Ready for the LEAD ROLE

Brett Lee... rejuvenated and restored.-V.V. KRISHNAN

For once Brett Lee appeared a leading man, not merely a fellow to hopefully disturb a top batsman's equilibrium or harry a tailender with a bouncer, but insisting he could be head of the quartet, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH

IF Brett Lee were to be played in a film, a modern actor would not suffice, for he is an old-world, swashbuckling sort of fellow who has more Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks to him than Mel Gibson. Chandeliers for him are less lighting fixtures than a way to swing across a room and bad guys are to be dispatched with a cavalier grin and a single-roundhouse punch.

Australians have an affection for this blonde pirate for they enjoy the valiant, spirited athlete, a fellow who occasionally may go down for the count but gives his all in the process. Sport for them is a robust exercise, opponents to be faced head-on, sinews stretched, heroes leaping into danger with the words "All right me hearties, follow me". They do not hold back and mostly neither does Mr. Lee.

This natural affection; this fondness for the idea of a legitimate fast bowler dripping menace, few of which they have seen since Thommo and Pascoe hung up their mean boots; the lack of a quick alternative despite their much lauded stocks in other cricketing areas; all has helped keep Lee in the limelight. After all, quick to smile and a friend of exuberance, he has been a good fellow but not quite a consistently good Test match bowler.

Brett Lee has always suggested mayhem, but often left it at that; he has been blonde promise but often not much more. For a practitioner of the fast arts his career has moved in slow motion. He is speedy yet often short, he is fast but does not always stand firm. For years he has bounded along, occasionally stifled by injury, yet a casual look at his career statistics, 44 Tests, 167 wickets, 32.38 average (McGrath is 21.27), with only five five-wicket hauls, suggests an unfinished construction.

Of course, all that is now in the past we are told. Now Brett Lee is reborn, rejuvenated, restored. Everyone wants to believe it for running in he is a fearsome, athletic sight, but such revivals have been boasted of before and understandably must be met with at least a modicum of suspicion. Anyway dismantling the disinterested West Indians, who appear liable to be bowled out by a Patna fruit seller on his off day, is not quite a world-beating feat.

Still, Lee's figures of 5-30 in the first Test in Brisbane this month have returned a smile to his friendly face and his name to the headlines across his land. Statisticians can spin significance into any number, but these honestly were. Not since his debut Test against India in 1999 (5-47) has he taken better figures; for the first time in four years, too, though some was missed through injury, he has taken five wickets in an innings. When he sighed with relief an entire island was his echo.

For once Lee, for all his looks, appeared a leading man, not merely a fellow to hopefully disturb a top batsman's equilibrium or harry a tailender with a bouncer, but insisting he could be head of the quartet. It was bowling at once responsible, fast and destructive, a cohesive performance from a fellow who has never quite gotten around that word. The moment was heightened for neither McGrath nor Warne took a wicket in that second innings and Australia, holding its breath, wondered if finally in this middle-aged guitar player it had found its future.

Lee has held us in his thrall simply because he is a sweet man but also a fast bowler, a species in hibernation for most of this generation. Indeed it is the very reason why even fellows from distant geographies are pleased by his renewal. The quick is the athletic heart of cricket, the game's true vigorous practitioner, all pumping legs and whirling shoulders, armed with glistening ball and shining purpose, the earth, and some batsmen, trembling as he pounds in, ferocity aching from every limb, and only fittingly his follow through will take him to spitting distance of his opponent. This is battle, this is confrontation with a whiff of danger.

Lee had much of this, he was not absent of aura, or athleticism, and while batsmen, suited in modern armour are not so much scared anymore, to be beaten for pace is an embarrassment in itself. But Lee's menace did not extend to his armoury, he could york, and bounce, and if swinging could fire it in full, but there it ended. He bowled great deliveries, but not enough great overs.

Greatness arrives from adapting, from adjusting, it requires the intellect to note when change is required, it demands a variety of skill to then amend an angle of attack, it involves an ability to harness a game when not every cog is working to oiled perfection. Tiger Woods' swing will temporarily elude him yet he will find a way to construct a workable round, not putting himself out of contention; Federer will momentarily mislay his timing, but fall back on another plan, and work his way through. Lee is, as Peter Roebuck, put it, "Monte Carlo or bust".

Often he seemed confused when no confusion was at hand. Steve Waugh as Test captain expected him to bowl fast, Ricky Ponting then as one-day captain to bowl tight, and this was hardly mystifying, though he apparently felt so, but merely required an adapting to the differing styles of cricket. Much has been said, too, of Ponting's on-couch therapy session with him between innings in the first West Indies Test in Brisbane, wherein the captain presumably hypnotised him by gently waving a red ball in his face, and once in a trance no doubt told Lee: "Repeat after me, No to line and length, yes to fast".

Wild during the first innings, Lee, reportedly, had considered eschewing speed in favour of control. As Ponting explained: "He had a few different ideas on how he was going to make himself a better bowler. But after the first innings of the game I totally disagreed with what he was thinking basically.

"In one-day cricket (where he has an impressive record, 207 wickets at an average of 21.93) he knocks blokes over at the top of the order swinging the new ball so I wanted him to try and do that ... Listening to him before the game, he wanted to be more economical, which probably meant he was going to drop his pace and concentrate on line and length a bit more".

"Brett is the bowler he is because of his pace. If he drops back his pace, he actually becomes a lot easier to face and a lot easier to hit".

Unquestionably, Lee cannot slow down for it goes contrary to his profession as fast bowler, yet neither must he be fast at the cost of control; both are virtues and not in conflict with each other. If anything in great bowlers they are complimentary, and it is this controlled aggression, this organised ferocity, that he must embrace and master, for only then will he release the best within him.

Confidence is the most precious elixir in sport, and after a reasonable Ashes as bowler (25 wickets at 41.10), though Fairbanks-style he was always in the thick of action, the beaming blonde has now sipped from it. He is a delightful fellow of enduring charm, all courage with the bat and enthusiasm in the field and demands attention. Two Tests remain against the Windies, then three more this summer against the visiting South Africans, and it is time for promise to be spun into consistent performance. At 29, Brett Lee must display he is worthy of the affection with which he is held. It is time for the swashbuckler to steal the stage.