Australia's fast-bowling great Dennis Lillee, his country's third-highest Test wicket-taker with 355 wickets from 70 matches, was not just a speed demon but a single-minded, tough-as-nails one. He bowled in an era when fast bowling was exhilarating, sexy and macho – as well as the primary way to win Test matches. Without a doubt one of the finest and fastest fast bowlers ever, Lillee overcame severe injury problems to become his country's highest wicket-taker until Shane Warne surpassed him. After retiring, Lillee took up the role of director of the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai, a role he held for 25 years.
He spoke to Cricketnext in Chennai on Sunday after ending his association with MRF. Excerpts.
You've been associated with the MRF Pace Academy for 25 years. How has India's attitude towards fast bowling changed since 1987?
Australia's legendary fast bowler on his 25-year association with India, the importance of hard work, the problems facing today's pacers and over-coaching.
When I first showed up in India, not many people gave me or the MRF Foundation a chance. I remember one of the early nights, I was sitting with one of the coaches having a beer or rum, and he said "Dennis, your job is going to be bloody difficult. In India, fast bowlers are ribbon-cutters. They inaugurate the new ball, take the shine of it in two overs and hand it over to the spinners. Good luck."
And really, back then in the 80s the concept of a great fast bowler was Kapil Dev and he was, lets face it, only medium fast. Great bowler, one of the best swing bowlers of all time, but not flat-out express pace. Beyond Kapil, it was a barren landscape. No fast bowlers.
Technically, there was virtually no concept of physical training or cardio. There was strength work or aerobic fitness. It just didn't exist. There was no guidance, which was surprising. The drill was show up, bowl in the nets, and turn your arms over. It was more about bowling in the nets for hours, which is the way someone becomes a little medium-pacer or trundler.
We changed all that, though it took a while. Today the understanding of fast bowling in India and what's required to be a fast bowler is there. The need to be mentally tough, have to work hard. Over here, in particular, you have to learn a lot about the varieties in your bowling so that when you get on flat wickets you've got another option to weasel out a batsman. Today there is a greater understanding of what's required, so young guys want to bowl fast.
I've used this example before, and I'll say it again. When Shane Warne came onto the scene, people said we would have a spin revolution and there would be plenty of spinners around. That never happened. Why? Because there are three places in a team for a fast bowler and only one for a spinner. There will always be fast bowlers. India realized that they needed fast bowlers to win them Test matches, especially overseas. Spin has a role to play; fast bowlers have a bigger role to play. So if you’ve got two or three in your team you've got a great start. From where it was, India has come a long way and it's got a depth of fast bowling talent.
You've worked with many Indian fast bowlers, many of whom have gone on to play for India. Who was the most naturally talented?
There's one you'd never know. The most naturally talented one was one that didn't last long at the Pace Foundation. He had a work ethic of a four year old, unfortunately. He could bowl quickly, the quickest I've ever seen anyone in India bowl, but he was always getting injured and his work ethic was as bad as I've seen. I had to kick him out. But he was the best, most natural.
Who was this?
It's long gone, mate. No point bringing it out. He's probably moved long on. But from the ones who've succeeded, I'd have to say Zaheer Khan. He's had great success. He didn't start as a complete bowler, but neither did Glenn McGrath or myself. But Zaheer has become that complete bowler. You've got to have longevity in the game, otherwise your pace slows down. You need to have the ability to reinvent yourself, that's the key to being a good bowler over a long period of time. Zaheer has that.
The major question today is - who after Zaheer?
India's got depth in their fast-bowling stocks. There's a lot of talent. There's plenty of promise. The guys coming out, like Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron, are good talents. The issue is nurturing. They've got the basics right, now they need to be well managed. I have no doubt about the talent in India.
What is about Sreesanth that keeps him from being a consistent fast bowler for India?
You'd have to ask him. But I would say that he started doing a lot of things differently. You've got to stick to the basics. Keep it simple. You have to know yourself complete and have that mental strength and self belief. You need a good work ethic and strong mental ability. That’s what we have tried to instill at MRF. Whether the boy can take it all on board or not, we cannot control that. Some guys won't have McGrath's mental toughness. There's mental toughness and then there's the other side of it, which is the ability to work out batsmen, what the conditions are like. Toughness is when it's bloody hot and the wicket is flat; it’s your approach to training. You can't instill that. You can show and tell them.
There is a concern that fast bowlers are over-coached, spending too much time in the gym. Right here in India, Irfan Pathan began with so much promise, but then bulked up in the gym and had different bowlers telling him different ways to hold the ball, position the wrist, angle the body. Is this concern a valid one?
Let's address the Irfan issue, since it's been spoken about so often here in India. I have no doubt at all, and in fact I'd be willing to put my house on this, that it had nothing to do with Irfan's fitness of strength training. It had a lot to do with his technique. I know, because I watched him. He didn’t change the technical problem and that's why he had problems. Had he changed it, he would have been fine. Obviously he's put in a lot of work and made a comeback to the Indian team, but it's taken a lot of time for the penny to drop. Sometimes when you're doing really well you don't want to listen to anyone. Then you hit rock bottom.
As for over-coaching, I think it is a concern when the coaches tour with the team. Let that happen at home before you go on tour. When you're away, just focus in the nets. In my day we just ran in and ran in and bowled. We didn't hit the gym as much as they do to today. For us, coaching meant go and bowl your rear end off in the nets. I'm talking flat-out pace, two-three hours a day. Today there is a lot of coaching and rightly so, because times have changed, but sometimes sticking to the simplest method is the best way.
Len Pascoe once said that it is very hard to explain really fast bowling to someone who can't do it. Have you found this true?
Yeah. Even when you're coaching young kids, it isn't easy. You don't want to overawe them, complicate their thinking and actions. You work with them. You may see a kid with plenty of pace, raw pace, but he's all over the place. The challenge then is to sit him down and first of all explain the mechanics of fast bowling. You've got to get him sorted in the head. Its interesting to hear McGrath point out that what I was doing with fast bowlers around Australia 20 years ago is the same today. Nothing's changed. We've hardly ever changed an action unless it's a train smash.
If it's a train smash, he’s going to injure himself. If he doesn't change, he’s going to give up cricket. We can try to help him, but it's more about tweaking his action to make it safe and more efficient. Then we teach him the nuances of fast bowling. And of course there's fitness and strengthening.
Is fast bowling intrinsic?
It is absolutely intrinsic, but it can be honed. It's an adrenalin rush. The only way to learn how to bowl fast is to bowl. Period.
Injuries and fitness play a major part of a fast bowler's career. Your career looked to be over after you broke down with a spinal stress fracture in 1973, but you made a famous recovery. Does today's younger generation understand this more than say someone starting out as a fast bowler in the 70s?
There's no substitute for bloody hard work. I didn't wave a magic wand over my fractures to make them fine. There was intense training involved to make sure that my core was great shape to take a lot of the load off my spine. I also had to modify my action and make sure it didn't go back to what it was before, which was a major part of the problem. I guess I slowed my pace down a little bit as well. I probably still bowled up in the 90mph mark, sometimes up in the mid-90s when I let one go.
I don’t know if there's the infrastructure in place for today's kids to learn about all that hard word and what to do to come back. Sometimes when there's too much support staff, you almost let them to the work for you. You've got to do the work yourself. I think you leave no stone unturned.
There's no doubt that the amount of cricket being played today is a lot more, but I'd like someone to analyze the number of overs that were being bowled 30 years ago and that are being bowled now. That includes in training. It's the same thing, if you are bowling flat out. I think if you did this you would see how much difference there is. The problem is so many games on top of each other. There's not the rest you could get. Even though you're bowling in the nets you need to rest from that intense bowling in a Test match or one-dayer or Twenty20. I think we've just got to have a good look at that.
Today's fast bowler is faced with a packed calendar, flat tracks and three formats. Has this made life tougher?
It certainly has. It's hard to maintain bowling serious pace over a long period of time when you're playing so many games. You would have to train for that and work out how you could survive doing that. I think with different formats you learn to bowl within yourself. That can help, because you can get more accuracy and movement. But flat-out pace will be hard to sustain. In my time we also bowled a lot of overs, and in practice we bowled flat-out for two and a half hours. Then we played grade cricket and Shield cricket. Today's player is playing at the top level all the time and that makes it difficult to keep up your pace all the time.
What was your philosophy to fast bowling?
You need to have a never-say-die attitude. You need to realize that you're not going to get wickets by bowling three or four amazing balls in an over. You're going to get wickets by out-thinking a batsman, changing your pace, your angles. Even silly things like a fast legspinner. I had a saying which a lot people laughed at, and that was that I was prepared to die out on the pitch. And I was prepared to die on out the pitch to take a wicket. That was my attitude and attitude means a lot.
I would try a different method to getting someone out, which would take longer. When a batsman saw us flag, when a guy was in there and really doing well, I didn't see too many people put their hands up to bowl. I would go up to the captain and say give me the ball, I want to bowl. It was bloody hard work but I knew that one thing was for certain – if I wasn't bowling there was no chance of taking wickets. At least if I was there, no matter how difficult the conditions, I got some chance of taking a wicket.
Is intimidation a big part of bowling fast? Jeff Thomson, man you bowled a little bit with, said it was a vital part of his arsenal.
It is, but you don't have to snarl at a batsman. If you're really quick, you’ll put fear in him; make his mind starting asking questions and do things he won't want to. Put in the hard work, the results will follow. I can't stress on that enough for aspiring fast bowlers.