Cricket: Still intimidating after all these years

Simon Turnbull sees an audience with Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson take evasive action as the bouncers fly
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There were fireworks in the evening air above Durham City. The pyrotechnic party was in full swing for the students at the annual Castle Ball.

In the packed Elvet Suite, in the Three Tuns Hotel, the whiff of sulphur was not quite strong enough to satisfy the assembled students of the summer game. "What kind of an answer's that?" one of them demanded, challenging the follicly-challenged gentleman sat at the top-table.

There was a time when an Englishman bold enough to confront D K Lillee would have automatically qualified for a knighthood. But that was decades ago.

It would have been unimaginable then that the demon Aussie bowler who pulverised the Poms would ever consider holding back in diplomatic deference to the old enemy.

"It's called sitting on the fence, if you want to know, mate," he confessed, having gilded the lily by following his prediction that Australia would retain the Ashes by a 2-1 margin this summer with the rider, "but it wouldn't surprise me if it was 2-1 the other way."

Such equivocation was clearly not what the natives had expected, their "Evening with Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson" having opened with a video reminder of the physical (not to mention spiritual) scars inflicted by the demonic duo upon England's finest of 1974 and 1975.

Sir Colin Cowdrey was one of those seen to have been wounded. His son happened to be sat between his one-time tormentors at the Three Tuns. But before Chris, in his capacity as compere for the evening, could pass comment, Lillee - as ever - found support from his tearaway pal of old.

"My money's on Australia to win 2-1," Thomson said, "but it wouldn't hurt the game if England happened to win. The world of cricket can't afford England to be as weak as they have been in the past."

"Do you want the Lions to win too?" the less-than-lily-livered heckler added. "I hope they thrash 'em, mate," Thommo said, with the kind of feeling that suggested he would have rather relished delivering his high-speed ammo at a few Springboks.

Between 1970 and 1985 Lillee and Thomson battered 555 victims into some kind of submission in the Test arena. Approaching life's half-century mark now, they no longer look quite so fearsome. Lillee, 48 next month, has more of that once-familiar raven hair on his upper lip than on his head; Thomson, 46, has a silver mop. But on the Durham leg of their summer tour, combining the patter of the tap-room with the patter of tiny feet towards the crease in their quest to foster fast-bowling talent of the future, it was clear that some of the old fire still burns within.

Lillee has mellowed sufficiently to give fair dinkum praise to the current Ashes leaders. "I take my hat off to England," he said. "They're a good unit. They've set themselves up for this series and for the future." There was a twinkle in the eyes, however, when he set about his Pommie bashing for the night.

"We have a question slip here to Dennis from a G Boycott," Cowdrey-the- younger said. "Do you really hate me? it says. I don't think it can be from the actual G Boycott because it cost pounds 12 to get in."

"Yeah," Lillee said, "Boycs would be waiting outside." "Geoffrey," he added, after due consideration, "is the only fellow I've met who fell in love with himself at a young age and has remained faithful ever since.

"He could play a bit, but I judge a great player as one who can win a game off his own bat and I didn't see Geoffrey do that too much. And he went into self-exile when the quick bowlers got going."

Thomson, with his unique sling-shot action, got going with the most menacing quickness, of course. "Did your asthma ever affect you?" he was asked. "It never affected me at all," he said, dead-pan. "I've never had asthma."

The final enquiry from the floor concerned the health of English cricket: whether Dennis or his menacing sidekick, in the unlikely event of being appointed supremo of English cricket, would allow overseas players into the county game.

"I wouldn't," Lillee said. "What population have you got?" Thomson said. "Sixty, seventy million? What do you need ringers for? Get cricket going in the schools. Get the kids playing."

The members of the Durham University Academy applauded. Outside, the fireworks were exploding. It would have been no great surprise had the bells been ringing, too.

Durham, after all, had become a winning county again - with a little help from their Australian ringer, of course.