Dennis Lillee severing his ties with the MRF Pace Foundation after 25 years brings back a flood of memories. I was among those present at its inauguration in 1987 and while the mood at the press conference was festive and MRF spared no effort in hyping up the event there was also more than a touch of cynicism.
Could fast bowlers really be produced in India, a land which traditionally boasted the best spin bowlers but was way behind other countries when it came to hurtling them down at considerable pace?
True, by 1987 Kapil Dev was among the best fast medium bowlers but his accent was largely on swing. Certainly there was a lot of improvement over the pathetic scenario of the 60s and 70s when the Indian bowling was opened by the likes of Salim Durrani, MAK Pataudi, Sunil Gavaskar, Budhi Kunderan, Ajit Wadekar and V Subramanyam and regularly by ML Jaisimha and Eknath Solkar.
But weren’t fast bowlers born and not made? Could there be a project that would produce a machine like array of fast bowlers in a country in which the cupboard had been bare? The disbelievers outnumbered the optimists.
Fast bowling requires hard work, patience and perseverance. It is not easy to bowl in the heat and humidity, on pitches that offer no help and bowling to batsmen who are making hay while the sun shines. But then there is much more to the art and skill of fast bowling as Lillee demonstrated during his 25-year long stint, factors that he mentioned while announcing his decision to call it quits the other day in Chennai.
As he said, the boys never took physical exercises seriously, they lacked in technique and were not mentally tough. They just bowled for a couple of hours without any plan, any method. They lacked scientific and specialized training and this is what Lillee imparted to the boys taking the arduous task as a challenge.
I well remember the opposition that Lillee and then chief coach TA Sekhar faced in the early years of the Pace Foundation. Perhaps this emanated from jealousy for many other qualified Indian coaches scoffed at the very idea of producing an assembly line of fast bowlers.
They said it couldn’t be done so much so that when the ward after spending some time at the Pace Foundation went back to his old coach in his home town he was told to reverse or change the methods that was taught to him. The confused trainee would relent and the result was that when the lad came back to the Foundation Lillee and Sekhar found out much to their chagrin that they virtually had to start from scratch again.
It took time for the wards to realize that they were learning the unadulterated skills of becoming a fast bowler at the Foundation and so they turned their back on their old coach. But it wasn’t an easy process in a country which treats the coach as a guru.
Gradually the cynicism turned into acceptance that here was a methodical scheme that was planned and designed by experts to work over a long term basis. There can never be a crash course in learning the various aspects of fast bowling and when results were starting to show all the opposition and jealousy vanished and the Pace Foundation was the one place to go to for anyone interested in either taking up fast bowling or for corrective measures for an established player.
I remember Ajit Agarkar who had a rather indifferent World Cup in 1999 coming to Chennai immediately after the tournament to consult Lillee on some technical aspects and the Australian great spotted them and put him back on track. This was the case also in the case of Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad, Laxmipathy Balaji, Zaheer Khan, Munaf Patel and S Sreesanth, Tinu Yohannan and others.
But of course the MRF Pace Foundation was not just for Indian bowlers. Established players as well as young hopefuls from any country were always welcome to Chennai the former for corrective measures and the latter for taking the first steps towards hopefully becoming fast bowling greats.
Chaminda Vaas was the most prominent among these for he made any number of visits to the Foundation in a bid to become a better bowler. His standing as Sri Lanka’s pace spearhead for 15 years and his outstanding international record speaks volumes both for his resilience as well as the Pace Foundation’s expertise. Others who benefited by their visits to the Foundation include Sri Lanka’s Dilhara Fernando, Australians Brett Lee and Mitchell Johnson and England’s Simon Jones and several youngsters.
If there has been a metamorphosis in the Indian pace bowling scenario over the last quarter of a century, a vote of thanks is due to Lillee, Sekhar and the MRF Pace Foundation. Thanks are also due to the late Ravi Mammen whose dream project it was. Whoever succeeds Lillee has a task on his hand both as an inspirational figure and as an outstanding fast bowling coach.