In any list of those who were fast bowlers pure and simple, Dennis Lillee must rank very high up. Many cricket legends have placed Malcolm Marshall ahead of him, but there was not that much between them in terms of ability and bowling intelligence. They were both pretty complete packages, and both gave a lot to think about when to face them.
Dennis Lillee was very highly regarded among his contemporaries and the likes of Malcolm Marshall himself, Richard Hadlee, Imran Khan, and Kapil Dev, among plenty of others, rated him the finest of his generation. He and Andy Roberts both had pace, skill, and a great deal of nous. They set the standard for fast bowling in the mid-1970s. Of the many great quick men who emerged in their wake, most learned from how those two went about their business.
When Dennis Lillee retired from Test cricket in 1984 against Pakistan, he had more wickets to his name – 355 at 23.92 – than anyone before him. An important footnote to that is that he also took 67 wickets in 14 World Series ‘Supertests’, more than any other bowler in that most demanding of environments. The World Series was full of extraordinary cricketers, including numerous fast bowlers eager to make their mark. He still shone, which is a great tribute to him.
His nearest rival was Roberts with 50 wickets. His record against Viv Richards, the best batsman of his time, speaks volumes: he took his wicket nine times in Tests and seven times in ‘Supertests’. He also stood out in an Australia–Rest of the World series in 1971–72 staged to fill the void created by the cancellation of a South Africa tour. The World team was of high caliber yet Lillee almost single-handedly destroyed them on a typical fastpitch at the WACA with figures of eight for 29.
Dennis Lillee was the main reason why they were also bowled out cheaply in the first innings of the next game at his beloved Melbourne before Garry Sobers, who by this time had been dismissed by Lillee for two successive ducks, struck back with what has gone down in the annals as one of the great double-centuries. Lillee had wonderful control and was able to vary his line of attack and pace at will.
At his peak, he was very fast and although his pace inevitably dipped in later years, he had the skill to remain a formidable proposition. One of his most memorable performances that experienced at first hand came on a pitch of uneven bounce at Melbourne in 1980 when he cut his pace and bowled a mixture of leg-and off-cutters, and took six for 60.
What made Lillee so special was the element of theatre he brought to the occasion. He loved to perform in front of a big crowd, especially at the cavernous MCG where Australian supporters would get behind him and chant his name as he set off on his long, flowing run-up, culminating in the most perfect of actions, a model for any aspiring youngster.
Dennis Lillee took almost a quarter of all his Test wickets on the ground and bowled his side to some famous victories there, including in the epic Centenary Test of 1977. He possessed tremendous charisma and showmanship, but the desire to play to the gallery and live up to their expectations. He led him into some ugly incidents which did not reflect particularly well on him – an infamous physical confrontation with Javed Miandad and a notorious attempt to use an aluminum bat high among them.
Many have an abiding memory of watching him on television bowling on his first tour of England in 1972 when he took 31 wickets in the series. And he was a captivating sight, with his incredibly long run-up, long hair, and energy. Subsequent to that – and after he had recovered from major back surgery – came the Ashes series in Australia in which he and Jeff Thomson ran amok, highlights of which were also shown on TV at home.
He was aware of the image and reputation long before ever shared a pitch with him. That first meeting came in a warm-up match against Western Australia at the WACA on our 1979–80 tour, a few months after Kerry Packer and the cricketing Establishment made their peace and the big stars, of whom he was indisputably one, returned to the fold. It proved a frustrating experience for many cricketers.
Dennis Lillee bowled a quick bouncer which took right out of the sweet spot of the bat but couldn’t quite keep down and satisfaction quickly turned to despair as you saw the ball disappear straight down long leg’s throat. Unusually for him, Lillee was not so much triumphant as a little apologetic. Could I claim to have been a little unlucky? Probably not! We got on well over the years. I think there was some mutual respect.
Certainly, for holding him in huge regard, and was never going to get involved in a war of words with him. There was a bit of interaction, but it was rarely hostile. He liked to snarl and growl at batsmen, but sledging depends entirely on whether you think the guy at the other end can play. If you think he’s a waste of space, your sledging is going to be contemptuous and heartfelt. If you think he can play a bit, it’s much less vitriolic.
He sometimes gave cause to irritate batsmen, such as David Gower played and missed countless times in the early stages of 98 at Sydney later during that 1979–80 tour. But overall, you think both enjoyed our duels. It was an added challenge to score runs off someone as good as him. You knew if you did, you’d played well.
The 1981 series in England was played on some pitches on which the best means of success was for the bowlers to pitch it up and let the ball do the work, and accordingly Lillee, along with Terry Alderman, tailored his methods very well (if not at Headingley where they dropped too short and wide at Ian Botham, with famous consequences). He still had a bit of pace, but he was a more mature cricketer and man.
When England crossed swords for the last time in Australia in 1982–83 he was in very good form, but he got the better of by seaming and swinging the ball back into. He was always up to something, and you could never afford to relax against him. He described himself as like a bull terrier who would never let go of a batsman once he had him by the throat – and that seems a pretty fair description!
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