Before he debuted for Australia, an 18-year-old Watson fine-tuned his seam bowling at the MRF Pace Foundation, joining the setup in Chennai under the tutelage of Lillee, who guest-starred on the podcast’s latest episode.
“As well as just mimicking you in the backyard,” Watson said, “I had been crazily fortunate for you being my bowling mentor really since I was the age of 18. I was lucky, thanks to Basil Sellers for providing me with an opportunity for two weeks at the MRF pace academy in Chennai, which had a huge impact on my career. I spent two weeks just eating, breathing cricket, just bowling in particular.”
Although Watson was fast-tracked into the Australia team, debuting as a 21-year-old in ODIs in 2002, the first half of his career was riddled with injuries of all kinds. A stress fracture kept him out of the 2003 World Cup, and he had a partial dislocation of his shoulder just months after his Test debut in 2005, ahead of the 2006-07 Ashes.
“I had a stress fracture in my back when I was 23,” Watson said. “And you [Lillee] were the man who really helped me get back into bowling, having the next four-five years bowling the best of my career. And I am so grateful for you giving me that kind and also that expertise and insights. I am so grateful.”
Helped along by Lillee’s guidance, Watson evolved into one of the game’s foremost white-ball all-rounders over the next decade, retiring from international cricket in 2016 as the No.1 all-rounder in T20Is.
“I remember the mornings were fitness work and the afternoons were just cricket heaven,” Watson said, “Just bowling with you, at the top of my mark, just working through various technical components, and then also had the opportunity to bat against the bowlers, so I was working on that with your input into certain aspects of my batting as well. I remember it like it was yesterday.
“The impact that it had – and it wasn’t just at training, but the impact that you had off the field, off the training park, we had a few drinks one night, and the knowledge and the belief you had in me even at that age. Gosh! I felt bullet-proof and ten-foot-tall because of that.”