Giving batsmen no leeway

Scorching pace excited Brett Lee and ducking batsmen encouraged him to bowl even faster. With his exit from international cricket, fast bowling has lost one of its finest exponents, writes Vijay Lokapally.

It is often said that fast bowlers are born, not made. Brett Lee was one such bowler. He always wanted to bowl fast. Scorching pace excited him and ducking batsmen encouraged him to bowl even faster. With his exit from international cricket, fast bowling has lost one of its finest exponents.

His was a career that statistics can never do justice to. For someone who began with a five-wicket haul at Melbourne against India, his Test cricket journey concluded ironically at the same venue with Lee failing to get a wicket against South Africa. His nine-year career fetched him 310 Test and 380 ODI wickets. More than the wickets he took, it was his role as a frontline bowler that went a long way in Australia winning many a famous contest at home and away.

Pakistan speedster Shoaib Akhtar paid a glowing tribute when he said, “Fast bowling at its best is a spectacle for the people and everyone will miss watching Lee in action. I am really sad to hear about Lee’s retirement decision but I think it was coming because I know that he battled through a lot of pain to play for Australia; such was his passion for cricket.”

His passion came from a devotion that had its roots in his formative years. South African great Allan Donald had predicted Lee would grow into a menacing fast bowler when he saw him bowl “real fast” against India in 1999. Lee had grown up smashing window panes and vases at home before he broke a few helmets.

Lee nursed ambitions of becoming a batsman. As a youngster, he would impress his elders by “cleaning off the blemished edges” on the bat with a “rag and Mr. Sheen.” The trick was to leave marks only in the middle of the bat. It made him look a good batsman.

The Australian fast bowler describes in his autobiography the role his mother played in his formative days. She would drive him three hours each way to enable him play in a tournament. Lee’s motivation took wing with support from parents and elder brother Shane, who played 45 ODIs.

From a youngster who was one of the net bowlers to the Waugh brothers, Steve and Mark, Ian Healy, Mark Taylor and David Boon, the hugely talented Lee commanded a place in the national team a few years later. One net session was lit up with Lee bowling Boon with his third ball and breaking through the defence of Mark Waugh once. Those were early signs of his potential. It ultimately fructified in 1999 when he rocked India in a series that saw Australia win all three Tests convincingly.

India opener S. Ramesh, who was Lee’s first victim, remembered his Australian opponent well, “The first time we played him was in a warm up one-dayer (in 1999). I opened the innings with (VVS) Laxman and after a few overs we were in disbelief. We really thought the pitch was less than 22 yards ... Lee was a huge challenge irrespective of whether it was the first or last ball of the day.”

Some would remember Lee touring India as a 17-year-old with teammates Mike Hussey, Jason Gillespie and Andrew Symonds, who all went on to play for the country. Lee’s early memories of India were unpleasant. He was disturbed with people afflicted with leprosy and polio. Beggars on the streets left him sad. But on subsequent visits he came to love India for its wonderful “colour and diversity.”

Lee’s career was hampered by back and shin injuries at various stages. But he fought back bravely. He was Australia’s 383rd Test cricketer and the fact that he did not compromise with his pace despite the injuries showed how much he loved his vocation.

He was aggressive but never crossed the line. He had a healthy respect for a competent rival and never shied from raving about Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara. Their contests were always a treat to watch.

Lee rated Virender Sehwag high for his attacking instincts. Sehwag regarded him a tough opponent too: “He was the fastest I’ve faced. He was difficult to negotiate because he never cut his pace and was always on target. I valued runs that I made against him and I admired his competitive flair. To cap it he was such a wonderful human being.”

Lee was quite popular with the spectators and fans in India for his charity work with several NGOs and his involvement in the country’s entertainment industry.

A calf injury during the recent disastrous tour of England where Australia suffered defeats in four of the five ODIs (one was washed out) hastened Lee’s departure from international cricket at 35.

“In a team environment you have to have 100 per cent commitment, mentally and physically. And looking at the next few months I just didn’t have that desire any more. It wouldn’t be fair on me or the team. You get to a point in life when enough's enough.”

He would continue to play in the Indian Premier League and the Big Bash League.