For the past twenty-five years, Australian pace legend Dennis Lillee has played an important role in Indian cricket outside the system as the director of the MRF Pace foundation. It has produced bowlers like Javagal Srinath, Zaheer Khan, Munaf Patel while Chaminda Vaas, Brett Lee and Mitchell Johnson are also products of the academy. On Sunday, Lillee ended his stint and passed on the baton to compatriot Glenn McGrath.
Lillee admitted the job would be challenging in India where there was no real tradition of fast bowling. "When we started, there were no facilities, there was no gymnasium and the bowlers did very little aerobic exercises." He said pace bowlers in India were at best used like ribbon-cutters - to start the innings and scruff the ball before the spinners took over.
"Their technique was so flawed," Lillee recalled. "They had really faulty actions and we had to change the whole process of training. They were bowling twice a day with a lot of gap between sessions. Like that, you will end up as spinners or medium-pacers, and not as fast bowlers."
Lillee then started a process to get the right infrastructure with gyms, swimming pools and a small ground where the players could simulate match situations.
Zaheer Khan, who started serious cricket relatively late, is one of the best known faces of the academy. Lillee said, "Zaheer had a lot of things going for him. To start with, he was a left-arm bowler which is a distinct advantage. He also had the ability to swing the ball, especially into a right-hand batsman. Over the years, he has lost a bit of pace but has more than made up for that with smart thinking. When things are not happening for him or the conditions are not suitable, he tries different things, and alongside the likes of Dale Steyn, is one of the best in setting up a batsman for a wicket."
The likes of Irfan Pathan, RP Singh and S Sreesanth have also been part of the academy, but have not replicated the success of Zaheer. On Munaf, he said, "when he came here, I encouraged him to bowl flat out and I was very impressed. But once he made the team, he started to bowl in the 130's and I think he got some bad advice."
When asked what his legacy was, Lillee said, "My achievement would be that people understand what fast bowling is in India now, and the hard work needed to be a successful one. Today, India has a lot of promising fast bowlers than when we started out."
The writer's trip was sponsored by MRF