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Meanwhile in Chennai, fast bowlers in the time of dust bowls


BOYS, MEET YOUR NEW TEACHER: Dennis Lillee introduces Glenn McGrath to the trainees at the MRF Pace Academy

With Aussie legend Glenn McGrath agreeing to coach at the MRF Pace Academy, will there finally be change?

Australian fast bowling great Dennis Lillee, who stepped down as Director of Coaching at the MRF Pace Foundation - the country's unofficial finishing school for the breed at one time - will forever be remembered as the man who transformed Indian pace bowling.

Long before the cash-rich Indian cricket board instituted the National Cricket Academy in 2000, Lillee, acknowledged internationally as the guru of fast bowling, oversaw the paradigm change as India's bowling attack shifted from being predominantly spinoriented with a new generation of pacemen who gave back as good as they got.

"The legacy I leave behind is that there is a great understanding of fast bowling in India now, " said Lillee, who is being succeeded by another Aussie great Glenn McGrath at what was possibly the first specialised cricket academy in the country. "The understanding of the hard work required, the techniques involved... in the making of a fast bowler. "

For someone who never toured India as a player, the Western Australian has worked with every promising Indian pace bowler for 25 years since the inception of the Chennai-based academy in 1987 which he subsequently turned into an internationallyrenowned destination for fast bowlers looking to improve their skills. From Vivek Razdan in the late 1980s to Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad in the '90s and the turn of the century, to Irfan Pathan, Zaheer Khan, Shanthakumaran Sreesanth, Munaf Patel, RP Singh, all of India's leading pace bowlers have benefited from Lillee's expertise.

"Every pace bowler who represented India from 1989 onwards has worked with Lillee at some point in time at the Foundation, " Srinath said in a video presentation played during the silver jubilee celebration of the academy last weekend.

Several international boards have also sent their bowlers to the foundation for training. Sri Lankans Chaminda Vaas and Dilhara Fernando, Australians Brett Lee and Mitch Johnson, Pakistan's Mohammad Asif and England's Simon Jones have undergone training here. In fact, Sri Lanka's World Cup-winning captain Arjuna Ranatunga credited Vaas' growth as the vanguard of the country's pace attack back then to his training under Lillee at the foundation.

The increased awareness in the country about the nous that goes into the making of a fast bowler, better facilities and support staff possibly makes McGrath's task a lot easier, but the picture certainly wasn't this rosy when Lillee took up the challenge.

"There weren't proper facilities in India back then and I noticed young bowlers trained by bowling in the nets twice a day, " 63-year-old Lillee recollected. "We changed the whole process of training. MRF offered world-class facilities, put together the different kind of wickets needed, we taught young trainees the benefits of weight training and the importance of a proper diet.

"I remember the young bowlers had faulty techniques. A lot of work had to go in, and in those days we didn't have the advanced technology that we have at our disposal today. Faults had to be spotted with the naked eye. With time and the success of our wards, people began believing in our methods.

"I've been here 25 years. You also leave something when you are still good at it, when you haven't become stale, " Lillee said in his farewell speech. "It has been a satisfying journey, considering the apprehensions I had when I first came here, " added the man who guided two generations of Indian quicks.

TA Sekar, who was head coach at the Foundation for two decades, described Lillee as the "ultimate fast bowling coach. "

"Lillee was the best thing to have happened to Indian fast bowling, " says Sekar, a former India fast bowler and national selector. "Back then India only had Kapil Dev and Kapil was a gifted, natural athlete. Lillee helped Indians understand fast bowling.

"Lillee's knowledge of the art and science of fast bowling is unparalleled, " says Sekar, who is currently with IPL franchise Delhi Daredevils. "He is both a technician and tactician who could spot a mistake and make the bowler understand where he is going wrong. He is irreplaceable. "

McGrath, who holds the record for the most Test wickets by a pace bowler, acknowledged that Lillee's were big boots to fill even as the Foundation looks to regain its status as the go-to academy for pace bowlers.

The Foundation had lost its premier status after NCA was established as Indian cricket's coaching hub for promising talent. Former Australian wicket-keeper Rodney Marsh had been invited to design the structure and guide the Academy through its first three years of growth during which it blossomed into a centre of excellence for learning cricket in the country.

"If I can do the job half as good as Dennis, that'll be great, "said McGrath, who was among the first batch from the Australian Cricket Academy to train under Lillee at the Foundation in 1992.

"It is a huge opportunity for me as well as the young guys who will be coming through, " said McGrath, 42, who retired from international cricket in 2007.

"Fast bowling is a tough job in the sub-continent. I'm coming back after a five-year break and I see it as an opportunity to give something back to the game, " said the New South Welshman who has no previous coaching experience of note.

"As a player I loved coming here to India. Indians are passionate about cricket. I see a lot of potential here. Dennis was a guy I looked up to and I see it as a huge honour to take over from him, " said McGrath, nicknamed Pigeon, who will assume duty early next year. The Foundation was the brainchild of the late Ravi Mammen.

"We have been able to achieve my late brother Ravi's dreams of producing world class fast bowlers from India, " said KM Mammen, C&MD, MRF.

"After Dennis decided to move on, we needed to find a worthy successor - a man who was respected by all his peers and who shared Dennis' drive, passion and enthusiasm. In McGrath we found the right candidate. "

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