Australia in Bangladesh, 2011 April 10, 2011

Lee's undiscovered country

Despite suffering what might have been career-threatening injuries, Brett Lee, was single-minded about not letting his epitaph be written, and he now has the milestone of 200 ODI matches to show for it
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Brett Lee is trying to explain why he hasn't retired from international cricket yet when he glimpses something across the room. Draped over a suitcase is his Australian limited-overs kit, the Southern Cross emblazoned in green over the distinctive yellow backdrop now reserved for overseas matches. Some would think it cornball to invoke the power of the shirt at a time when money is omnipotent, a fact succinctly illustrated by the Indian Premier League. But not Lee, who scarcely hesitates in citing the national emblem.

"That [international retirement] could've happened [by] now, definitely, but you look over and you see that shirt, you see the coat of arms on the chest it's a pretty amazing thing," Lee told ESPNCricnfo in Dhaka during Australia's ongoing ODI series against Bangladesh.

"I play cricket for Australia because I love it, I love what it brings, I love what it stands for. I think, also, I've got a new spark of energy as well with what's happening in the Australian team right now. We are going through a transitional phase and although we didn't win the World Cup, I thought in patches we played some excellent cricket; we've got a lot of youth coming through and some guys need experience at the top, and hopefully I'm doing my job in that role."

Playing at all again was a truly laudable achievement by the 34-year-old Lee. An elbow problem, at first thought to be minor, pushed him back out of cricket for 15 months, soon after a foot stress fracture had chewed up another nine. For a fast bowler entering his mid-30s, they are the sort of setbacks that end a career. Lee, though, was single-minded about not letting his epitaph be written, and he now has the milestone of 200 ODI matches to show for it.

"I can understand, looking from an outsider's point of view, that this has probably been my best achievement and my biggest achievement: to get back to where I am now, definitely," Lee said.

"But for me actually going through it, it was just about going about my business [in] the same [manner]. Yeah I was told that I probably wouldn't be able to bowl again; I was told with the elbow injury that I shouldn't be playing cricket; the chances are that it could happen again at the start of getting back into it [again], but that's not really what I had in mind and that's not how the script was written."

Throughout that time Lee's only thoughts were of the 2011 World Cup, of leading the attack and lifting the trophy. Now that dream is gone, crushed under the weight of Indian batting in the quarter-finals, but Lee remains, and for the time being he has no intention of stepping to one side.

An unsatisfactory conclusion to the Cup looms large in his revised thinking, but so too does the notion that he is beating the norms of ageing pace bowlers, particularly those as committed to high speed as Lee. In the language of basketball devotees, Lee has reached the bonus zone; in the parlance of Trekkies, the undiscovered country.

"I mentioned somewhere as a throwaway comment 'in a perfect world we win the World Cup and hold it up, who knows what might happen', but we didn't win the World Cup but I'm really happy with the way I'm bowling and the way my body's feeling," Lee said.

"When you're away for 15 months, my aim was to get back in and play for Australia and lead the attack, and if it didn't happen I would've been disappointed, but at least I could live knowing I've given it my best shot and I've been happy with what I've achieved.

"But throughout getting back and playing a couple of games for Mosman, back playing for the Blues; it was the whole mindset of 'just keep enjoying your cricket, don't put any pressure on yourself, the wickets will come if I bowl in the right areas'. Don't worry about what other people are thinking, don't worry about the selection panel, don't worry about the World Cup coming up, that stuff will take care of itself if I'm doing all I possibly can.

"I'm also enjoying having the young guys around, I'm enjoying being the senior bowler and playing more of a leadership role working with the young bowlers and passing on the knowledge I've had passed on to me from Jason [Gillespie] and Glenn [McGrath] and [Craig] McDermott who's working with us now here."

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Lee's injury war stories are particularly useful at a time when the likes of Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc, and even older heads like Clint McKay, Ryan Harris and Doug Bollinger, are restricted by injury. As a senior bowler who had to battle numerous injuries as he developed his white-hot pace more than a decade ago, Lee's views on the physical toll of fast bowling are valuable. They are a wake-up call, too, for any fitness professional or sports scientist who believes that with careful management a bowler should be capable of existing independently of pain. Lee reckons he has bowled with varying types of discomfort in every match he has played since he was 17. Moreover, he has tended to ignore the stiffness indicative of a possible strain or tear until something has snapped entirely, the better to keep placing his name on the Australian team sheet.

My aim was to get back in and play for Australia and lead the attack, and if it didn't happen I would've been disappointed, but at least I could live knowing I've given it my best shot and I've been happy with what I've achieved
Brett Lee on his single-minded goal during his injury rehab

"To be perfectly honest, if I was to sit here now and say to you if I'd felt pain when I was bowling and I'd stopped, I wouldn't have played a game since I was 17, as simple as that," Lee said. "You've got to push through that pain threshold as a fast bowler. I don't care what anyone says, it's the toughest job in cricket but it's also one of the most exciting as well.

"The question is always asked: how can bowlers get injured. Are we playing too much cricket? Are the guys not doing enough weights? Are they doing too much weights? Are they not stretching enough? Are they wrapped in cotton wool? Are they bowling too much in the nets? Is their workload too heavy? Have they gone from under 17s to first-class cricket with not much time to expand on their problems and injuries?

"At the end of the day we weren't put on the earth to bowl with a cricket ball. To think about running in at 28-30kmh, contort your body, hyper-extend, counter-rotate, and when I land my front foot [it] feels 15 times my own body weight.

"Imagine trying to tell an Olympic javelin thrower to run in on a wet surface if it's dewy at night, to land in a foothole and try to throw the javelin - he'd laugh at you and say no way, they need a flat surface.But that's what a fast bowler has to do and it's such an unnatural action, that when you're trying to bowl 160 clicks, you're on the brink of getting injured every single ball."

So what then of effective management, of how to keep young bowlers fit while also steeling their bodies for the rigours ahead? Lee is adamant that young practitioners must learn from painful experience. And yes, injuries. About how to trust their own body, rather than being rationed on a meagre diet of deliveries in the nets as has become customary around Australia's so-called high performance pathway.

"It is about making sure that guys are looked after and understand too that it is such an unnatural action, and not be put in a class where they think you've got to be rested and can only bowl a certain amount of balls," Lee said. "Because you've got to be hardened as well for a fast bowler, you can't be put in the nets and be told you can only bowl 30 balls for that week and then see you next week type of thing.

"Your body and your bones have got to get used to that stress going through it. The old saying goes that through all the impact of bowling you get bone on bone and it creates a stronger platform to leverage off. If you haven't got that, your bones are soft and you haven't done the work, you can't expect to go bowling in the SCG nets at 130kmh twice a week, then go into a Test match and try to bowl 150 clicks for five days straight - the jump is massive.

"It's a massive catch-22 [situation] because you've got to do the work but you've also got to be fresh somehow. I don't really know what the answer is but I think it comes down to the individual. As bowlers get older they definitely got to know their body a lot better. I certainly know now the stiffness that might be my legs, might be my elbow, might be my back, I just know its stiffness because I haven't bowled for a week or because I've bowled for 10 overs flat-out, it's been hot, it's been humid, you're dehydrated.

"Then there's that pain there where you go 'oh I'm not used to that pain, that's different pain, that shouldn't be there'. The warning signs go off and you go straight to the physio. That just comes from experience; you can't teach it to a 17-year-old kid. Most importantly you don't want guys at 17 or 18; the first time they feel a niggle, they go to the physio and say 'my calf's hurting me' and they have three weeks off and they don't know where the line is.

"I've been the other end of the scale where I've gone until something's completely exploded or snapped."

For the moment, Lee is hopeful that nothing in his re-energised body will snap in the immediate future, as Bangladesh is followed by the Indian Premier League, and the last bow for NSW in the Twenty20 Champions League where he will attempt to repeat the rousing success of 2009. Beyond lie limited-overs matches in Sri Lanka and South Africa, and an Australian summer where he will enjoy one final tilt at Sachin Tendulkar. That now seems the most logical conclusion to Lee's career, a year later than the finish line he had previously set.

"I won't be at the next World Cup, I can put my house on that right now. Not that I wouldn't want to be but four years is a long time. The next 12 months or so let's just wait and see," said Lee.

"I don't have any plans in the next two months to say I've had enough and I'll walk away. There are some goals: I'd love to play the Australian summer, but you just don't know what the future's going to hold through injury or any other fact of life. I have no plans of standing aside because I'm enjoying cricket and loving it."

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • cmonaussiecmon on April 13, 2011, 3:38 GMT

    Very disappointing that he was out of cricket for a while, a great player with the ball and in the field. Also a great man to have around the team, adds positive spirit. Experience is a powerful thing, and he has heaps of it. A great Aussie. Don't retire soon, please.

  • straight_drive4 on April 13, 2011, 1:26 GMT

    Heres to a guy who is probably the last of the absolute crowd favorites - a guy who can go to any ground, any country around the world and be cheered. What a lion hearted performer he has been for Australia - he certainly has the "never say die attitude"... its a shame that attitude and commitment is becoming less and less evident in all players and teams around the world. Well done Binga, you are a champion and my all time fav player. Dont feel bad about the world cup because you have certainly given your fair share back to australia cricket over the years, i hope you thoroughly enjoy the time you have left in the team. you deserve it.

  • dummy4fb on April 11, 2011, 10:03 GMT

    I think Lee is a great ambassador of the game. Australian cricket will be poorer once he leaves and I really admire the aging fast bowler who could have so easily become a twenty twenty mercenary what with the IPL churning out huge sums of money to all and sundry.But he has chosen country over cash and is running in to bowl fast in the low, slow pitches of Bangladesh. And unlike other fast bowlers of the world who have just turned out to be honest trundlers, relying on change of pace he has come in and bowled his fastest and also his most guileful. He has a great slow bouncer if not Malinga"s yorkers, but surely, surely he must be one of the most watchable guys in world cricket. India loves him and will continue to love him, because he has very simply given his best every time he went out to bowl and I am not sure how many other world cricketers could honestly say that . Hats of to you Brett and may your tribe increase. sridhar

  • dummy4fb on April 11, 2011, 5:03 GMT

    I was one off the few skeptics especially when the australian selectors decided to pick in Bree Lee for the series against england.I am more than happy that he has proved me wrong.I do have a lot admiration for this mans enthusiasm and he is one of the few cricketers who doesnt put up a snotty face.He is full of energy each times even while interacting with the media.He isnt like those english cricketers everytime you look at their face they potray as if the world is conspiring against them

  • vparisa on April 11, 2011, 3:52 GMT

    There is no soul that does not like you Brett!!! When you retire Cricket will be poorer.

  • CricSamraat on April 11, 2011, 2:41 GMT

    Gary Hansell - thank you so much for sharing your real life story on Lee. My respect and admiration for Lee has been further reinforced. Brett Lee - Sir, YOU ARElef A REAL LIFE HERO people should think of every single day when they are really looking to lift themselves up. This great man goes about his work without allowing himself to be brought down by neglect or rejection. Oh, my God, such persons are few and far between.

  • CricSamraat on April 11, 2011, 2:32 GMT

    Great bowler. Above all, he has truly indomitable spirit and takes himself out of comfort zone every time he bowls. Superhuman, Lee.

  • Marcio on April 11, 2011, 1:23 GMT

    The greatest thing about Brett Lee is his sheer boyish enthusiasm for the game. Joy is a gret thing to see in a professional sportsperson. I'll take that any day over the snotty-nosed antics of a Stuart Broad or a Sean Tait ("...and stay out!")

  • Nerk on April 10, 2011, 22:54 GMT

    Brett Lee is the best bowler in Australia at the moment. He was always a bit wild, but during the world cup he showed that he could bowl tight and accurate, though he tried a bit hard to get a wicket against India after bowling a wicket maiden the previous over. Johnson would do well to take a leaf out of Lee's book.

  • 5wombats on April 10, 2011, 22:22 GMT

    Well said @Vindaliew - and I completely agree with you. Brett Lee is an original sporting hero. Show your kids; this is how the game should be played. Look at Edgbaston 2005 - Lee (with his bat!) came SOO close to winning that game. Brett Lee is the living embodiment of Australianism. Fantastic player.

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