In January earlier this year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the debut of the legendary Dennis Lillee in 1971, paying against England at home.. In my time no cricketer took determination or never say die spirit to such a crescendo as fast bowler Dennis Lillee.Nor was anyone as much an epitome of perfection in the art of fast bowling as Lillee.Few sportsman were hostility personified to the degree of Lillee or who could at the spur of the very moment completely turn the complexion of a game. I regret to say he was one of the worst behaved on a cricket field, always throwing tantrums or engaging in duels. Still Lillee to competitivity to heights of a Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier boxing bout. Lillee storming in was witnessing agression of a tiger and combative spirit of a soldier. If I ever wanted a bowler to ressurect a team from the depths of despair, my unanimous choice would be Dennis Lillee.In full flow ,no pace bowler looked more like a manifestation of energy of the divine as Lillee ,as though the spirits posessed him. Arguably no cricketer exuded the do or die spirit of an army battalion more on a cricket field. If ever one wanted to give the dose of an injection on a cricket field there was no better character than Dennis Lillee.Witnessing Lillee propelling himself into full stride was close to cricket’s ultimate sight.
Few bowlers as perpetually stuck with the task of how to outwit the best of batsman. On the most docile tracks it was his ingenuine skill that would still make him stay out on top.Lillee had every weapon in his armoury be it the outwsinger,the leg-cutter ,the yorker , bouncer or a slower ball. No paceman ever was a better exponent of the leg-cutter and no right arm pacer had a more effective outswinger. No right arm fast bowler was ever as consummate or in such proportion blended all the components of pace bowling be it speed, movement, control, accuracy and versatility. I acknowledge Jeff Thomson or Shoaib Akhtar were quicker, Malcolm Marshall and Wasim Akram more innovative or deceptive, Joel Garner and Glen Mcgrath more accurate or Michael Holding more artistic and perfect in bowling action than Lillee. However in a total package eclipsed everybody. Even the great Viv Richards mantains that it was Lillee who tormented him more than any bowler or even Javed Miandad or Barry Richards. To this day Sir Richard Hadlee mantains that Lillee has no equal amongst pace bowlers .
Memories of his best bowling always embezzle or flash in my mind. His 8-29 when razing the rest of the world xi to the ground at Perth in 1971-72 reminded me of a cowboy mowing down a set of rivals in a Western film. At the Oval in 1972 Lillee captured 10 wickets where he took the classical art of fast bowling to sublime regions. The consistency of his line and length at top pace was simply amazing. When capturing 6-26 at Melbourne in the Centenary test in 1977 Lillee resembled a greek god exuding fire skittling out the English batsman in the manner of a surgical operation of an army. He reflected a manifestation of the energy of the divine that day. Against West Indies in 1979-80 capturing 5-78 at Adelaide Lillee scripted an essay when dismissing great batsman like Gordon Greenidge and Viv Richards..Rarely have I seen such a fiery spirit ever exuded by fast bowler against the great Calypso team. At Melbourne against England in 1979-80 capturing 11wickets on a docile surface Lillee resembled a surgeon performing a successful operation in no man’s land bowling seam up. Rarely did I ever witness such mastery of deploying a leg cutter or such classical blending pf pace with control and movement. In 1981 when taking 7-89 at the Oval he gave a perfect illustration of craft of fast bowling in unhelpful conditions, breaking the backbone of the English batting. with his subtle seam movement. I can never forget ho s most effective out swingers and trapping Geoff Boycott in front. When taking 5-18 at Perth in 1981-82 to mercilessly send Pakistan crashing to 62 , Lillee resembled a Blitzkreig . Lillee was in his most fiery state against West Indies at Melbourne in 1981 on boxing day, when his 7-83 included one of test cricket’s most sensational opening spells ever at the end of the day, He captured 3 wickets for a mere 1 run, including cartwheeling Viv Richards. Rarely have I ever seen energy propelled or galvanised to such a scale on a cricket filed , reminiscent of thunderstorm coming from no man’s land.
The comeback he made after profusely suffering from a spine injury in 1973 in West Indies, is cricket’s closest to a Muhammad Ali style comeback, to resurrect from the grave.
In Kerry Packer World series supertests Lillee was at his best when capturing 79 wickets in 15 tests. Here he bowed against the very best opposition. At a reduced speed he was still more of a menace to great batsman than any great West Indies fast bowler, which was evident wit his 7-23 v West Indies in a supertest in 1978-79 and a five wicket haul in 1977-78.Earlier Lillee played major role with partner Jeff Thomson in enabling Australia to regain the Ashes in 1974-75 at home by a thumping 4-1 margin or winning the unofficial test world championship at home in 1975-76 ,when pulling the wool out of a strong West Indies team and subject them to a humiliating 5-1 defeat. He captured 27 and 29 wickets in those series being statistically overshadowed by Jeff Thomson who was more intimating, but still it was Lillee who was the more effective. In three successive series against England in 1972, 1975 and 1981 Lillee captured over 5 wickets per test and averaging around 20 which is remarkable. To me his best bowling in a single series was against England at home in 1979-80 when he captured 23 scalp sin 3 sets at an average around 18.Close behind was his 21 wickets in 1975 in England,in the unofficial 3 tests against rest of the world in 1971-72 when he took 24 wickets and 24 wickets in a series of 5 supertests in West Indies in 1979.
Sadly Lillee never bowled in India and in his only series in Pakistan found it a sheer graveyard. This brought him down in estimation amongst the game’s critiques and fans. Still I would like to remind readers that Lille championed slow surfaces more than likes of Richard Hadlee like at Melbourne in 1979-80, Oval in 1981 and Adelaide v West Indies in 1979-80.In those days sub-continent pitches were virtually lifeless and I have no doubt that in later eras Lille would have been as successful as Glen Mcgrath in India or Pakistan.
The credit for nurturing this icon goes entirely to Ian Chappell who virtually created the breeding ground for Australia becoming a bunch of world beaters. No cricketer could ever bring the best out of him or tap his potential to the fullest like Chappell as skipper ,reminding you a throwing a bone to a Doberman.
Statistically Lillee in the moral sense captured 459 wickets in 89 test matches, if you add the World series supertests and the unofficial games played against rest of the world. He averaged 23.92 and took 31, 5 wicket hauls and 7,10 wicket hauls. His strike rate was exactly 52 balls per wicket. In light of averages no doubt he was overshadowed by Malcolm Marshall averaging 20.94, Curtly Ambrose averaged 20.99,Richard Hadlee who averaged 22.29 or Glen Mcgrath who averaged 21.64.Marshall had abetter strike rate at 46.7 ,or even Alan Donald at 47.Hadlee had 36 five wickets hauls, and 11 ten wicket hauls which was more than Lillee.Marshall and Curtly Ambrose had a better average in test wins averaging below 16 as compared to Lillee’s around 18.In pure statistical analysis the likes of Richard Hadlee,Glen Mcgrath and Malcolm Marshal would rank ahead, or even Dale Steyn.
However if you respect the opposition and situations in which Lillee captured his prize scalps and his moral impact on games,Lillee may well rank as the best ever test match bowler. I would rather have Lillee in a team than Glen Mcgrath, Curtly Ambrose or Dale Steyn, because he was more complete.
Amongst right arm fast bowlers I virtually cannot seperate Malcolm Marshall, and Dennis Lille, but with a gun on my head I would consider Lillee the more classically complete or perfect. Richard Hadlee and Glen Mcgrath were more clinical but lacked Lillee’s repertoire and were not as explosive. In test cricket Lillee may just miss out in making my all-time World test XI,but in the end it is all very subjective.
For the choice of the greatest ever fast bowler to me it is a toss up between ,Malcolm Marshall, Dennis Lillee, Wasim Akram and Glen McGrath. In the modern era in my view even Dale Steyn has not equalled the all-round skill of Lillee,even if his strike rate is better. Pertinent that in selection of all-time XI’s cricketers chose Lillee ,more than any fast bowler in their votes.Ex West Indies stars like Colin Croft and Alvin Kalicharan mantain that Lillee was the best ever, with even Malcolm Marshall not being his equal. Even ex Pakistani players like Javed Miandad and Mudassar Nazar endorse this view who faced both Lillee and Marshall or even Ian and Greg Chappell of Australia. I endorse the view that the game is not all about statistics and about impact and art.
Overall, including ODI’s,Wasim Akram would rank as the best ever fast bowler who was more versatile than Lillee or Marshall.
I greatly regret that he contributed towards the fall of the gentlemanly spirit of the game of cricket. It brings tears in my eyes remember the incident of Lillee kicking Javed Miandad in the 1981 -82 Perth test and when fighting with Mike Brearley when using an aluminium bat in 1979-80 on the same ground. Time and again he sledged opponents on field, inviting aggro that was unwelcome. It is ironic that in 1981 at Leeds at odds of 500-1 he placed a wager for an England win, who when they were tottering at 133-7, just 92 runs adrift of an innings defeat. I was also unhappy with his unkind words for skipper Kim Hughes in the 1981 Ashes .It could be said that he contributed towards the fall of the gentlemanly spirit of the game of cricket.
I have great regret not to see Lille bowl in South Africa, where the wickets would have been a sheer paradise for him.
After he retired in 1983-84 he contributed to cricket as coach, giving back what he received.
Lillee rated Viv Richards as the best batsman he ever bowled to and Andy Roberts, as the best pace bowler of his time. Overall he ranks Tendulkar on top amongst batsman, but sadly does not hold the great Sunil Gavaskar in such high esteem. I am very happy with his holding Gundappa Vishwanath in such awe as well as David Gower and Javed Miandad.
More than anything I would like to remember Lillee for the joy he gave to the game and the enjoyment he derived from cricket. His avid sense of humour too infused life into the game. No doubt he was one of cricket’s best loved characters. His memorable battles with Viv Richards or Derek Randall in the 1977 centenary tests will remain forever in a cricketing museum.
Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist.Toured India,particularly Punjab .Written on Mass movements ,,Massline,Maoism on blogs like Democracy and Class Struggle and frontierweekly .An avid cricket lover too who has posted writings on blogs like Pakpassion Indian Cricket Fans and Sulekha.com