhere? Judging by those teams successes anywhere else other than the sub continent I would say there haven't been many success stories at all.

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Gideon Haigh Born in London of a Yorkshire father, raised in Australia by a Tasmanian mother, Gideon Haigh lives in Melbourne with a cat, Trumper. He has written 19 books and edited a further seven. He is also a life member and perennial vice-president of the South Yarra CC.

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