March 26, 2008

Service with a smile

Not the least of Brett Lee's achievements this summer has been how he has managed to keep his temper and dignity while all about him were losing theirs

Brett Lee has raised his game and his standing in the eyes of fans and opponents alike © Getty Images

Brett Lee deserved every plaudit that came his way in 2007-08. Everyone held him in high regard. From the first ball to the last, he was outstanding. After a long campaign he was still able to muster the enthusiasm needed to perform valiantly for his state in the five-day domestic final. He has never given less than his best.

Besides taking significant wickets on the opening day, Lee also contributed tellingly to New South Wales' second innings, scoring 97, thereby ending any lingering hopes the Victorians may have held of causing an upset. Throughout the various campaigns of a confrontational summer, Lee was superb. He shone with bat and ball, and sometimes even in the field, where he suffered fewer of the lapses that had made his work therein so interesting earlier in his career. Indeed, Lee's ability to focus on matters in hand, to concentrate on every ball and to approach every day and every match with intent told the tale about his cricket. Not so very long ago he'd make a hash of an easy stop between brilliant interceptions, or serve up tripe between threatening deliveries. Suddenly he emerged as a man to depend upon.

Lee went further. Through an acrimonious series with India he remained popular with both parties and all spectators. Heavens above, even Harbhajan Singh liked him. It was not that he was above the fray. To the contrary, he was constantly in the thick of the action and exposed to the same turbulences as everyone else. And yet he retained his respect for the game and his opponents. Accordingly he was able to send down a beamer to Sachin Tendulkar in a one-day final without causing any of the anger that followed previously deliveries of the same ilk. Lee apologised straight away. Such was his reputation that Tendulkar and all India accepted his word that it had been a mishap. A potential nasty episode was forgotten.

It takes an extraordinary performer to gain that much traction in the middle of such unpleasantness. Throughout the series and into the ODIs, Lee played without resentment. He smiled more often than a child presented with a chocolate cake, and he meant it. Supporters and opponents sensed his sincerity. Not that he is a soft touch. Just that he did not lower himself, and tried to think well of his fellow men.

Of course, Lee also knows where his naan is buttered. Certainly he has substantial commercial interests in India, where his dashing looks and generous disposition cause many hearts to flutter. But Lee was not playing to the gallery. He came across as a fierce competitor and as a genuine man. He chose his own mood, played by his own lights, refused to join the prevailing pack mentality that showed his colleagues - and especially his leaders - in such a poor light. Indeed, a case can be made for taking a closer look at his leadership credentials.

Not the least of Lee's achievements in 2007-08 was to scatter to the winds the craven notion that in modern sport, a player must growl and curse and scowl and provoke and insult, or else he is letting the side down. Even in these days of intense and often partisan competition and coverage it is still possible for a man of open disposition to rise above it. Lee reminded all and sundry that sport is sport, and that the word "player" carries weight.

An essentially good humoured man, he had long been liked by comrades but not till now has he commanded such widespread affection and admiration. But then, not until these last few months has he been been able to release his entire, uncensored, mature self. In a notably impressionable youth, he allowed himself to be used as a bone cracker at some cost to his work and reputation. Eventually he realised that he was more effective when using brain and not brawn.

Besides his evident sense of sportsmanship, Lee is also popular because he has endured all manner of ups and downs and never once whined. On India's previous tour he had become so confused about his action that he was reduced to sending down harmless deliveries from a yard behind the popping crease. Another man might have been broken by the experience. After all it is not the collapse that matters, but the nagging feeling that it might happen again. Lee refused to let it bring him down.

Apart from the retaining of his manners, Lee's triumph in the southern summer of 2007-08 was due to his consistency and cleverness. In the past it was barely conceivable that such words might be attached to him. Two of his wickets illustrate his improvement. Called upon to break a partnership on a docile pitch in Hobart, he removed a lingering opening batsman. Now Mahela Jayawardene walked to the crease. Already this accomplished batsman had scored a hundred in the first innings and his wicket was prized. Jayawardene took guard and surveyed the scene. Doubtless he had been following proceedings on television.

Hitherto Lee had not bowled a single ball from wide of the crease in the series. Not one. Nor had he given any indication that he thought the ball might reverse swing. As he stood at the top of his mark he decided the time had come to go for broke. He surged to the crease, veered a little wider and sent down a searing yorker that started well outside off stump and began to bend back so late that the batsman ignored it. Not until the ball was almost upon him did Jayawardene sense danger. But it was too late. His timbers were sent flying.

Not the least of Lee's achievements in 2007-08 was to scatter to the winds the craven notion that in modern sport a player must growl and curse and scowl and provoke and insult, or else he is letting the side down

It was the delivery of the summer. It was a thoughtful and disciplined bit of bowling. Here was confirmation that Lee had learned a lot from Troy Cooley, the bowling coach England so foolishly allowed to slip through their hands after the Ashes had been regained in 2005.

Further confirmation came from Lee's second masterpiece of the summer. Once again his saved his sharpest work for the opposition's greatest batsmen. Sachin Tendulkar was looking his old self in Perth and appeared on the verge of producing a decisive innings. Lee had pounded away but the pitch was unhelpful and the ball soft. Not since the Jayawardene delivery had Lee moved wide of the crease. Instead he had relied on changes of pace and outswingers. Now he used the width of the crease for a second time. Tendulkar saw him and decided to use the angle to guide the ball through the leg side. But Lee had summoned an extra yard of pace. Tendulkar was beaten. He had misread the ball. Lee celebrated but without contrivance. Nothing is more satisfying to a bowler than the springing of a trap. Few had thought him capable of such subtleties.

Inconceivable 12 months before, these dismissals demonstrated the sustained excellence of his work. Nor were they alone. He mixed up his deliveries cleverly without losing his control and added to his repertoire a well disguised slower ball that seemed to hang in the air. Altogether he took 40 wickets in six Test matches at an average of 21. Whenever Australia were in trouble, the ball was thrown to him. His unstinting efforts held the attack together and he was the inevitable choice as cricketer of the summer. It was a magnificent achievement. And it was all done without any hint of rancour.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It