Thomson and Lillee shine at the seaside: Playing with the beach boys
Angus Fraser, The Independent's cricket correspondent, gets sand between his toes as legends of the game snap on the shades and slap on the suntan oil in Australia
Wednesday 16 January 2008
"Lillee, Lillee, Lillee," chanted the 3,500 or so spectators packed in to the auditorium and temporary stands at Scarborough Beach, Perth, as Dennis Lillee, the most charismatic and possibly greatest fast bowler of all time, ran in to bowl at Graeme Hick in the second XXXX Gold Beach Cricket extravaganza. The years of toil have taken their toll on Lillee's knees and the legs are no longer as sturdy as they once were, yet the glorious bowling action, a vision that continues to inspire thousands of young cricketers throughout the world, was still there for everyone to admire.
In the mid to late Seventies when the chorus was heard at every Test venue in Australia, opposing batsmen used to shake with fear as they strapped on their pads. Helmets were yet to be introduced and Lillee and Jeff Thomson formed the most feared opening bowling partnership in cricket. Those days have long gone and Lillee now has to rely on reputation to get through, something that Hick, Worcestershire and England's merciless runscorer, chose to ignore as he hacked the 58-year-old for five sixes in an over on the postage stamp ground hosting the first of four tri-nation events across Australia.
Thomson, Lillee's more fearsome but equally charismatic opening partner, is also in the Aussie team. As the pair walked towards me in the players' area at Scarborough Beach – I have been invited to play in the England side at the tournament – it was hard to imagine that they caused such havoc and terror in their pomp. In comparison to modern fast bowlers each is small, a point I raised with Lillee as he approached. "You'd have shrunk a bit too if you'd had to carry the sporting hopes of a nation for 15 years," said Lillee caustically, but with that ever-present roguish smile. "Tommo and I used to be 6ft 4."
When they sat down conversation turned, as it inevitably does, to what it must have been like to face them in their heyday. I informed Thomson of some great footage I had recently seen of him on YouTube, when he destroyed England in 1974-75. He said he hadn't seen it but took great pleasure in telling me that somebody had just sent him a great video of his bowling in a match against Sri Lanka, when he had "cleaned them up".
Lillee then recalled a story about Thomson on the eve of his first Test in England in 1975. The Australians had just had a team meeting and Lillee wandered downstairs at the team hotel looking for someone to have dinner with. He stuck his head around the door of the hotel bar and found Thomson sitting there on his own with what looked like a soft drink in his hand.
Lillee joined his partner and asked him what he was drinking. Thomson invited him to have a sip. Lillee's head rocked back at the alcoholic strength and told Tommo to watch it because Australia had a serious game to play against "the Poms" the following day and they wanted to do well. Tommo informed Lillee he was having a couple more before retiring to bed, to which Lillee replied: "Why?" Thomson told his mate that when he woke up with a hangover he was an angry man, a man who wanted to hurt someone, and that was normally an opposing batsman. Thomson took 5 for 38 in England's second innings and Australia won the Test by an innings and 85 runs.
It was in the Test that Graham Gooch famously bagged a pair on debut, and it was Gooch, the England beach cricket captain, who invited me to join him for three weeks of fun and frivolity in Australia. Darren Gough, as a current bowler, had been barred from playing after dominating the 2007 event and I was asked to replace him. It did not take me long to reach my decision – I had previously been paid a lot less to make a fool of myself in Australia, and that was when I was playing in the Ashes.
No, the prospect of spending three weeks travelling around Australia playing the occasional game of beach cricket was too good to turn down. I would be lying if I said the fee did not tempt me, but of equal attraction was the chance to spend time socialising with legends of the game. Lillee and Sir Richard Hadlee, who is playing for New Zealand, the third team in the tournament, were my heroes when I was growing up. Gooch, Allan Border and Martin Crowe are three of the players I admired most during my career, while Robin Smith, Gladstone Small, Chris Cairns and Darren Lehmann are great fun to be with.
My initial reaction to the concept of beach cricket 12 months earlier had been far from positive. Gough was in Gooch's side and there was a story going around that the veteran fast bowler would be called up to the England World Cup squad. The story gathered legs and the tabloids became excited, which resulted in myself, on a rare day off on tour, having to travel to Maroubra Beach in South Sydney to listen to Gough, and judge whether his performance on the beach was good enough for him to push for World Cup selection. It was a ridiculous situation and I travelled to the venue feeling that my involvement in cricket had reached a low point.
On arriving at Maroubra Beach, however, it was impossible not to get caught up with what was taking place. Nobody at the event, whether it be the sponsors, players or spectators, was taking things too seriously. Obviously the sponsors are there to get good publicity and the players were being paid to perform but the aim of everyone was simple – to have a relaxed, family-orientated, stress-free, fun day out. The goal was attained.
This year's opening event, played in Perth on 5 and 6 January, was a huge success, with a total of more than 7,000 people attending over the two days. England, the holders, won it as they did the second tournament in Adelaide in front of another 3,000 crowd a week ago. In Sydney at the weekend England failed to reach the regional final, where Australia were beaten by New Zealand. Australia, much to the delight of England and New Zealand, are having a bit of a shocker. Border's side will need to produce something special to reach the Grand Final but little sympathy is being shown towards them.
On each match day I have sat wondering whether such an event could take place in England and, sadly, the answer is probably no. At home the attitude towards occasions like these is far more cynical. In England life seems a lot more serious and everything has to take place for a reason; it has to have a point.
The Australian approach highlights just how much they love their sport and how highly they regard their heroes. Fathers turn up to show their appreciation for Lillee, Thomson and Border, and to give their children the chance to see them. Remarkably, they also seem to enjoy watching fatter, greyer and stiffer former players from other countries, too. On each of my three Ashes tours here spectators on the boundary constantly abused me, yet on this visit I am yet to hear a negative comment.
When the coach arrived at Scarborough beach in Perth for our first day of matches we were amazed to see spectators queuing for hundreds of yards up the road to get in. As the size of the crowd and the realisation that this was going out live on television dawned on us there was a collective sigh of dismay on the bus. I was not the only one to sit there thinking, "Perhaps I should have taken my preparation a little more seriously." Dion Nash, the former New Zealand all-rounder, informed everyone that it was a bigger crowd than they get for a one-day international at home. Those that were led astray by Tommo in a nearby pub the previous afternoon were especially sheepish.
In a last ditch attempt to make up for lost time most went out to the middle of the mini-arena for a bat or bowl. The event is meant to be light-hearted but, as is the case when a group of former professional sportsmen gather, there is a lot of pride at stake and nobody wants to make a fool of himself. Such emotions ensured that there was a competitive edge to the play.
It didn't take long for the physiotherapist to be called on and England needed him more than anyone. Hick (back), Smith (Achilles) and Small (shoulder) each required early treatment, as did Gooch when he tore a tendon in his right bicep bowling. Before long the players' tent resembled a scene from MASH.
I was omitted from England's first match – a defeat to New Zealand – and Gooch appeared to take great pleasure in informing me that Perth was not a great hunting ground for me. Gooch's injury, which received little sympathy from his team-mates, enabled me to make my debut and a resounding victory over the Aussies ensued.
The event contrasts markedly to that of the international game, whose image has recently been dragged through the dirt by the behaviour of players and officials in Australia. For many the trivial nature of beach cricket is more appealing than the serious, ill-tempered games taking place elsewhere. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Twenty20 has become such a hit – people turn up to escape real life not to get weighed down with major incidents.
The organisers intend to take the extravaganza to South Africa, India and even England, though it will be hard to find a beach quite as appealing as those here. When the cash cow that is Twenty20 has been milked dry and it is considered a long, drawn-out affair, who knows, perhaps eight-overs a-side beach cricket will replace it?
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