His career was a feat of endurance

K. R. DEEPAK

Beyond numbers, Brett Lee will be remembered as a positive force for cricket — someone who tried his hardest with ball and bat, whom kids idolised for his rhythmic bowling action, his exuberant wicket celebrations and his blond, boy-band looks. Over to Karthik Krishnaswamy.

Fast. Not fast-medium or medium-fast or variants thereof. Fast like Tyson and Thommo. You probably need only one hand — that too of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle variety — to count the number of proper fast bowlers left in Test cricket today.

Shoaib Akhtar is probably gone, Shane Bond certainly is, and now Brett Lee. Shaun Tait and Lasith Malinga, though still young, are reluctant to sling their missiles in whites.

Mfuneko Ngam and Simon Jones barely began their Test careers before they broke down irreparably. Athletes all of them, their every sinew trained for the purpose of hurling projectiles at blokes whose padding cannot conceal a tremor at the knees. Lean, muscled bodies whose apparent perfection masks a worrying fragility.

Lee announced his Test retirement on February 24, following his stalled recovery from an elbow injury. Even his participation in limited-overs cricket, which he says is all his body can take, remains in doubt. “I may never bowl another ball and if that’s the case, I’m so satisfied with my career and my longevity.”

He has every reason to be. Even though it might seem to have ended prematurely, Lee’s career was a feat of endurance.

Shane Bond only managed 18 of the 65 Tests New Zealand played in his career-span, while Shoaib Akhtar played 46 out of 105 (and counting, for he hasn’t retired yet), and Andrew Flintoff — who occupies a lower rung on the speed ladder — 79 out of 142. Even allowing for Bond’s ICL stint and Shoaib’s numerous bans, they still missed a greater percentage of Tests injured than did Lee, whose back, ankle, metatarsal and elbow restricted him to 76 out of the 118 Tests Australia played between his debut and retirement.

“To always come back fitter, hungrier, stronger and bowling the pace that he bowled, I just think is a testament to his character,” said Lee’s former team-mate Jason Gillespie. “I don’t think the public would appreciate how much pain he bowled in… and he always wanted another over.”

So much so that he ended his Test career (although he didn’t know that at the time) bowling with a broken foot against South Africa in the 2008 Boxing Day Test in Melbourne.

And so, despite crossing 300 Test wickets and becoming Australia’s fourth-highest wicket-taker, Lee will somehow be remembered more for his enthusiasm and his value as a team-man than for running through sides. His defining series was the 2005 Ashes, in which he, as Ponting’s go-to paceman, ran in unflaggingly, bowling unaccustomed long spells to make up for the mostly-absent McGrath (out injured in two of the five Tests) and the shockingly poor form of Gillespie and Michael Kasprowicz. He bowled much better than his 40-plus average suggested. Shane Warne’s second-innings spells nearly won Australia the Edgbaston, Trent Bridge and Oval Tests, and Lee played sidekick each time. Lee’s bowling in that series will be defined not by his numbers but by his dismissals of Michael Vaughan in the second Test and Flintoff in the fourth, both bowled through the gate, and his hostile spell to Kevin Pietersen in the fifth.

Lee bowling to Pietersen at the Oval made for viewing as gripping as Allan Donald to Michael Atherton seven years previously. Funnily, almost counter-intuitively, Atherton’s defensive masterclass won England that Trent Bridge Test, and Pietersen’s cavalier maiden hundred saved England the Oval game. Both survived early chances.

Pounding in, blond hair bobbing with menace, Lee found Pietersen’s edge with a full, wide outswinger, only for Warne to ‘drop the Ashes’ at slip. Not long after, he forced Pietersen to fend a rearing delivery off his face, agonisingly out of gully’s reach.

Where Donald let rip a ferocious, almost primal yell as Mark Boucher put Atherton down, Lee grinned ruefully following Warne’s miss. Their reactions perhaps explain Lee’s inability to really frighten top batsmen and run through sides on a regular basis, despite his pace, his new-ball outswing and occasional old-ball reverse, and the variety he developed over time.

Most great pacemen have a nasty edge to them, something besides the red hunk of leather for the batsman to think about. Destructive spells, by bowlers great and not-so-great, are often fuelled by anger — from Fred Spofforth’s fury at W. G. Grace’s gamesmanship in 1882 (7/44) to Devon Malcolm’s “you guys are history” in 1994 (9/57).

Through much of the 2000s, Lee and Akhtar raised the speed bar for each other — if one clocked 160, the other responded with 161. Yet, somehow, Akhtar always bowled the devastating spells — blowing away Ricky Ponting and both Waughs in one over in Colombo in a neutrally-hosted Test series in 2002, wrecking England in Lahore three years later with a mixture of full-tilt yorkers and loopy, unpickable slower deliveries. It’s hard to zero in on a defining Brett Lee spell — Five for 47 on debut against India? Five for 69 in Durban in 2006? Or his six wickets in the next Test of the same series in Johannesburg, which together with a career-best 64 won him Man of the Match in a tight game?

It doesn’t help Lee that six of his 10 Test five-fors came either against New Zealand or the West Indies, or that he was mostly ineffective on sub-continental pitches, on which he averaged over 47. Even his unique record of being the only bowler to have achieved hat-tricks in both ODIs and T20s comes with a caveat — one was against Kenya, the other against Bangladesh. Akhtar, in contrast, troubled everyone when he managed to get mind and body working in harmony — he averaged under 30 in every cricketing continent bar Europe, where he only played the one Test, at Lord’s in 2001. Neither did enough to become an all-time great, but Akhtar, in his comparatively sporadic appearances, came closer.

But beyond numbers, Lee will be remembered as a positive force for cricket — someone who tried his hardest with ball and bat (he averaged over 20 with the bat in Tests), whom kids idolised for his rhythmic bowling action, his exuberant wicket celebrations and his blond, boy-band looks. Above all, his good-natured demeanour endeared him to everyone: teammates, fans, opponents. Suitably enough, the defining image of the cricketing decade just past has Lee in it, hunched over his bat, defeated but unbeaten, an opponent’s consoling arm over his shoulder.