Rarely has a fast bowler cast such an indelible mark on the collective imagination of an entire country and the cricket world as Dennis Keith Lillee. The quintessential fast bowler with a perfect combination of brain and brawn coupled with a liking for showmanship made him the darling of Australian crowds in the 70s and early 80s.
Greatness is essentially an adjective that is buttressed by statistics but never bounded by it. It transcends the boundaries of quantification even though statisticians struggle hard to quantify it. Lillee's greatness could not be caged in the statistics of his career. He is something beyond that.
For a country which had seen Garth McKenzie, Neil Hawke and Allan Conolly in the 1960s, Lillee's arrival was a breath of fresh air. He joined the team with Bill Lawry in his last series as captain. Australia had endured a winless streak in their last 10 Test matches.
He arrived as a young tearaway in the last test of the 1970-71 Qshes series which saw another Aussie great, Greg Chappell, making his Test debut three matches before him. Sporting long locks, he came off a long run and powered through the crease to deliver out-swingers at lightening pace. He scythed through the World XI the following summer with an amazing spell of 8 wickets for 29 runs.
He was used astutely by one of the shining lights of 1970s, Ian Chappell, who described him as "a captain's dream and a batsman's nightmare".
In Chappell, he had a captain who used him tactfully and helped him to mature as a fast bowler. The 1972 Ashes which ended at 2–2 was in many ways the starting of these new players under a tough-as-nails Captain Ian Chappell. DK Lillee took 31 wickets at an average of 17.67 on that tour. But his bowling style resulted in him suffering a stress fracture the following year.
He came back as a much stronger, better and skillful bowler. He had to cut down his express pace but he made up for that in diversifying his ability. In 1974, he teamed up with Jeff Thompson along with Max Walker and Gary Gilmour to form the first pace quartet which was later successfully emulated by the West Indies side of the late 1970s and 80s. He was one of the complete fast bowlers the game has ever seen. Post the injury his skills are best described by Gideon Haigh, the English-born Australian journalist.
"In the second half of Lillee's career, he did more than any other to expand the grammar of fast bowling. Having started his career simply with an outswinger, Lillee developed a change of pace, a yorker, leg and offcutters, a fast bouncer and slower bouncer. He perfected a shorter run. He experimented with different angles at the crease. Perhaps the definitive essay in Lillee's transformation was a Test in February 1980 on a low and pebbly Melbourne pitch, on which he would not have known how to bowl five years earlier, but on which he now obtained 11 English wickets for 138 bowling impossibly accurate cutters. Geoff Boycott, in prime form, shouldered arms to a ball two feet wide of off stump, only to see the width of Lillee's angle and the wickedness of his cut drag it back to kiss the timber", said Haigh.
He took 355 wickets at an average of 23.92 in 70 Tests. Even if we look at him through the numbers he can be termed as great, but Lillee was much more than numbers. His tireless efforts, performances and penchant for theatrics, in an era when coloured television had found its way into Australian homes made a lasting impression on the national psyche of Australia.
He found a way through the struggles of his career, always finding answers to the different questions posed by his body, conditions and opposition. He did so with a swagger that made batsman shake in their boots while they came up against him.
His menacing gaze on top of his bowling mark, the perfect-run up building a crescendo before delivering the ball with all his belligerence and thought was a sight to behold. The benchmark of fast bowling excellence, Dennis Keith Lilee, by sheer hardwork, dedication and iron will, carved for himself a place among the pantheon of great fast bowlers the game has ever seen.Published 10 Mar 2018, 16:41 IST