A great bloke, who repeatedly cut it with the greats
For about half of his career, Brett Lee was possibly a rung short of being a true cricketing great. That’s not to denigrate a guy who had a lengthy Australian career in all forms of the game. It’s just how it is.
Unlike the greatest two bowlers of his generation Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, Lee was a player of peaks and troughs. When he was good, you didn’t want to be a batsman, or for that matter his own wicket keeper. But when he was ordinary, you didn’t want to be a picket in the boundary fence.
The moment Lee arrived on the scene for NSW in the mid ’90s, it was clear he was one out of the box marked “Express”. In his debut in the 1999 Boxing Day Test at the MCG, he took a wicket in his first over and 5/47 in his first innings. Shane Who? Glenn Who?
It took just 11 matches for Lee to bag his first 50 Test wickets. As a comparison, Warne took 31 wickets in his first 11 Tests, while McGrath snared 34. Like one of his thunderbolts on the pitch, Lee struck hard and fast in Test cricket. But then he seemed to level off.
Statistics don’t reveal the full picture in any sport. They don’t tell of aura, and intimidation, and of the small things players bring to a team’s spirit which only his team-mates understand. In this respect, Lee was a hugely valued man around the dressing room, both in his early raw days and in his wily older days.
Crowds loved Lee for his exuberant mid-pitch wicket celebrations. Most famous was the chainsaw, immortalised in an early cover shoot for Alpha magazine.
For all his value as a persona in the team, some of Lee’s stats are mildly disappointing. McGrath’s bowling average was just 21, which means he leaked 21 runs for each wicket. Lee’s average was 30. The generally-accepted benchmark for “greatness” is mid-20s and below.
Of course, express pace bowling has long been a recipe for profligacy. The faster you send ‘em down, the faster the batsmen can dispatch ‘em.
That’s what makes Brett Lee’s One Day and T20 stats so impressive. He was never economical in either form of the game. But oh, did he have the happy knack of taking wickets. Here’s one for your next pub trivia night. Guess who holds the record of 380 One Day scalps alongside Glenn McGrath?
In Australia’s unbeaten 2003 World Cup campaign, Lee was brilliant hunting in tandem with the likes of miserly Glenn McGrath and the in-form Andy Bichel. You’d have the guile men at one end, and those late inswinging Lee yorkers making woodchips out of stumps at the other. A true batsman’s nightmare.
And then, there were those days on dead pitches. I remember being at the SCG in early 2004 when Lee took match figures of 4-276. India racked up a tally of 9-916 in its two innings. Lee looked about as menacing as the seagulls.
Of course, every cricketer has his lean patches, and to reach straight into the sporting cliché bag, what counts is how you bounce back. Lee did this with style, and if he didn’t do it in one or two definitive outings, then he bounced back with his longevity.
For a guy who suffered stress fractures, and who bowled the second fastest ball ever recorded (161.3 km/h, a fraction slower than Pakistan’s Shoaib Akhtar), it’s remarkable Lee was still competing in Australian colours in England last week aged 35.
He also recently won an IPL title in India, and was in selectors’ plans for the T20 World Cup in September before succumbing to a minor calf strain last week. Truly, Brett Lee stood the test of time on field.
Off the field, he has always conducted himself just as impressively. Lee has never been a player who’s name has bobbed up at the wrong end of the newspaper. An exception was the break-up of his marriage in 2008, an affair beyond his control which he handled with enormous dignity.
Steve Waugh once called Lee a once-in-a-lifetime talent, or words to that effect, and Lee probably fell just short of that. But if you throw together his attitude, his 300 wickets in both major forms of the game, his longevity and his sheer public recognisability in a golden era of Australian cricket, you have to call him a giant of the game, regardless of whether or not you call him a “great”.
Lee is a thoughtful guy who’d rather watch 60 Minutes than some TV talent show, and who has a big black grand piano in his house. He is a keen musician. Perhaps that’s helped with his sense of timing.
Lee’s retirement announcement today is certainly well-timed. He goes out while still mighty close to the top. Ricky Ponting might take the hint, before he too slips off the perch marked “great” to the one marked “great in his heyday but with consistent lean patches”.
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