Dennis Lillee relaxes by the pool
© Getty Images


The thirty-ninth summer of DK Lillee

What if there was an office he could go to, shut the door, do the thing that was inside him and no one ever had to see it?

Christian Ryan  |  

Lillee in crotch-high shorts, black-bearded and leonine, stands by the bonnet of a second-hand Toyota Land Cruiser, which is parked on a side street just off a highway somewhere mid-Australia in the middle of 1985. The hair is thick on his cheeks and chin, tufty on top of his head. Sunglasses balanced at 70 degrees do not hide the encroaching baldness. It is not long since he exited the first-class scene, and within weeks - it may have been days - of that newsflash he was dictating to his ghostwriter fragments of a paragraph that ended up reading, in part, "What I'll be doing five years down the track is anyone's guess… The only thing certain is that I won't be playing cricket." Three years and seven months the promise held good. Then he was back, on a comeback, but before that, not wanting that, perhaps in some shadowy way sensing or foreseeing that, and trying to stave that off, he was here, nowhere, off the highway, beside the Toyota - not leaning on it, standing - with one arm in a slung-out embrace of his two young sons, the other curled round the tummy of his wife, Helen, whose own arm, the cushiony inner part of it, was locked snug into the cuddle, holding Lillee close.

A friend had hand-selected the Toyota. Lillee tied a tent and mattresses to its roof. First night of his cricketing afterlife was in a motel bed. At Monkey Mia they camped on the sand with the sandflies, next to a lone tree. They put the tent up again in a caravan park at Halls Creek. To the south and east, inland, were salt lakes and sand dunes, accessible via tracks so faint they could have been constructed in Braille. North went the Lillees. Strangers would approach, say "How you going, DK?", so he shaved his head and facial hair, remaking himself hairless, nearly unrecognisable. Darwin was a place of pubs with easywash tiled floors where people with heady, twisted histories could come and find forgiveness, feelings of belonging, start fresh. The Lillees paused, drove on: 28,000 kilometres by his estimation, clapping eyes on half the circumference of Australia, down to Katherine, taking the Kakadu turn-off, up through Jabiru and along the Gulf of Carpentaria, near where the young naturalist David Attenborough fell into conversation with old Jack Mulholland of Borroloola decades earlier. Mulholland used to go out prospecting, be away three weeks, not much luck.

Who could guarantee the next ball he bowled wouldn't be more devastating than each of the 43,336 first-class balls he bowled before?

"Isn't that a bit disappointing?" enquired the young naturalist.

"Not at all… Money's no good to you."

"It can make life comfortable and easy."

"Buy yerself a few luxury yachts? Drink it? Spend it on beautiful women? If I've learnt one thing in my life, it is that the measure of a man's riches are the fewness of his wants."

By night Lillee lit campfires. "Fire," he'd once said, painting his own childhood, "was a fascination for me." Following the tip of Queensland, they crossed Cape York: Weipa, Aurukun, Coen. On a bank of the Archer River he ran into Queensland's fat police minister, Russ Hinze. This was a couple of years before the bribes accepted by the notorious "minister for everything" were found to tally four million and he quit. Lillee sat himself down on Hinze's side of the river, around Hinze's fire, fixing himself a rum with coke and blowing on a didgeridoo while Hinze accompanied him on guitar. Lillee's beard and moustache had grown back, bushy and black. Some regrowth was happening up top, too. But between where the beard ended and his receding hairline resumed was an inch-high gap. He was an alarming, hideous sight. "I have always felt myself to be alone, isolated" - so went a diary entry of explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, on penetrating this part of the world - "and the surroundings… reflect nothing whatever but my own voice, like an echo." Leichhardt, in Cape York, had childhood flashbacks at night. Lillee heard commitments calling out to him from the south: a wedding he had to go to, some possible business openings, the prospect of a trial column with a newspaper. Trip over. He vowed someday he'd return.

Hungry like the wolf: Lillee draws on the dregs of the tank for Northants in 1988

Hungry like the wolf: Lillee draws on the dregs of the tank for Northants in 1988 © Getty Images

Lillee had mates whose cricketing afterlives stretched out safe and far as the eye could see in the Channel Nine commentary box. But Lillee, on TV, came across as sort of gauche. So he wave-skied, in a wetsuit, and other times wearing dick stickers, tackling Perth's beaches and the shark waters near Margaret River, the rumoured demon rider, seeking out the humongous waves, never hanging back, getting in close to the jagged rocks, which required bravery, admittedly a bravery he had a choice about, no one was pointing a paddle at his head, but it was a rung or two above the faux bravery of bowling fast in a cricket match. The stakes were lower, though. On the waves, it was just DK and the waves. Cricket had always felt like DK against the world.

There was a New Yorker writer, Joseph Mitchell, a candidate in his day for world's greatest living reporter. For the last 31 years and six months of his career he went to the magazine's office, stepped out of the lift, a typewriter's clacks frequently discernible from the other side of the wall near the desk where he sat. He did not hand in a single piece.

What if there was an Australian Test team office where Lillee could go daily, shut the door behind him, draw an income, do the thing that was inside him and he was compelled to do, and no one ever had to see it?

There was not. And, short of bedding down with the muck of the rest of them in a nine-to-five job that actually existed, the destiny awaiting Lillee was the unshirkable destiny of the slow-ageing ex-champ - tea and toast downstairs with, in Joe DiMaggio's case, his widowed sister; blue bathrobe over thin pyjamas; a dawning day ahead of wheeling, cadging, trying to drum stuff up, too much daytime drinking, meetings with sycophants and second-rate opportunists skating on your reputation, golf, too many unasked-for wanderings down memory's lane, enough that the lane constricts, narrows, becomes a tunnel. Destiny yeah, or nah. Maybe he could delay it.

Lillee bailed Botham out of a Perth jail after Botham played Rubik's cube with a fellow passenger's head. He arrived with the bail loot and a six-pack of beer

The comeback began at a beachside Perth club team, Scarborough. Then when his own state wouldn't pick him he temporarily upped sticks to Tasmania. He was slower, still sage-like, still hissy-fitting like the old DK, moderately successful and none of it prepared anyone for the shock twist of a sponsor's rep in a kangaroo costume peering over DK's bowling shoulder beside an artificial practice pitch at the County Ground nets.

Lillee was there on a Wednesday in May to pronounce himself present and fit to play four-fifths of a season with long-slumbering Northamptonshire. And he wasn't content simply saying he was ripe for it, he wanted to show them. So they all, reporters and cameramen, trekked out after him to the nets, a place he first visited the day before when he whistled the wind through opening batsman Wayne Larkins for a solid hour to work off jet lag. The great DK Lillee was battling a chest cold, from the flight. He had on tracksuit pants. Also, he had on two sweaters. And beneath the sweaters he had on an indeterminate number of shirts, the top-layer shirt swaddled so high up his neck, past the throat, that it was unclear how many shirts he had on underneath it. There was a hint of some comb-over action. A few of the more questing reporters turned up - guys like Selvey, and Alan Lee - and inside, while the rain hit the panes, they bombarded him with why, why, why and DK could only list the why nots. All two of them. Not because he still had ambitions. Not for money.

Next day, same location, Northants were hosting Gloucestershire. Six hundred-odd spectators were in though all England wanted to see him. They watched the weather keep the players off until two, at which point Northants batted, so Lillee sat, an anticlimax. Early afternoon the following day he bowled his first three balls. His fourth, landing mid-pitch, smacked someone named Andy Stovold's glove. His eighth was a shade slower and wider, tempting Stovold into driving at it. Coiling through the gap between Stovold's flapping arms and the stumps went the ball, offcutter, bowled him, like clockwork, a very old clock and Lillee was tweezering back the clock's hands to stop their ticking. That night while he slept was the day of the passing back home of Austin Robertson. Austin was a white-haired gentleman Lillee held deep down in his heart and the father of Lillee's ghostwriter, also Austin, or "Ock". Lillee credited Austin Sr with teaching him how to run. When Lillee ran to the crease next evening, second innings, every beat of the motion was familiar: pause, look up, abrupt tilt-forward of the chest, look down, then a rhythmic, speeding-up lope.

Joseph Mitchell of the <i>New Yorker</i>: exhilarating, unwriterly writing

Joseph Mitchell of the New Yorker: exhilarating, unwriterly writing © Associated Press

Six for 68 he took. He had on a thermal vest. A yorker got Bill Athey and Terry Alderman failed to hack away an offcutter, two of four men out bowled; bumpers, legcutters, outswingers were sighted. In Darlington for a one-dayer he bowled nine tight overs against Minor Counties. Eleven overs against Worcestershire were less tight but entrapped Ian Botham, out caught in the deep. Hitting the County Ground for Lillee's second Championship match were Leicestershire. He'd played them before, on tour with Australia in 1972, when he secretly pouched a tennis ball tossed onto the field and instead of bowling the cricket ball Lillee went whang with the tennis ball, which was white. A perplexed and stunned Bob Massie fielding at fine leg thought Lillee, so slippery, had turned the ball white hot. Not today. Today balls were veering leg side, something to maybe mull over while catching breaths down by the long-leg boundary. An autograph-seeking vicar pressed his body against the fence. Lillee, oblivious to the vicar's clamouring, kept his gaze fixed on the pitch. The vicar could not break it. A moment later the ball rolled Lillee's way and he was chasing it in new boots with long spikes when he turned, slipped and heard a crack, which was the cracking of a bone in his right ankle, and every ligament was torn as well.

"You're finished," the surgeon said.

Joseph Mitchell's office and the $20,000 salary he retained through the goings and comings of four New Yorker editors was a mark of respect and even awe towards the champ he once was. Also: maybe - who'd swear against it? - the thing he was sweating over and not handing in for 31-plus years would be his greatest piece yet. No obvious clues suggested it mightn't be. He left his apartment with a pencil and piece of paper folded three times into a rectangle in his jacket pocket. About nine he reached the office, so immersed in the thought he was thinking he'd merely nod, no words, at any passer-by in the hall. Some mornings he spontaneously marched straight past the office like it hadn't entered his line of vision and instead walked for hours to and around some place familiar or unfamiliar, the scene of an old story perhaps. On leaving the office about six, outside the lift, he occasionally let out a sigh. Maybe the piece was getting closer? Everyone hoped so. Mitchell's writing had an unwriterliness about it that made him exhilarating to read. "The words," marvelled his New Yorker colleague Calvin Trillin, "seemed to have materialised on the page through no human effort."

Somebody, whined the couple next door, had been proclaiming "I love Duran Duran" on the footpath at 5.30am. "Oh," came the reply, "that was Dennis"

Mitchell's last piece that ran was "Joe Gould's Secret", which ran in 1964 and was a sequel, 22 years in the waiting, to "Professor Sea Gull". Both pieces were about real-life, shabby-suited Joe Gould of Greenwich Village. Gould was basically homeless, invariably hungry, often hung-over yet claimed to have translated famous American poems into the language of the seagull. Gould had been working 26 years on a book called "An Oral History of Our Time". It was nine million words long, still unfinished, 11 times longer than the Bible and seven feet high if you stacked together the school-type composition books he scribbled in, and he scribbled in them in parks, libraries, doorways, cafés, and bar & grill booths, and on subway trains and platforms. Soon after meeting a new person, Gould would say "Did you ever have a painful operation or disease?", and the conversations that followed, as well as other conversations Gould eavesdropped on, would form the meat of the Oral History. Wrote Mitchell:

Gould was a perfect example of a type of eccentric… the solitary nocturnal wanderer, and that was the aspect of him that interested me most, that and the Oral History… He seems to be a perfectionist; he seems to be determined to keep on writing new versions of each of his subjects until he gets one that is absolutely right.

"He was like the serious painter who sees his new work is missing some core kernel that his old work had, so he bins it" © Getty Images

Lillee - he loved to run alone, in the still-dark morning - could have been anxious to perfect a particular ball, or methodology, or some matter of technique, or some element of his bowling personality. Who could guarantee the next ball he bowled wouldn't be more devastating than each of the 43,336 first-class balls he bowled before coming to Northamptonshire? Maybe there was something he had never got absolutely right. And when he stopped playing the thought of it bugged him, improbable as all that sounds. This was DK, he who'd bowled faster than anyone who could bowl better and better than anyone who ever bowled faster. But consider this, something so fundamental: Lillee's mate and wicketkeeping ally Rod Marsh (of DK's comeback, Marsh said - "you couldn't help but admire him… but then you couldn't also help thinking, what an idiot!") felt Lillee had a weakness bowling to left-handers (an intriguing theory and, not that this is conclusive, if you count down Lillee's 355 Test wickets, upper-order or essentially capable left-handers equal 12.9%).

He wasn't finished. The surgeon mis-forecast. But whether Lillee's unresolved business was left-handers, something else, or nothing, it had to wait. After the crack, the next noise he heard was laughter from the spectators, one of whom, Simon Hendy, had a camera and snapped the moment of tender human frailty as Lillee was chaired off the County Ground, like a partial re-enactment of the gold-bordered Centenary Test victory photos from 1977 when Gary Cosier and Greg Chappell hoisted Lillee high on their shoulders. Except in Hendy's photo Richie Norman, who was Northants' physio, and Rob Bailey are holding Lillee much closer to ground. An arm under each weathered Lillee knee, they are grimacing.

Gould… is extraordinarily responsive to alcohol. "On a hot night," he says, "I can walk up and down in front of a gin mill for ten minutes, breathing real deep, and get a jag on."

The past was a bitch, a heavy weight. He was like the serious painter who sees his new work is missing some core kernel that his old work had, so he bins it

Lillee's drink was rum with dry ginger, or rum with coke, also port, chardonnay, red wine or beer. Coincidentally admitted to South Bank Hospital in Worcester on the same day as Lillee was in a hospital bed in Northampton was "Both" [Botham], which must have been a blow to "Wot" ["World's Oldest Teenager" - Lillee], who spent the first Saturday night after his injury at "Lamby's" [Allan Lamb's] house. Botham was getting two spinal vertebrae fused, ruling him out of much fun, a pity, as Lillee and him had a history of fun including a recent get-together, two weeks before his signing with Northamptonshire, when Lillee bailed Botham out of a Perth jail after Botham played Rubik's cube with a fellow plane passenger's head. Even that was fun: Lillee arrived with the bail loot and a six-pack of beer.

Lillee and Lamb had in common a zest for fishing and the great outdoors. Nights at Lamby's were about as outdoors as things got during the next seven weeks. DK was in a rented house in a suburb of Northampton. Twice-daily he saw a physio, an hour's drive each way, Lillee working the brake and accelerator with his non-injured left foot. He appeared on Wogan, the same Friday that Eartha Kitt was on. He was spotted at Wardown Park in Luton walking laps. Sixteen days later at the County Ground, with Lancashire in town, he had graduated to a trot. In the sweep of cricket literature, few sadder sentences are known than these: "I have to admit it was pretty lonely in the house. Helen and the kids came over in school holidays but I rattled around it when I was there by myself."

This was DK, the stars' star, who in his heyday crashed two Clive James poems, including 1984's "A Gesture Towards James Joyce" -

… In the same way that a bouncer from Dennis Lillee
Has its overture of giant strides galumphing towards you
With the face both above and below the ridiculous moustache
Announcing by means of unmistakable grimaces
That what comes next is no mere spasm
But a premeditated attempt to knock your block off

- plus the flute-propelled album closer, "No Restrictions", on Men At Work's Cargo.

Hear the cricket calling, switch on the TV
Sit and stare for hours, and cheer Dennis Lillee

Lillee in the Old Trafford Test of Botham's Ashes: the year his mum thought he might do well to hang it up

Lillee in the Old Trafford Test of Botham's Ashes: the year his mum thought he might do well to hang it up © PA Photos

Duran Duran's Andy Taylor was stoked to find himself in the company of Lillee - "a proper drinker and I got drunk with him on Jack Daniel's" - at a party at Oz pop guru Molly Meldrum's house. The delight was mutual. Somebody, whined the couple next door, had been proclaiming "I love Duran Duran" on the footpath at 5.30am. "Oh," came the reply, "that was Dennis." He inspired a one-off character Dennis of the Lillees in a UK special of The Paul Hogan Show. Who'd Hoges persuade to act in the role, which involved a mask, a bare hairy chest, crotch-clinging black trousers? Oh, that would be DK.

There was another script which Lillee and Helen had been fine-tuning. This was the cricketing afterlife script. The denouement was never ever intended to be MORE CRICKET. He was 17 when they met, she 14. They lived in houses situated back to back and tore down the pickets of the fence separating the two houses to be together. After three years they were married. A year after that he made the Test team, and he had been in it only a small number of years when they began wistfully mapping a golden life phase when he would no longer be in it. He wanted to cook more. He longed to do sketches in charcoal. She had visions of family outings. They craved simply being together, with the kids, in their red-brick Karrinyup home with its flashes of the ocean through the windows and of Victor Trumper straight driving in a poster above the bar, and the racks of all the cassettes and LPs he was addicted to yet barely able to feed his addiction, and the ceramic knick-knacks he had picked out but painfully lacked the time to enjoy. There'd be a lot more, they agreed, of that. Of being.

After retiring, Lillee wanted to cook more. He longed to do sketches in charcoal. His wife had visions of family outings. They craved simply being together, with the kids

She said on a 1979 episode of This is Your Life: "I'm happy for him to be a cricketer but I won't be sad when it's all over and he is home for a while."

He told Australian Women's Weekly, 1977: "The limelight is plastic, and I'll be glad to be out of it."

His mum Shirley said in 1981 that about "now" was the time to stop. "But it's his life." Shirley out of everyone might have guessed the worst for Dennis and his right ankle in Northamptonshire. They were so fragile, his ankles, she used to pack him off to school in shoes with ankle straps. Even then he fell over.

That was at Belmay Primary in "the remotest capital… I have never found a place I like more than Perth". On getting back from the office, Joseph Mitchell unwrapped the wrappers round a local paper of the North Carolina county he was born in, which he subscribed to, dispatching page one with a glance then poring over "Deaths and Funerals" on page two, and he started subscribing soon after leaving home when any reminder of home made him so homesick his breathing went amok.

Lillee's other team-mates have moved on to a life talking about cricket, but it wasn't one he was cut out for

Lillee's other team-mates have moved on to a life talking about cricket, but it wasn't one he was cut out for © AFP

"Oh, I'm doing all right," Gould said, smiling complacently. "I'm doing fine… You know how bohemians are. They profess to disdain money, but they lose all control of themselves and go absolutely berserk at the slightest indication of the remotest hint of the faintest trace of a smell of it."

Lillee was on about 30k once you added some office-equipment company sponsorship to the county's money. Part of the job involved teaching and encouraging others, which at this juncture of Lillee's life was no job at all, more a compulsion. Joe Gould was Harvard-educated and quit his day job the moment the idea of the Oral History fell into his brain, and Lillee like Gould was on his own Oral Mission, which wasn't about money or a roof over the head but about a search and meaning and the parts inside whose needs cannot be met by a roof. Lillee was on his mission from the earliest days of his club comeback in Perth.

Michael Broadbridge hit 95, clean-bowled by Lillee, for Melville against Scarborough at Tompkins Park. "I was 18 or 19," says Broadbridge, "and he was well and truly past his prime but the ball kept shaping away from me at the last minute. Didn't swing out of his hand. That's what's vivid to me: his shape. Anyway, I had this ability to play sort of across the line, not that that's a great trait, but I hit him over square leg and midwicket and I think that frustrated him and I think words were spoken and he gave me a hairy eyeball from time to time, definitely. Then after the game he came into the rooms and said in front of everybody how well I batted. And later in the bar he walked up to me. He shook my hand and in his hand was a hundred dollar note and as he shook he said, 'I want you to have that. You should have got a hundred today.'"

Flapping on Lillee's face as he ran was a novelty-shop old man's white beard, and it didn't matter if the crowd was 65,000 chanting "Kill, Kill, Kill" or 65

On Lillee's second day in Tasmania, with South Australia 2 for about 200 in reply to Tasmania's 111 all out, Lillee pulled part-time slow-medium bowler Errol Harris aside for a one-on-one. "All the younger guys, we followed Dennis whatever he did, whatever he touched," says Harris. "Things like, whatever Dennis drank, energy drinks, the next minute there'd be heaps more ordered and we'd all be having chocolate Sustagen. That's what Dennis drank, with milk. I remember his first game - Devonport where we were playing was windy at times and maybe I was a bit wayward and probably I was nervous because Hookesy and Wayne Phillips were batting. Dennis asked me to hold the ball across the seam. And all of a sudden I had four-for."

Lillee in track pants, stiff-jointed and unwavering, was bowling again in the nets at Derby two days before his 39th birthday. He was in the field three days after his birthday for his third Championship match. Mid-afternoon the light dimmed. Kent's batsmen Roy Pienaar and Graham Cowdrey were invited to go off. No, they said, and batted on against Lillee in the semi-dark, not the first pinprick of indignity. The first happened on his first afternoon for Scarborough when the field was damp and Lillee was using grass clippings to keep his footing. Giles Bush, who was batting, reached into the clippings to pluck something out. "Here, Dennis," said Giles, "this snail moves about as fast as you've been bowling."

Immortal yet very human

Immortal yet very human © Getty Images

Tim Curtis' scalp beneath the church spire at New Road was a blessing: Lillee's figures, in his fourth Championship match, read 1 for 106. Lillee "just had a thing about 0/100… it really crapped me off". Graeme Hick rated his 132 that day the flukiest of his 13 hundreds for the summer. Hick would hit Lillee for four. Hick would peek at Lillee's face. Lillee's face told Hick that ball would no effing way have been four runs years ago. Whatever this was, fair was not it. Unfairness, soreness, frustration, bewilderment, irrelevancy - who even cared? even at home? hadn't news of his joining Northants gone lost in that week's furore around Tim Zoehrer's axing for a tour of Pakistan? - impotency. Loneliness nah. Pretty lonely, yeah. In the house in Northampton he saw that rather than perfecting ill-perfected balls, balls he'd once mastered were slipping away. The past was a bitch, a heavy weight. He was like the serious painter who sees his new work is missing some core kernel that his old work had, so he bins it. Painter or writer. Lillee was serious about bowling. He was serious about everything. Lillee cried during Love Story. His misfirings were visible, public, if "public" is the word for the County Championship. He could startle a batsman with a change-up in pace. But the explosive ball, at will, and when needed, was beyond him. In his second-last game Derbyshire's ninth-wicket pair, Frank Griffith and Ole Mortensen, survived the final 82 balls for a draw. Going out to pubs with Lamby, sometimes people did not recognise him. I'm a crocodile hunter, DK would say.

"He has got in the habit lately of asking people he has just met to guess his age. Their guesses range between 65 and 75; he is 53. He is never hurt by this; he looks upon it as proof of his superiority. "I do more living in one year," he says, "than ordinary humans do in ten."

Lillee has never driven inland again on that second trip into and around Australia he promised himself - too busy.

"Whatever Dennis drank, the next minute we'd all be having chocolate Sustagen. That's what Dennis drank, with milk" Errol Harris, Tasmania team-mate

Joe Gould's Wisden of the world - "An Oral History of Our Time" - was never published. It never existed. Gould dreamed it. But he couldn't dream it into being. It was a lie, a figment, a few fragments of scraps of overworked ramblings about tomatoes, Indians, his dead parents.

Joseph Mitchell's cracking open of Joe Gould's secret was the last piece he handed in. It was not - quite - the last thing he wrote and kept. There was the beginnings of a memoir, three chapters, the second of the chapters cut off, and the line - "Tree-climbing was exhilarating to me, and I discovered that I had a natural aptitude for it… ; it is one of the few things I have ever been genuinely good at." If only there was a place Mitchell could go daily, close the door, climb trees.

There was not. In Chelmsford on a Saturday, September 17, 1988, Lillee ran in for the last time. The cream of English sporting journalism was in South Korea for the Seoul Olympics. Tomorrow being a Sunday, and both Essex and Northants being out of the Championship race, most of the weekday reporters had left. Flapping on Lillee's face as he ran was a novelty-shop old man's white beard - a last laugh, at himself, and it didn't matter if the crowd was 65,000 chanting "Kill, Kill, Kill" or 65. That was a curious thing about fast bowling, Lillee had noticed. Once he was into his run-up, his office, he could not hear them.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy and Australia: Story of a Cricket Country. His new book is Rock Country