Brett Lee was one of the more prominent influences in my junior cricketing career, which is a fond aspect of my childhood. Following the news of his retirement, these thoughts and memories came out.
Gideon Haigh said Brett Lee was the last bowler of an era where bowlers, in the absence of bowling coaches, nutritionists and physiotherapists, “had to find their own way”. I like this because it articulates the independent force which I came to admire and love while growing up watching Brett Lee bowl. Lee never really fulfilled his potential – he was plagued by injury. But he did plenty to imprint his technique, pace and passion on the mind of this young cricketer; rip-starting my imagination like the lawnmower he used to celebrate his scalps. In my earliest cricket team, Eastlake, I took proudly to the role of Glenn McGrath while Zac, a shorter, faster, blonder kid, was Lee. They were safe roles to fill in our team because as you may know, Lee and McGrath’s partnership survived many (dominant) series. (I also couldn’t bat so that worked well.) But in the nets everyone would choose to imitate Lee: the skip at the top of his run, high arm at delivery and then the rip of your own lawnmower when the balls were on song. Lee’s technique was as great to watch as the batsmen reeling from his bouncers. Everything was in line at delivery, like a full-tilt, expertly refined version of the windmill they taught at Milo Cricket. It seems likely that such a sound technique was key to his longevity; itself a testament to his character considering his long list of injuries.
I met him just before he retired from Test cricket in 2009. Even as an 18-year-old with a few beers in me I struggled to drum up the courage to approach the next bay in a packed Sydney Football Stadium where he and a host of celebrities were having suit-and-tie drinks. Pearl Jam’s imminent entrance hurried me and I choked on my words when he agreed to sign my shirt, star struck from years of knowing him from behind six-inches of glass.
Only eight years earlier I remember timing my run perfectly from hot chip shop to seat, despite the pissed passer-by who stopped me to nab a snack, to watch him live for the very first time. I watched with so much excitement as this man in yellow screamed in and the SCG crowd screamed for him. From then on I searched for his name in selection news, caring a little more for the games when he was playing, and watched in awe of the cameras that could make his deliveries visible.
I also remember reading his and his brother Shane’s co-biography and enjoying picking out the similarities in our upbringing. It was hope, like many young cricketers, of playing for Australia that I searched for. And I suckled at it like a hungry calf, rooting for Lee and granting him my bias whenever he was questioned. But he didn’t find himself in controversial waters often, this speed bump perhaps more an embarrassment for the Australian public than Lee:
His impact was best felt in shorter versions of the game where he thrived (380 wickets in 221 matches at a strike rate of 29.4). Perhaps, though, given more opportunity from the injury gods, he would have carved a groove more similar to the great bowlers in Australian cricket history. He used his pace to set-up a batsman in ways others couldn’t, which is either a sign of a man very switched on or someone well across his skill sets. Probably both. He could do it over the course of several overs, or a couple of balls. Like this in 2005:
My favourite example of his cricketing nous, though, was in the 2006/07 Ashes series at the Adelaide Oval. In an over with a fresh Andrew Flintoff at the crease, the match dawdling to a draw, Lee played the game the way it ought to be: one step ahead. “Pressure pressure pressure,” commentator Bill Lawry said to surmise his over later, but the four deliveries before he took Flintoff’s wicket looked more poor than pressurised. Lee knew, though, that Flintoff would fear facing a high-tailed Warne at the other end. So he kept sending them wide of off, tempting Flintoff to free his arms in search of a boundary. Flintoff missed a couple, sort-of left another and then, feet cemented, edged one; caught by Gilchrist.
I was disappointed when the news came that he’d retired, but not surprised. Like Steve Waugh said, Lee didn’t slow down after he turned 30; he went at 100% his whole career. His bowling had a Steve Irwin-like enthusiasm to it. I’m also glad Lee was spared any popular push to retire in the same way Waugh was. Lee was at his best or there about until the end. We’ll get to watch a bit more of the 35-year-old as he supplements his superannuation this Australian summer (and beyond?) in the BBL. He mightn’t be a great, but it was a great career. Apart from his individual achievements, the great thing is the various ways Brett Lee has influenced childhood ambitions as an international cricketer for nearly 13 years; I feel lucky to have been one of those youngsters.
By Keiran Deck