Australian cricketer Dennis Keith Lillee speaks to Prince Frederick about his glorious innings as a fast bowler and as a coach at the MRF Pace Foundation
Taking a break from a joint coaching session with Glenn McGrath at the MRF Pace Foundation, Dennis Keith Lillee settles down for a chat with an I-don’t-want-to-do-this look on his face. Before the recorder is flipped on, he issues a warning, “I have just ten minutes for you!” I conclude that Lillee is as outspoken as ever, but somewhere along the ten minutes, it becomes clear the fast bowler with a temperament as fiery as his spells, has aged well, much like the wines he ages in his huge cellar at home. As the 63-year-old legend begins to talk about the milestones in his career, the passing of the mantle to McGrath, his difficulties in facing a camera and a crowd during his younger days, the tone shifts from cold to friendly.
Can you recall the fiery spell in the second test of the World XI vs Australia series (1971-72), in which you took eight wickets for 29, scalping Gavaskar, Sobers and Lloyd in the process?
The one thing I remember about that spell is that I bowled fast. The rhythm and everything else were right. The other thing I remember about the day is that I had had too much breakfast and, as a result, began to feel sick, I think, after the fourth over. I told Ian Chappell how I felt and he asked me if I could bowl one more over. I said, “I’ll try.” After that, Ian could not take the ball out of my hand. I forgot my sickness because the wickets kept falling.
In 1984, you bowed out of international cricket in style. In your last Test, played against Pakistan in Sydney, you took eight wickets with the last one coming off the very last ball you bowled. Had you planned to leave, when the going was good?
Absolutely. The best way to go is when people say you are bowling at your best. And when I had decided to leave at the end of the series, Richie Benaud made a comment on television that I was bowling as well I as ever bowled before. That observation settled the issue — it confirmed that I had made the right decision.
But you tried to make a comeback in 1987. Your first ball — bowled for Tasmania — fetched a wicket. But it was failed comeback attempt. What went wrong?
It was not in my plans to make a comeback. Allan Border wanted me to return to international cricket and I followed his advice. The attempt fell through because of political moves by one person very high up in the team who did not want me around. As I did not want to waste all the training I had done, I decided to play for Tasmania and later, went on to play for Northamptonshire.
Do you think you could have had a longer career had you not called it a day, in 1984?
I know I could have played for another five or six years. But my heart was not in it. And that’s one of the reasons I am giving up coaching here. If your heart is not totally in it, you will get stale. I felt I was getting stale. And I am not enjoying the travel anymore. I decided I could do something else such as coaching online, which would allow me to work from home. I have been doing a lot of things and I am trying to slow down.
Tell us about the events that led up to McGrath taking over from you.
I told MRF I was going to leave after 25 years and so I gave them a year’s notice. I said I would be happy to work with them to find a good replacement. There were half-a-dozen or more people in the reckoning. After whittling down the list, McGrath was finally chosen. He is a great bowler who is keen on getting into coaching. He admits he has not done much coaching but we all have to start somewhere. As one of the greatest fast bowlers ever, he brings his amazing experience to the Foundation and I am sure the boys will look up to him.
Will being free of this coaching commitment leave you with more time for other things? Do you have hobbies?
I am a big collector of wine. I have a huge cellar and like to age my wines so that I can bring them out after 10, 15 or 20 years, if they have matured.
You promote a diversity of products and make appearances. You appear to be enjoying the job...
Truth be told, I used to be extremely nervous facing a camera and would forget my lines. But it has become easier over the years. As you get older, you relax more. I should say I really enjoy doing these promotions.