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Chappell, Lillee and Marsh: Australia’s highly revered trio – Almanack

Chappell, Lillee, Marsh
by Paul Sheahan 10 minute read

Greg Chappell stands high in the list of great Australian batsmen. His retirement in 1984 – at the same time as Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh – was marked by this Almanack assessment of their careers by former colleague Paul Sheahan.

For centuries the magical qualities of the number three have fascinated mathematicians. Even the Almighty moves in threes – Father, Son and Holy Ghost – and without any disrespect, there would be many Australians who believe that the deeds of their revered trio, Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh, approach divine proportions!

The mere mention of their names evokes the complete gamut of emotions from cricket followers round the world. All three lived through the most turbulent period in modern-day cricket – the schism caused by the creation of World Series Cricket. They were regarded, in many eyes, as prime movers in the establishment of Mr Kerry Packer’s brand of cricketing entertainment, and, as a consequence, they incurred the wrath of the Establishment. As well, each one has been involved in incidents which have brought little credit upon themselves and of which, given the luxury of hindsight, they may not be particularly proud.

In assessing their careers, both individually and collectively, it is difficult not to be at least partially influenced by the controversy that surrounded the latter parts of their playing days. However, each of them holds a world Test record: Chappell, the number of catches by a fieldsman, Lillee, the number of wickets by a bowler, and Marsh, the number of catches and dismissals by a wicketkeeper. They have performed miraculous cricketing deeds. I feel honoured to have been asked to write this article, in which I hope that I can do justice to them and to posterity.

Greg Chappell and I had first-class careers that began at almost the same time, preceded, in each case, by fairly successful schoolboy days. We first played against each other in an inter-state Colts fixture in Melbourne. Greg bowled what I thought were rather tempting leg-breaks. Subsequently, under the wily guidance of Somerset’s Australian ex-patriate, Bill Alley, he developed into a very useful slow-medium swerve bowler. His basic grounding with Somerset, in the mill of English county cricket, lasted for long enough to play a significant part in moulding a near-perfect defensive batting technique without stultifying his creative and attacking flair.

We Victorians felt that Greg, early in his career, gave us a real chance outside the off stump, and to some extent that was true. A relative weakness on the leg stump was also exposed in the series against England in which he made a wonderful debut; but it was a measure of his strength and intelligence that in the long run he made opponents pay dearly for blind adherence to outdated strategy. Against England, the most respected of Australia’s foes, he gathered 2,619 runs in the most elegant of styles, averaging 45.94 and making nine centuries. In all, he amassed 7,110 Test runs, an Australian record, at 53.86, with 24 centuries.

His first innings in Test cricket, against the Englishmen in Perth in December 1970, sounded a warning to those from the Old Country that here was a true artist in the making. England implemented a leg-stump attack which was to bring considerable success later in the series on the slower eastern-state pitches; but Perth’s true and predictable bounce allowed him to plunder an attack that was spearheaded by one of the great, if slightly unpredictable, fast bowlers, John Snow.

Those with any perception realised that Greg possessed extraordinary talent and grace. By honing these qualities, he delighted Australian cricket followers and, I suspect, international ones as well for the next decade and a half. But genius often bears the cross of fragility, and illness struck Chappell at times when he strove for the highest peaks. The 1980/81 summer was an example: West Indies were touring Australia and Chappell had a wretched season. Whatever one’s allegiances, though, he will be remembered as one of the most graceful of all batsmen, whose on-side play will be discussed for years.

My first memory of Dennis Lillee is from late 1968 when Western Australia were visiting Victoria. I had become friendly with John Inverarity, who was to become Western Australia’s skipper and guiding light in what was a remarkable run of success for them, through our similar interests of schoolmastering and mathematics.

When the Sandgropers arrived, I went to their hotel to see Invers who was full of news about their new fast bowler. Having read various whimsical pieces of prose about the demon fast bowler, I was somewhat sceptical of his captain’s claims. In the bar of the hotel Inverarity called over a skinny, hairy lad with a wild look in his eye and a fiendish grin, introducing him to me as the next fastest bowler in the world. I lived to regret my scepticism, as a bump on my head bore witness. It is history now that the stripling developed into a strapping man who eventually established a world Test record.

As with most fast blowers, Dennis had his fair share of injury, and his career was not without controversy. When the Australians toured England in 1972, he was diagnosed as suffering stress-fractures to three vertebrae, which saw him break down subsequently in the West Indies. It was a testament to the man’s courage and his devotion to his country, as well as to Ian Chappell, that he fought on to complete that series in England (the most thrilling in which I played) with a record 31-wicket haul. In the four short years since I had met him, he had blossomed from a tearaway into one of the most athletic sights one is likely to see.

During that period I had the fortune to see one of the most destructive pieces of speed bowling imaginable. For political reasons, the South Africans did not undertake their planned tour of Australia in 1971/72 and a World XI was hastily assembled to fill the void. In the first innings of the match against Australia in Perth, Lillee destroyed them to the tune of eight for 29. From the covers, it was plainly visible how his awesome pace either exposed weaknesses in the techniques of some of the world’s best batsmen or had them so terrified that they capitulated. That remains for me the most sensational example of the devastating effect of sheer speed.

It is history now that he secured 355 Test victims in a career that humbled the greatest of batsmen as it matured from out-and-out pace to swing and deviation off the pitch. Dennis is an extraordinary athlete, possessed of strength and subtlety. He served his captains with courage and devotion. It was a shame, therefore, to find him involved in shabby incidents later in his career, prompted, in my opinion, by a growing belief in some of the commercial publicity that surrounded cricketers in the late 1970s. It seemed so out of character for him to behave in that way, for off the field he was a delightful man and an excellent tourist. Happily, his skill lives uppermost in my memory.

My early memories of Rod Marsh are not so clear, though I did play with him in Perth for a Combined XI against the touring West Indians late in 1968. I was introduced to a rather untidy and very stocky young man who was to do the wicketkeeping. Visions of his leaping around behind the stumps raised fears of seismic disturbances in the west of the continent. I recall that his keeping was vigorous and energetic, with no thought spared for the uprights in a stumping; but there was no doubting the spirit or the desire.

He and Lillee were largely instrumental in Western Australia’s emergence as a Sheffield Shield power, so it is understandable that both were imbued with a fierce and unquenchable desire to succeed. Bacchus Marsh, so named because of the Victorian township of Bacchus rather than his penchant for food and wine, rode the storm that surrounded his elevation to the Test team, at the expense of Brian Taber; but he became quietly obsessed with making those who dubbed him Iron Gloves eat humble pie. While there are those who make much of his being blessed with having Lillee and Jeff Thomson to feed him, there can be no denying his great record – 343 catches and 12 stumpings in 96 Tests with five victims in an innings twelve times.

But it was not only his ability behind the stumps that made him a redoubtable opponent. Three Test centuries and four scores in the nineties bear eloquent testimony to his additional skill with the bat. In fact my happiest memory of Test cricket came during the second innings of the fifth Test of the 1972 tour of England when he and I put on 71 at The Oval and were still at the crease when victory was Australia’s.

It was a stirring sight to see him, with forearms like a coalminer’s and legs like bollards, dealing body-blow after body-blow to the venomous cutters of Derek Underwood. That was the essence of the man. Never one to cower meekly, always prepared to bite off more than most men could chew. His ebullience and power turned the course of some critical Tests. It was disappointing that he made only two fifties in his last 48 Test innings, but I suspect he was overpowered in the end by the philosophy of limited-overs cricket. To be fair, though, he was trying to play by then with a knee injury that would have crippled many others. My abiding memory of Rod is of the archetypal Australian: strong, disrespectful of most authority yet fiercely loyal to those he admired.

Keith Fletcher is caught behind by Rodney Marsh off Dennis Lillee during the 1977 Centenary Test at the MCG

To speak of the three of them individually is one thing, but their collective influence must also be recognised: the idea of Trinity and Unity springs to mind, again with no sacrilege intended. Their Test-playing days began in the same series, 1970/71 against England in Australia, and they retired simultaneously, after the final Test against Pakistan in Australia in January 1984, having played together 64 times. Their debuts came at a time when Australia were floundering after a mauling at the hands of South Africa. After such a disastrous series the Australian selectors decided to chart a new course with a group of talented youngsters who were to become the champions of the world but who came to be resented in certain quarters for their arrogance and boorishness.

Any mention of their collective deeds should not be made in isolation from Australia’s captain at the time, Greg’s brother, Ian. He it was who welded a group of relative novices into a powerful combination by his example and unswerving loyalty to his players. This loyalty had to be experienced first-hand to be understood. Many critics did not understand it, with the result that there was open warfare between a closely knit team and certain other individuals and organisations who were not prepared to compromise.

The Australian side were involved at that time in incidents which, as a schoolmaster, I found difficult to forgive and would not have been proud to be a part of. By implication they encouraged youngsters to follow their examples. But their defiance and truculence have to be tempered by the tension that existed between the players and the administrators, who had lost contact with each other. How galling and how sad that just as the latter were preening themselves, justifiably, at the success of the Centenary Test in Melbourne in March 1977, the players were negotiating to leave the scene. Homerian treachery? Perhaps. Yet the secrecy merely served to underline the gulf that existed.

That said, Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh performed with great distinction and wonderful success for Australia, and the effect of their absence has already been felt dramatically.

Paul Sheahan played in 31 Tests for Australia between 1967 and 1974.

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