FIRST PUBLISHED IN SUNDAY EXPRESS MANY YEARS AGO.
Wine collector, cricket administrator, coach and a passionate cook… There’s more to Dennis Lillee than just fast bowling. V Ramnarayan recounts a refreshing experience.
The Leather Bat at the Park Hotel near the Gemini flyover was very nearly empty, but the music was blaring out at top volume. On the bar stools were two Australians: the great fast bowling legend Dennis Keith Lillee and his protégé Troy Cooley, England’s fast bowling coach.
The beer looked deliciously cold and the conversation was animated, passionate, and as is to be expected when Lillee is around, devoted to the science and technology of fast bowling.
I was the first of a small entourage of three from Sunday Express to join this thirsty, sunburnt duo reviving themselves after a gruelling day at the MRF Pace Foundation at the Madras Christian College campus at Harrington Road, Chetpet. The welcome from the Australian fast bowling guru was as always warm and spontaneous. He has a superb memory for people and places, a handy quality in a coach. Lillee remembered me from our meeting met more than a year ago, while introducing me to Cooley.
My friends from Sunday Express joined us soon, and we moved away from the loudest part of the bar, to a relatively quiet corner. It was like getting away from the raw pace of Jeff Thomson, only to have to face Lillee, for our new perch was only marginally less raucous. (Just in case you wonder if Lillee bowled gentle medium pacers, please disabuse yourself of any such notion. He had been clocked at 98mph before stress fractures of his lumbar vertebrae had nearly finished his career, but he came back adding vicious swing and seam to his arsenal, and at around 90mph, he was not far behind his young partner).
Now this conversation was not going to be about sheer pace, coaching or the MRF Pace Foundation, if I were to do my editor’s bidding. It should result in a portrait of Dennis Lillee the man, his interests other than cricket, his domestic skills, his new role in West Australian cricket and his efforts to moblise support for the recent tsunami victims.
First off, we learn that Australian’s greatest fast bowler loves to cook. Seafood is his speciality, and he explained to us how he could rustle up a quick, simple mean of scallops, marinated in lemon, with a bit of soy added, and some sauce or just a bit more lemon. By now warming to the theme, Lillee said, “I like to keep it simple, not add too many ingredients, call friends over. It goes down very well with white wine. If there’s a barbecue, I do the barbecue every time. I do the lasagna, simple things like that.”
We are to learn there are more hidden depths to the demon fast bowler. “I was househusband for two years,” he reveals. “Some ten years ago, my wife went back to university full time. My job then was the house. That included the washing, the ironing, the cooking. If I had to go away on business, I’d cook three or four meals and put the food in the freezer so that the family would have all the food they needed when I was away.”
“I enjoyed cooking even before this stint as homemaker, but during the period, I put time aside, in the first six months to cook good meals, to improve, expand my repertoire. I did not consult recipe books, but did some serious cooking. After six months of learning, I went back to quick lasagnas and barbecues.”
It was an interesting time, when Lillee learnt to be organized, to plan meals ahead. “I was lucky that the boys were adults now, and not school going children needing lunches to be packed and all that goes with the responsibility of parenting young kids.” Lillee still cooks, but gets some help from one of his sons who is a chef, and lends a hand with the finishing touches. “I time the cooking for him to come home from work when it is almost done. He takes a look at my handiwork and says, ‘Dad, you should do this, this and this,’ and I gladly hand over the rest of the cooking to him. We have this rule that whoever does the cooking, doesn’t have to do the dishes and invariably, there’s stiff competition for the cooking job.”
Lillee is also a wine lover, and has been collecting wines over the last twenty years. ‘It’s good to drink good wine with good food. Then you start to match your dishes. I have been more a wine lover than a cooking enthusiast in the last ten years,‘ says Lillee, who is not entirely comfortable with conventional thinking on the subject that draws strict lines of compatibility between particular foods and wines. “I am not so sure that red wine goes only with red meat and white wine with fish and so on. I don’t believe there’s any problem with Indian food and full-bodied wines. Indian vegetarian food goes beautifully with red wine, contrary to popular theories. I don’t believe in stocking up with white wine to go with seafood.”
Collecting wine has become a hobby with Lillee, and 90 per cent of his collection comprises heavier, full-bodied wines, and 80 per cent red wine, he informs us. “Besides collecting wine, I like drinking it,” he adds.
The conversation them turns to vegetarian food and we talk of the “bloody good food” at Anna Lakshmi restaurant, both in Chennai and Perth, where Lillee is a popular guest.
For someone who loves food and wine, Dennis Lillee is superbly fit, his muscular, tough frame belying his 55 years. When I asked what he had been doing since his last visit, to look even trimmer than before, he said he had been spending a lot of time in the gym, the treadmill replacing his earlier routine of 20-25 laps around the cricket ground or cross country running. He has recently taken to the Pilates fitness regime that is growing in popularity: After attending a few classes, Lillee bought himself a machine, which he has installed at home.
Finally, we come to Dennis Lillee’s newest role in cricket, that of getting involved in the administration. He was recently elected President of the Western Australian Cricket Association. For the first time in the interview, Lillee showed signs of embarrassment. “It’s not something I ever wanted to do. And all my friends rang me up and said, “This is not you”. ‘I agreed, but… WACA was financially going under. The former regime had taken a loan to build, redevelop the ground, and the repayment was to begin in June. We did not have the income to do that, as we only earned money for six days in the year, during a Test match and a couple of one-day games. We then went in as a group of people with a ticket. (Former Test cricketers Graeme Wood and Sam Gannon were nominated as vice presidents). We propose to sell parts of the ground, not the playing area, but newer developments of the ground to repay some of the debt. We met the government and they have agreed to lend us some money to help restructure the debt.”
The new regime plans to build a centre of excellence in partnership with the University of Western Australia, for main games, and locate practice pitches and other matches at another area. The idea is to develop it into a ‘boutiquy’ sort of ground in the long term.
Lillee is happy that these ideas of his team are being embraced by the older elements in the administration.
Anyone who knows the turbulent past of this magnificent but controversial fast bowler cannot help feeling slightly amused by this new found acceptance by those in authority. I asked him tongue-in-cheek, if he had even been in an adversarial position with the cricket board, expecting an interesting reaction, but completely unprepared for the deadly effect my words had on him. I caught him in the act of drinking water, and Lillee spluttered spectacularly into his glass, almost choking, as he tried to suppress his laughter. When he finally found his voice, he said, “it wasn’t very often that I wasn’t in an adversarial position with the WACA.”
To bring back the crowds, Lillee and Co., will try and make the atmosphere at the WACA more relaxed, more casual. “People can be dressed in casuals, children won’t have to wear polos and long socks, they can wear board shorts, T shirts. We are trying to make it all more human, get staff, the curators, the groundstaff involved, make the cricketers feel more involved. We’ll bring them all together.
“Eventually, we’ll have to trim a bit, become a leaner organization, to improve the lot of those who remain,” Lillee continues. “The board is in agreement, and Tony Dodemaide, the CEO, will soon have to make a decision on trimming the cloth.”
The WACA board has also decided to make a contribution to rehabilitation of tsunami victims. The idea is to take some 12 kids from the affected areas, and see them through the next five or six years. Lillee has his own ideas of how to go about it. He feels that the board should involve all the states, which can then adopt a village together. It is a democratic process and Lillee, who was not present when the WACA decision was made, will present his perspective at the next opportunity, but he will accept the decision of the board as final and play his part in the rehabilitation effort.
Lillee recently resigned his position in the Australian Cricket Academy, and he dropped one of his businesses, but that was only one of nine businesses he has been involved in. “It is a question of squeezing in time for one more activity, so I am evaluating my options. And there is an interesting coaching assignment in the offing.” Lillee is tightlipped about the country that has made the offer, but there have been reports that India, Sri Lanka and South Africa have approached the maestro, asking him to be the national fast bowling coach.
Lillee continues to be committed to the MRF Pace Foundation. He is proud of what has been accomplished here starting from nothing nearly two decades ago, to build something exciting, new and innovative. It has been recognized all over the world as the premier fast bowling coaching academy. “Most of the world’s fast bowlers come here to train, and that has been very rewarding for me and MRF,” he says with a deep sense of satisfaction.
From the MRF Pace Foundation to the job of India’s fast bowling coach seems a logical next step. The answer should be out soon.