Boxing Day Test. 1999. India versus Australia.
Sachin Tendulkar scored a century and Brett Lee took a five-for, on debut – memories that still stand out. Tendulkar was fighting a lone battle and Lee had single-handedly run through the Indian lower-order and announced himself to the cricket world at large.
Lee got just an over before lunch and with his fourth ball in international cricket, he sent Sadgoppan Ramesh back to the pavilion. The ball was quick and it seamed in but Ramesh fell to his old habit – he fell over and gave Lee a healthy dose of confidence.
From that point on, there was no turning back.
Coming into the tour, Lee was being talked about as a man who could blow the touring side away. It took the young fast bowler just a few overs to prove that he was more than just talk. India gave him the chance to dream by gifting his two early wickets. He responded by creating a nightmare for Tendulkar and Co.
In the match, he was timed as fast 152kmh. He bowled bouncers at tail-enders (the first ball that Anil Kumble received was aimed at his head). He was straight out of Jeff Thomson’s book of intimidation. He was Australian.
In his autobiography, Steve Waugh wrote about the first time he saw Lee bowl in domestic cricket. The former Australian skipper didn’t play a lot of domestic cricket but ended up playing a match after thrashing India by 285 runs on the first Test of the 1999 tour.
“I was mesmerised by the pure artistry of a young quick named Brett Lee,” he wrote. “Like Warney years before in Zimbabwe, I knew straight away this kid was special; he had a twinkle in his eye that belied a killer streak, and on the pacy WACA pitch he was lethal. The guy was a matchwinner.
“I caught up with selector Geoff Marsh at the conclusion of the match in which Lee had broken Jo Angel’s forearm, terrorised Damien Martyn and Adam Gilchrist and bowled the quickest spell I’d ever seen, and said quite simply but half-jokingly: ‘Swamp, pick him or I’m out, pal! This kid’s raring to go. Don’t waste him – the Indians will hate him’,” he further wrote.
Well, the Indians did hate him. And so did most batsmen around the world.
The menace was rarely understated. The disarming smile and boyish charm made the girls go crazy but it all disappeared as he stood at the top of his long run-up, ready to charge in.
He was truly propelled into the stratosphere by his battle with Shoaib Akhtar – a pace race if you want it call it that. For as long as it lasted – with a lot of injury breaks, of course – it was mesmerising. In a cricket world that was being increasingly dominated by batsmen, the duo reminded everyone that bowlers could be bullies as well.
Indeed, Glenn McGrath was the metronome at one end and Lee was the enforcer — he had no qualms being one either.
He retired from Tests a couple of years after playing his last in 2008 with a haul of 310 wickets but he continued to trudge on in ODIs – well it was more than a simple trudge. In 2008, he took 23 wickets at 24.34. in 2009, he did even better with 21 wickets at 23.85. In 19 matches during 2011, he claimed 33 wickets at just 21.72. During his last year in cricket, he took 23 wickets at 30.60. Still, the numbers illustrate that the reasons for retirement have less to do with form and more to do with injuries.
The strain of consistently bowling at over 150 km/h caused a string of stress fractures and recurring injuries and forced him to change as a bowler. By the end of his career, the off-cutter and slower balls were an important part of his armoury. The injuries probably prevented him from being as good as he would have wanted to but for most batsmen, he was more than good enough. Even in his last few years in international cricket, when the mood took him, he could still crank it up… probably just as a reminder to the batsmen of who they were dealing with.
A look at the guys who he nailed most times illustrates just how high his calibre was: 15 – Sarwan, 14 – Tendulkar, 12 – Dravid, 11 – Sehwag/Strauss, 10 – Laxman/Gayle. It also shows just how he continued to torment Indian batsmen through his career – Tendulkar, Dravid, Sehwag, Laxman all figure in that list.
However, the one thing that we will all truly remember Lee for was not his pace or his inswinging yorkers or even his belligerent batting – it will be his sportsmanship and grace even in defeat.
The picture of Andrew Flintoff consoling a crestfallen Lee after the defeat in the 2005 Ashes series – showed that above all things, Lee was a sport too. He’ll still continue to play in the IPL and the Big Bash, but international cricket won’t feel the same without him.