Australia v New Zealand, 2nd Test, Adelaide, 4th day December 1, 2008

Lee regains his spark

An in-form Lee is essential for Australia to succeed in their contests against South Africa and England in the next nine months and his average of two wickets per Test in India was a worrying return

Lee took a career-best match-haul of 9 for 171 © AFP (file photo)
Australia came home from India with more unanswered questions than when George Bush plays Trivial Pursuit but at least Brett Lee has responded in the affirmative to one of the biggest queries. An in-form Lee is essential for Australia to succeed in their contests against South Africa and England in the next nine months and his average of two wickets per Test in India was a worrying return.

There was even talk Lee, 32, would be rested for one of the New Zealand Tests, so after Stuart Clark and Mitchell Johnson outperformed him in the wickets column at the Gabba the pressure was really on. Lee countered with the best match figures he has ever collected in a Test when he helped finish off New Zealand on the fourth day in Adelaide and ended up with 9 for 171 for the game.

It was the ideal medicine for Lee, who had picked up a virus ahead of the fourth Test in India on a tour that had already proved gruelling. After his marriage break-up in August he skipped Australia's one-day series against Bangladesh, lost match fitness and battled to regain his bowling mojo. In India Lee's pace was down and so were his spirits, and he returned home under as much scrutiny as his struggling colleagues Brad Haddin, Matthew Hayden and Clark. "I lost a lot of strength," Lee said. "It only feels now over the last couple of weeks that the strength has come back. The results show that as far as pace and wickets. I'm ecstatic to get nine wickets in a Test."

Four first-innings successes was a good start, although his figures were inflated by wrapping up Iain O'Brien and Chris Martin, two of the least accomplished batsmen in world cricket. His spark really returned on the fourth morning when he bowled ten overs on the trot, including a period when he grabbed 4 for 14, to kill off any lingering hope of New Zealand saving the game. On any surface that would be a remarkable session but on a flat Adelaide Oval pitch it was a magnificent sign for the man who has spearheaded the attack in the post-McGrath era. Even though two of the wickets came from poor shots when Aaron Redmond and Jesse Ryder flailed in one-day fashion, Lee was consistently beating the bat and bowling at impressive speed.

He drew genuine edges on several occasions, once to have Jamie How brilliantly caught at second slip by Ricky Ponting and twice against Daniel Flynn, who was put down by Haddin and sent another one flying past Ponting. A solid catch off his own bowling that ended Ross Taylor's stay completed his pre-lunch highlights package. He returned to trap O'Brien lbw and his 5 for 105 was well deserved.

Just as importantly, Lee was looking genuinely happy. He was waving and smiling at the Adelaide crowd, and cheerfully signing autographs while fielding at fine leg. Even towards the end of a ten-over spell that would have exhausted a man ten years younger, he was haring around in the outfield and hurling balls towards the stumps with the sort of energy that he has lacked.

The spark is necessary at a time in his life when some fast bowlers depart or are pushed from the top level. None of Jason Gillespie, Craig McDermott, Merv Hughes, Geoff Lawson and Graham McKenzie played a Test past the age of 32. But instead of worrying about age, Lee is already preparing himself for the first Test against South Africa, which starts in just over a fortnight.

"I've been improving every match. That just goes down to strength," Lee said. "The next couple of weeks are going to do me a lot of good I think, being back in the gym, having a great strength programme, putting back on the kilos that I've lost. I'm getting really close, although bowling ten overs straight wouldn't have helped today."

Lee remains confident that he has several years left in him and for the time being he has answered one of Australia's post-India questions. Clark's wickets at the Gabba and Haddin's brilliant 169 on Sunday have also boosted the team's confidence and if Hayden and Andrew Symonds can start building some big scores, the side's form puzzle will be almost complete. With a fired-up South Africa about to hit the country for three Tests, Lee's timing is impeccable.

Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo