Lillee in 1974. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)
The great Australian fast bowler, once the Test record holder with 355 wickets, was born July 18, 1949. He was one of the few pacers to combine hostile pace with accuracy and consistency over a long career of 13 years. But he wasn’t just a great bowler; he was also quite the showman.
Lillee in full flow provided one of cricket’s greatest visual delights. His lithe build, the open-collared shirt, Zapata moustache, long hair flowing in the air as he cruised towards the bowling mark, arms seamlessly lining up his vicious thunderbolts – these sights got many batsmen quaking in their pads.
Just how quick was he? A young Lillee was part of the Australia team that played a ‘Super Test’ series against a mighty World XI led by the great Garry Sobers. In the second match at Perth, Sobers’ side was 5-46 when he came out to bat. He saw the wicketkeeper Rodney Marsh and the slips standing 25 yards back. “Why are you guys standing so far back”, Sobers asked Marsh. “You’ll find out soon,” Marsh replied. Lillee took 8-29 (12-91 in the game), bowling the World XI out for 59.
But if his get-up and cricketing skill earned him fame, his theatrics earned him notoriety. In 1981, he was involved in the ‘most disgraceful thing’ (Bobby Simpson’s words) seen on a cricket field: the ugly run-in with Javed Miandad at Perth. He kicked Miandad as he took a run and the feisty Pakistani threatened to crack open his skull with his bat.
In 1979, Lillee went to bat against England in Perth with an aluminium bat. Some hard hits off the metal piece damaged the ball, prompting England captain Mike Brearley to complain to the umpires, who then asked Lillee to get himself a regular willow. In reaction, Lillee angrily flung away his bat before resuming batting duties with a wooden piece.
Lillee combined with Jeff Thompson to form one of the deadliest pace bowling combinations ever seen, inspiring chants of 'Ashes to ashes dust to dust, if Lillee don't get you, Thommo must.' While Lillee himself operated with speeds in the high 90s, Thomson recorded speeds of 99.8 several times. Imagine facing a new-ball attack from these two. Here you go.
The pace duo nearly won Australia the 1975 World Cup. In the final, batting at No. 10 and 11, they added 41 runs before West Indies won it by a mere 17 runs.
Quite the fire-starter, Lillee was famously responsible for the incident Sunil Gavaskar has come to regret. In that ill-tempered 1981 Melbourne Test, Lillee and the Australian team abused Gavaskar after he had been controversially dismissed. The series had been marred by poor umpiring, and the moment caused the Indian captain to lose his rag and attempt a boycott of the match.
In the 1977 Centenary Test Lillee confronted the Queen of England with an autograph book and pen. The Queen declined the request but sent an autographed photo later. Four years on, when he was receiving his MBE at Buckingham Palace, Lillee greeted the Queen with a casual, “G’day, how ya go’in?”
Lillee also forged a golden alliance with wicket-keeper Rodney Marsh, the 'caught Marsh bowled Lillee' line figuring 95 times in Test match scorecards.
Lillee and Marsh also had a far more dubious collaboration when they bet on their own team to lose the third — and most pivotal Test of the series — during the 1981 Ashes. England, rallying around after being asked to follow on, famously won that game by 18 runs. Lillee and Marsh won a total sum of 7,500 pounds in those innocent pre-Cronje days.
There’s no doubting his cricketing skill and on-field aggression that drove opponents to despair. It was also his fighting spirit that helped Lillee make a valiant comeback from crippling stress fractures of the back early in his career and earned him much respect. The paceman returned to great success after intensive physiotherapy and a modified action and bowled Australia to an Ashes win in 1974-75.
He was clocked at 154.8 km/h by University of Western Australia in 1975 — this after several back surgeries and repeated amendments to his bowling action.
Fifteen years after his retirement, Lillee was still a handful with the new ball. In the last cricket game he ever played, the Aussie legend turned out for the ACB Chairman’s XI against the visiting Pakistanis. He was 50 at the time. He took 3-8 in eight overs. His son Adam, a budding pacer at the time, played the game too and took 3-29. The father-son duo combined to take the first five Pakistani wickets, leaving them 5-24. Don’t miss this catch the son took off his father’s bowling.
After retirement, Lillee become a coach at the MRF Pace Academy in Chennai. He played a role in shaping the careers of several young pacemen – to name a few, Javagal Srinath, Chaminda Vaas, Zaheer Khan, Brett Lee and Shaun Tait.
But perhaps Lillee’s greatest contribution to cricket – Indian cricket in particular – was not to fast bowling. Once at the MRF Pace Academy a teenager turned up wanting to be a pace bowler. Lillee happened to see him in action with both bat and ball. His straight-driving impressed Lillee so much, he advised the young fella to stick to his batting. The advice turned the cricketing universe on its head.
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