Dennis Lillee was described by Ian Chappell as "a captain's dream and a batsman's nightmare". Considering Lillee's outstanding bowling record, the statement is a pretty accurate one. He was one of the greatest match-winning bowlers in Tests, and together with Jeff Thomson formed one of the most potent new-ball pairs of the 1970s. During the span of his international career, Australia won 31 matches and lost 16 when Lillee played, but won only 15 and lost 28 when Lillee did not play. His numbers are up there with the best of fast bowlers and his record as one of Australia's greatest post-War bowlers is matched only by Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne.
Lillee's stats are obviously outstanding, but they become even more impressive when seen in the context of the injury he suffered early in his career. Less than two years after his Test debut in 1971, Lillee was diagnosed with stress fractures, leading to his absence for over one year. He returned in November 1974 and went on to become the best bowler in the world over the next three years. It was also the most successful phase of his career as he picked up 120 wickets in just 21 matches with eight five-wicket and three ten-wicket hauls. He bowled Australia to two Ashes series triumphs and played a major role in the 5-1 win over Clive Lloyd's West Indies team in 1975-76. He played in World Series Cricket for two years from 1977 to 1979 before returning to international cricket in December 1979. The last five years of his career were also prolific as he added 184 wickets in 38 matches in this period, eventually finishing as the most successful Australian bowler in Tests. For Lillee's detailed career stats click here.
Almost half the Test wickets Lillee took were against England. With 167 scalps in 29 matches, Lillee was the most successful bowler in Australia-England Tests till Warne surpassed him in 2005. Only Curtly Ambrose, Malcolm Marshall and Glenn McGrath average lower than Lillee in Tests against England. He has four ten-wicket hauls in Ashes Tests, a record he shares with three other bowlers. His 11 five-wickets hauls in Ashes Tests is second only to Sydney Barnes' 12.
Lillee was one of the best bowlers in Australia, picking up 231 wickets. Among Australian bowlers who have picked up over 150 wickets in home Tests, Lillee's average is second only to McGrath's 22.43.
Lillee picked up more than 200 wickets in wins at an average of just over 18. Among Australian bowlers who have picked up more than 100 wickets in home wins, his average of just over 19 is the best.
The 1970s and 1980s witnessed some of the finest fast bowlers including Lillee, Richard Hadlee and Marshall. Lillee's overall performance is surpassed only by Marshall and Hadlee. However, Lillee took almost all his wickets in Australia and England; his stats outside those two countries and New Zealand were pretty ordinary. He played only five matches and took six wickets in Asia and the West Indies at an average of over 90. In contrast, Marshall and Hadlee were superb in the subcontinent, boasting averages of close to 22.
For almost 18 months between February 1973 and November 1974, Lillee did not play competitive cricket because of injuries, but came back strongly to become the world's best bowler over the next three years. In 1977, he played in World Series Cricket and demonstrated once again that he was at the peak of his career. In a series that featured the world's top fast bowlers, Lillee took the most wickets, though he also played the most matches, picking up 67 wickets in 14 games across the two seasons.
Lillee's skills and Thomson's pace were instrumental in making Australia the world's best team in the mid 1970s. In 26 matches together, they picked up 217 wickets at an average of just over 27. They routed England in 1974-75, sharing 58 wickets between them in six Tests as Australia won 4-1. In the 1975-76 series against West Indies, which Australia won 5-1, they again set up a convincing victory picking up 56 wickets in the six Tests. Lillee and Thomson were at their peak for three years between 1974 and 1977, picking up an extraordinary 149 wickets in 15 Tests at an average of just over 25. But their overall average is slightly higher than some of the other leading fast-bowling pairs. While Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram boast a stunning average of 22.12 with 37 five-wicket and seven ten-wicket hauls, the Caribbean pairing of Ambrose and Courtney Walsh has been the most successful, picking up 762 in 95 matches at an average of 22.67.
Lillee reserved his best for the big occasion and more often than not, produced superb performances in crunch situations. As early as 1971, he stunned the Rest of the World XI in an unofficial Test match at Perth with a haul of 8 for 29 as they were bowled out for 59. In the next Test, he dismissed Garry Sobers for a first-ball duck in the first innings, only for Sobers to respond with a fantastic 254 in the second innings, where Lillee went for over 100 runs.
In the Centenary Test in 1977, Lillee's 11-wicket haul set up a 45-run victory for Australia. In 1981, he rose to the occasion twice after Australia had been bowled out for low scores. Against West Indies at the MCG, Australia had been bowled out for just 198, with Kim Hughes making a superb century. Lillee responded with an exceptional spell at the end of the first day, removing Viv Richards off the last ball of the day, leaving West Indies at 10 for 4. He eventually ended up with his best bowling figures of 7 for 83, leading Australia to a victory. In the first Test at Perth, his 5 for 18 helped Australia bowl out Pakistan for 62 after they themselves had made just 180.
Lillee was a brilliant bowler to top-order batsmen and accounted for the best batsmen in the opposition regularly. He dismissed Viv Richards and David Gower nine times, though the player who succumbed to him most often was England's wicketkeeper Allan Knott (12 times). Dennis Amiss, who averaged more than 70 against the West Indies, was very ordinary against Lillee. He averaged below seven in the eight innings he was dismissed by Lillee, making three ducks and just one score over 10. Lillee was most successful under Greg Chappell's captaincy, picking up 199 wickets in 38 Tests. Fittingly, he retired along with Chappell and Marsh at the SCG in 1984, after picking up a wicket off his last ball.
The Lillee-Rodney Marsh combination is the most successful bowler-keeper pairing in Tests. Marsh took 95 catches off Lillee's bowling in 69 matches, which is five more than the Mcgrath-Adam Gilchrist combination.
Lillee picked up 25 wickets or more in a series on four occasions. His best performance came in the 1981 Ashes series, when he picked up 39 wickets. The series though, ended in defeat for Australia after Ian Botham's heroics. Lillee's 39-wicket haul is the fourth-highest by an Australian bowler in an Ashes series behind Terry Alderman, Rodney Hogg and Warne. He became the highest wicket-taker for Australia in early 1981, going past Richie Benaud, and later in the same year, he became the highest wicket-taker in Tests, surpassing Lance Gibbs' haul of 309. He reached 200 wickets in just 38 Tests, and remains the second-fastest to the mark, behind Clarrie Grimmett. He is also the fastest to 250 and 300 wickets, reaching the landmarks in just 48 and 56 Tests respectively.
Lillee played only 63 ODIs in his career, but picked up over 100 wickets at an average below 21. His performance in World Cups was not great, but he went on to become the first bowler to pick up five wickets in an innings in ODIs, when he picked up 5 for 34 against Pakistan in the 1975 World Cup. In the WSC one-day matches, he picked up 54 wickets to go with his superb show in the Super Tests. In the Australian tri-series matches between 1977 and 1984, he was the most successful bowler with 68 wickets at a average of just over 18. Another exceptional performance came in a Gillette Cup semi-final when Western Australia were defending just 77 against Queensland. He dismissed Viv Richards for a duck and Greg Chappell for nine in his spell of 4 for 21, leading Western Australia to a 15-run victory.
Though Lillee had a batting average of 13.71 with just one half-century, his highest score was an unbeaten 73 at Lord's in 1975, making him one of only four No.10 batsmen to make a fifty-plus score at the ground.