Cricket: Lillee: still flowing after all these years: England's bete noir now dispenses wit and wisdom rather than bruises and brickbats. Glenn Moore meets a reconstructed rebel with a fresh cause

Click to follow
THE hair is going thin and there are grey flecks in the famous moustache, but the figure remains trim and, once bowling, there is no mistaking the identity of Dennis Lillee. Umpires, batsmen and barmen may shudder at the memories but Lillee, Australia's leading Test wicket-taker, is back in Pommie- land.

He will be at The Oval this week, combining media duties with net sessions fine-tuning his successors in the Australian attack. He may have a bowl and, although the knee operations preclude strenuous running (he swims for fitness) and he plays just once a year (in Perth's answer to the Arundel tourists' match), he can still do wonders with the ball - as Robin Smith found in Madras in the winter.

A few years ago the Australian Cricket Board set up the 'Spin Australia' programme to develop promising tweakers - result: Shane Warne. Now, with a shortage of heirs to Merv Hughes and Craig McDermott, they are bringing in a fast-bowling programme and Lillee is the man who will run it.

It is the latest act of official recognition for the 'Chappelli gang', the legendary wild bunch that played hard on, and off, the field as they made Australia the dominant cricket force of the early 1970s then formed the core of the Packer split.

From that team Rod Marsh now runs the Australian Cricket Academy; Greg Chappell, after a spell as selector, is, along with his brother Ian and Lillee, a Channel Nine television commentator; Jeff Thomson coaches Queensland and Doug Walters has led several representative teams in festival matches against touring sides.

'We were treated as rebels,' Lillee recalled. 'We used to question things. Out of that came World Series. At the time it was seen as shameful to be involved but I think they have accepted that it had to happen and more positives than negatives came of it.

'They now realise the guys involved were not so bad - that they were trying to better the cricketers' lot in the long term - and still have a bit to offer. We were winners, everything was played to win.

'Although we enjoyed ourselves and there were some good, hard drinkers in that side, we were not boozing all the time. Unfortunately, a lot of people think that but it is impossible. The only guy who could drink most nights and still perform was Doug Walters, and he was a freak - I never saw it affect him.'

One English equivalent, recently retired and touted in the tabloids for a post-Dexter role, comes to mind. Of Ian Botham, Lillee says: 'I think he has something to offer, even if it is just an attitude - one of aggression, confidence and 'take it to the opposition'. He was also a fine technician. I respected him tremendously as an opponent.'

More, perhaps, than any other fast bowler, Lillee has made a science of the art. His book, The Art of Fast Bowling, came out as long ago as 1978 and is a study of every aspect of the process, training as much as technique.

The consequence was a career, despite serious back injury, of considerable longevity and, now, a vast store of knowledge, which has enabled him to become a freelance fast bowling guru.

Lillee's advice is sought the world over. In India and Sri Lanka, he is involved in major schemes - the Indian Test players Javagal Srinath and Subroto Banerjee are two graduates - and he has worked with most Australian state squads over the last few years. Here, in between television commentary and work for the Mail on Sunday, he has advised David Lawrence on the mental approach to his comeback.

Thus it is with almost - but not quite - a sense of sadness that he views English cricket's current dearth of genuine fast bowlers. 'The standard around the world is very good at present but you haven't got an outstanding fast bowler. It surprises me with the conditions you get over here that English bowlers don't swing the ball as much as they should.'

Having spent a couple of years with Northamptonshire in the late 1980s, Lillee believes the root cause is the proliferation of 'result' pitches in the county game.

'Bowlers have not had to learn the art of good fast bowling. The wickets have done a lot so they can be a bit out with both line and length and still get results. But when they get on a Test wicket, which is a far better wicket, they do not get away with it.

'Batsmen, meanwhile, think: 'the wicket is going to get me eventually', so they tend not to wait for the bad ball. They also improvise on the lines of the one-day game. So they don't learn to take their time and build an innings, which is what you need in Test cricket. Four-day cricket and better pitches will certainly help but you won't see the effect for a few years.'

The consequences have been clear this year and Lillee added: 'I have been quite shocked at how one- sided it has been, I thought Australia would just win a close series.'

Lillee played seven series against England, winning four and taking 167 of his 355 Test wickets. The highlight remains the first in 1970-71 - 'getting picked to play for Australia was beyond my wildest expectations.

'The lowpoint,' Lillee added, 'has to be getting involved in some of the things I did. Most people who do pretty well do some bad things. They don't want to, it just happens. It probably comes out of that will to win. I do regret them but I hope the good things would far outweigh the bad.' Kicking Javed Miandad; betting on England at Headingley; riotous behaviour with Botham in Tasmania; using an aluminium bat - there were a few moments of notoriety. Lillee, though, will be remembered for that action and those wickets - in particular the recurrent scorecard entry, 'c Marsh b Lillee'.

(Photographs omitted)