Exclusive: Dennis Lillee wrote me off, but I proved him wrong, says Chaminda Vaas

The legendary Sri Lankan who ironically ended his career with the same number of Test wickets as Lillee, also praises Pakistan fast bowler Shaheen Shah Afridi


Rituraj Borkakoty

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Former Sri Lankan pace bowler Chaminda Vaas. (Reuters file)
Former Sri Lankan pace bowler Chaminda Vaas. (Reuters file)

Published: Tue 19 Jul 2022, 11:54 PM

When the distressed Sri Lankans finally start embarking on that long road to recovery from the country’s worst economic and political crisis, they would look to draw inspiration from stories that celebrate the never say die spirit.

Chaminda Vaas has one such story that uplifts the spirit.

Vaas arrived at the MRF Pace Foundation in the early 1990s to hone his bowling skills under the guidance of Dennis Lillee, the man who had authored one of cricket’s most famous books, ‘The Art of Fast Bowling’.

But little did Vaas know that one of his early sessions with the Australian fast bowling legend was going to turn his world upside down.

Lillee, the then head coach at the famous academy, observed Vaas’ bowling routine in the nets and stated the young Sri Lankan pacer didn’t have the tools to build a career in international cricket.

Vaas was reduced to tears after being brutally written off by one of the most revered cricketers.

But he wiped the tears and went back to the Sri Lankan dust bowls that entice spinners and break fast bowlers’ hearts.

Vaas, though, showed an unbreakable spirit as he took oodles of wickets in first-class cricket to force his way into the Sri Lankan team.

Then a few months after his Test debut in 1994, Vaas wrote a glorious new chapter in the island nation’s history when his sublime display of swing and seam in New Zealand earned the Lankans their first-ever overseas Test series win in 1995.

With 16 wickets in two Test matches, he blew the Kiwis away in their own backyard like a force of nature.

For the next 15 years, Vaas carried Sri Lanka’s pace attack on his shoulders, taking 766 international wickets and forming a lethal bowling partnership with the incomparable Muttiah Muralitharan.

Now more than a decade after his retirement, Vaas continues to urge youngsters to never give up hope in life.

During an exclusive interview with the Khaleej Times, the greatest pace bowler in Sri Lankan history opened up on how he proved Lillee, arguably the greatest fast bowler in all cricket history, wrong by ending his Test career with the same number of wickets as the Australian — 355 — and why fast bowling has reached a new level in the post-T20 world.

Q. We heard your Dennis Lillee story at the MRF Pace Foundation when you were very young. Can you tell us what happened?

What happened was that after a practice session at the MRF Pace Foundation, Dennis Lillee analysed our game. So while analysing my game, Lillee said I would not be able to play for my country. So I was a bit upset, I had tears in my eyes. But when someone says something I always take it as a challenge. So I wanted to prove a point to Dennis Lillee that he was wrong. I took it as a challenge. And, as you know, I ended up playing for 15 years for the national team. When I met Dennis Lillee later, I reminded him of his prediction. That was after I played about 60 odd games for Sri Lanka. I met him in Australia. He said, ‘I am very proud of you’. Then after I played 100 Test matches, I met him again and I reminded him again of his comment that I was not going to play for my national team. He said that I was exceptional.

Q. Is that the reason that you always tell youngsters the importance of hard work and mental strength during your coaching stints?

Yes, because that (incident at the MRF Pace Foundation) showed how committed I was to the game. So it’s a simple message to everyone. If you are committed and if you have the desire and if you take challenges in a positive way, you can prove yourself as a cricketer. I proved myself. I came a long way. These are the messages you can pass on to youngsters.

Q. During your best years, the whole burden of taking wickets was always on Murali and you. How tough was it to do the job every time you went out for a match because your captain was always looking to you and Murali for wickets?

I never think about what is going to happen. I always wanted to perform in the middle. When we entered the field, we just gave our 100 per cent. Whether win or lose, we just wanted to do well and give our best. It was with that frame of mind that I went to the ground in every match. That’s how we were able to achieve success and win games for Sri Lanka. I didn’t have any expectations like, you know, that I have to be the number one bowler, I have to the top fast bowler in the world. I just took it one game at a time and tried to perform.

Q. What would be your advice for young bowlers to survive and excel in the post-T20 world because batsmen don’t seem to have much respect for them?

You have to be smart enough, you have to be clever in the game today. You should know where to put the fielders. When the batsman is coming to bat, you know where he is going to hit you. According to the batsman’s strength, you need to have your field setting and then bowl in the right areas. You need to mix it up with slower balls and the yorkers, and those things you need to practice. You have to practise a lot to improve those skills. When you practise hard, you will eventually become a brilliant bowler in any format. If you see the IPL, T10, even the bowlers are clever enough now. There are bowlers now who are doing so well even in short formats because they are constantly thinking about their game and about how to change things.

Q. In the 1990s, you are a part of the group of great fast bowlers that included Glenn McGrath, Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. But today’s fast bowlers have a bigger burden now with the explosion of T20 leagues. How happy are you with the fast bowling standards now?

The standard has gone to a different level. There are so many good fast bowlers now who are doing really well not only in one format. People like Trent Boult, Tim Southee, then the three Australian fast bowlers, Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, they are clever bowlers, they are playing all the formats, and they are performing really well. Also in Pakistan now they have Shaheen Shah Afridi, he has become a brilliant bowler. Then you have Jasprit Bumrah. You can name so many good fast bowlers. They are all very smart.

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