December 6, 2010

The man who needs no introduction

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

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.

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