High excitement preceded my first visit to the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai. Having spent many a childhood winter evening with a dog-eared copy of ‘The Art of Fast Bowling’, I was bounding about expectantly at finally getting to meet Dennis Lillee, a great fast bowler and as close to being a childhood idol as anybody else.
Lillee, in conjunction with Jeff Thomson - or even without, was a ball of energy on the field. He returned from debilitating stress fractures of the back to rule batsmen the world over, and kept the dailies happy with his entertaining dalliances with an aluminum bat, betting and – most infamously – one Javed Miandad.
My counterparts from other newspapers on that blazing Chennai afternoon shared very little of my enthusiasm. Lillee’s visit was – as I would find out in due course – one of his three annual appearances at the MCC High School (where the Foundation is housed) and a triple fixture in every cricket hack’s diary for eons.
It did not help that the 62-year-old Aussie, at most times, refused point blank to tackle questions on anything but the task at hand. Ask him about the ongoing Ashes and you were likely to draw a vacant face in reply.
Quiz him on ‘Monkeygate’ and another dirty, give-nothing-away look would follow.
God help you if you hounded him on the struggles of a transitioning Australia embarrassing themselves on the field.
Once an impudent know-all cricket correspondent from an honorable publication wanted to know what Lillee had been up to the previous night. It took one withering look from the grizzly Australian to dissolve the reporter into submission.
Usually, the local head coach, M. Senthilnathan hovered around, ascertaining no feathers were ruffled on either side. In the backdrop, a bunch of youngsters, potential speedsters loped about in various stages of delivering the ball. Schoolboys hung around, keeping an eye out for a familiar face.
The fun usually started when Lillee began to expound on the intricacies of his chosen art form, a back-breaking act he nigh perfected in his heyday and one that he – as coach, now - segmented to such a high degree that each section could be individually analysed, modified and implemented in practice.
For 25 years, under Lillee’s watchful tutelage, a stream of Indian pace bowling talent was honed at the foundation - this in a country where ‘fast bowler’ was largely a misnomer used for ‘shine remover’ and where for almost two decades military medium filled in for a dire lack of raw pace.
It wasn't just talent that Lillee had to shape, he also had to fight against arcane coaching methods and the tendency of Indian bowlers to revert to old habits once back in their home states. He also had to contend with a largely unsuppportive Board, despite which work on moulding raw talent went on unabated.
Someone who benefitted directly from the endeavor was Zaheer Khan, India’s dangerous left-arm spearhead.
“India had some very good swing bowlers such as Kapil Dev but never someone who was fast. Zaheer was quick when he began and seeing him grow into one of the leading left-arm pacemen in the world gave me plenty of satisfaction,” Lillee said recently, after announcing that his pact with the MRF Pace Foundation would expire soon.
After supplying the country with the likes of Javagal Srinath, Irfan Pathan, Munaf Patel, Venkatesh Prasad, R.P. Singh, S. Sreesanth and Sachin Tendulkar (who was rejected from bowling trials and asked instead to focus on his batting – a turn of events that has attained mythical status since) Lillee has decided to part ways with the foundation.
“I am not getting any younger and I realise that I need to do different things back home. I said to the MRF management that they would have to find a successor for me. They were very kind. All through my years here, they have given me everything I wanted.”
Asked to pick the best Indian fast bowler that he had trained, Lillee said, “That's a hard one to pick. But Zaheer, Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad would top the list. Munaf Patel, to me, has been a disappointment. He had the natural gift of speed but someone has obviously guided him to drop pace. S. Sreesanth, too, is a big let down. For the talent he showcased, he has actually disappointed himself more than anyone else.”
The coaching faculty at the MRF Pace Foundation is also likely to be disappointed at the conclusion of a 25-year alliance. Senthilnathan, however, hoped they would still be able to retain Lillee for shortened stints in the future.
Those who are being considered to replace the Australian legend are Glenn McGrath, Allan Donald, Troy Cooley, Craig McDermott and Kevin Shine.