Zaheer is the complete fast bowler: Lillee
Mumbai, June 27: It’s hard to believe that Sachin Tendulkar could face rejection on the cricket field. Perhaps the only time it happened was when Dennis Lillee put an end to the young hopeful’s fast bowling ambitions, in 1987. The diminutive and skinny 14-year-old boarded the Chennai-Mumbai train with dejection in his heart. Lillee has been quoted as saying, “I did the game a favour by rejecting him then.” The words were said in jest but ring true nonetheless.
That incident is one of the first memories that Lillee has of his 25-year-long association with the MRF Pace Foundation, the organisation he played a pivotal role in setting up, nurturing and turning into one of the best known fast-bowling havens in the world. As the Australian fast bowling legend prepares to pass on the baton to a younger man with a fresh perspective, he spoke to bcci.tv about his experience of coaching Indian pacemen, his favourite students and the changing face of fast bowling.
Change of guard
Having devoted 25 years of his life to the academy, Lillee bids it an emotional adieu. But his decision is based on sound logic.
“It is obviously very emotional to leave a lifetime’s work – it’s been 25 years and this foundation feels like one of my children. We started it as a baby with nothing and now we’ve brought it thus far where it’s recognised as one of the world’s best. I spoke to the people at MRF and told them that the time has come when I need to be more at home. I still love coaching but at the age of 62 I’m not prepared to travel to do it anymore. Also, after 25 years it’s important for the foundation to get some fresh blood and fresh ideas and be a bit more updated. They reluctantly accepted what I wanted to do.”
Fighting the tradition
A hostile Australian fast bowler in his day, Lillee was bound to face hurdles while finding his feet as a mentor in a country with a weak fast-bowling culture.
“The problem was that I was fighting against a tradition. The guys used to run in the nets and bowl for two hours, which makes anyone almost a spinner. I got them to spend an hour in the nets and then supplement that with a lot of physical training such as endurance work, core strength, stability – the kind of drills that strengthen your body without making it bulky. This is one objective that I’ve successfully achieved here.”
Turning down the Master
The mention of Sachin Tendulkar instantly brings a smile on Lillee’s face. He recalls the time when he saw the champion bat for the first time.
“Every time I see Sachin Tendulkar play, it makes me smile and reminds me of a 14-year-old boy who wanted to become a fast bowler but ended up becoming the world’s greatest batsman. We had batsmen coming all the time from all over the country so that our bowlers could practice against them. I was telling my boys how to bowl to this young boy and didn’t know who he was. All of a sudden this small guy was smashing my bowlers all over the park. I asked TA Sekar who he was. He told me, ‘You’ve seen him before’. I said, ‘No way. I would remember someone like this’. He said, ‘You rejected him last year as a fast bowler’. I said, ‘Well, I’ve done him a favour’.
Adapting to different formats
Lillee ruled the cricket pitch in the 1970s and 80s. Unlike many greats of his generation, this legend understands the demands of the ever-changing game and the need to adapt to the different formats.
“When I first played one-day cricket, we set the field for a first-class match – six or seven slips, no man out, one fine-leg and that’s about it. As people learnt the game, adapted different shots, we had to change our fields and the way we bowled. We couldn’t bowl a good out-swinger and hope to get a wicket because we had fewer fielders in the slip. So we started firing the ball towards and into the stumps and tried to contain [the batsmen]. The variety in the bowling has become paramount. We messed around with slower balls when I played club cricket and didn’t use them much in a game. But today a guy who bowls very good slower balls becomes an important bowler in T20s. As a mentor, I understand and acknowledge that and train my wards for the challenges presented by different formats.”
Pool of bowlers
Lillee refuses to accept that Indian fast bowlers are physically more fragile than their Australian or South African counterparts. He puts down the injury worries to ever-swelling fixtures and identifies it as an area worth paying attention to.
“Injuries to fast bowlers is not an Indian phenomenon; it’s a worldwide issue. Look at Australia – we’ve gone through about eight different fast bowlers recently. It’s got to do with the nature of the game and the fact that there’s so much cricket on these days. There are matches non-stop without much rest. That can cause a lot of injuries because you’re repeating that action all the time and your body will get tired at some point. I think this is something we need to look at in the long term and devise a system where you have a pool of six to nine bowlers you can rotate. Countries like Australia are already looking at that and in the future that’s what will have to happen.”
Pace vs. longevity
The increasing workload and pressure of playing three formats has tempted many fast bowlers to drop their pace in the interest of extending their careers. Lillee, who himself was forced to take that path due to a career-threatening injury, talks about the issue.
“It’s a hard one because I believe that if you have the ability to bowl fast and if you’re an integral part of the team for bowling fast, you bowl as fast as you can for as long as you are effective. The pace starts to drop at around the age of 29-30 and once that happens, you have to make a decision if you want to stay in the game. If you do, you’ve got to drop a bit of pace, but add variety and be a smarter bowler. And all the greats over the years have done just that. I wouldn’t be dropping my pace too early. If you can bowl 150-plus, use the ability while you can.”
But isn’t it tough for a tearaway fast bowler, who is used to seeing terror in the eyes of batsmen, to forego that intimidating effect? Lillee went through a similar transformation.
“It’s a good point. It’s not that easy but in my case, I had no choice. I had three stress fractures in my back and I didn’t know [much] about them then so I was out of the game for 18 months. I didn’t like that too much because I loved the game and I loved bowling. At different times I was recorded to touch the 160 kph-mark and then I dropped to around 145. It was tough but at least it gave me a chance to stay in the game. But then I had to become very smart, develop other balls, learn to watch the batsman and find his weakness and then try to get him out by playing on that. I didn’t just run in and bowl a good line and length hoping that the batsman would nick the ball. I liked to create the opportunity by finding the batsman’s weakness, bowling in different areas. That was my modus operandi.”
The favourite pupil
Few bowlers are able to retain their effectiveness after dropping some of their pace. Lillee, arguably the best among them, thinks Zaheer Khan has walked that path brilliantly. Widely considered as the most complete fast bowler ever to have played the game, the Australian legend gives the honour to the best left-arm paceman India has produced.
“I’ve seen Zaheer since he came to the Pace Foundation aged 17 or 18. He touched 145-148 kph then and was a very successful bowler doing that. When I last saw him bowl, during the recent tour to Australia, I saw a smarter and a much better bowler. He is what I call a complete fast bowler. I also thought the same of Richard Hadlee. He too tried to bowl as fast as he could till 27 or 28. He then decided to shorten his run-up and become a very smart bowler; he became one of the better bowlers that I’ve ever seen. Zaheer has certainly developed into a great fast bowler.”
The right pitch
25 years of mentoring India’s fast bowling has convinced Lillee of one thing: there is no dearth of talent in this department. If India’s pacemen are aided by playing conditions, they can be a force to reckon with at the highest level.
“I’ve said it for 25 years I’ve been coming here. To improve the standard of fast bowling in India, we need to prepare wickets assisting this breed of bowlers. The pitches need not be extremely fast and bouncy – a lot of Australian wickets are not like that. But they need to have good carry and produce a good contest between bat and ball. A good wicket with a bit of pace and a little bit of bounce produces a good game of cricket and a good spectacle for the people watching it.”
With Dennis Lillee’s retirement, the Pace Foundation is faced with the unenviable task of replacing the perfect mentor. Lillee has given them 12-months’ notice and hopes the organisation will utilise the time in finding the right man to take his legacy forward.