Often injured, always quick
That Brett Lee has finally retired from international cricket is not a surprise. The remarkable thing is that he lasted this long. Lee made his first-class debut more than 17 years ago. A week earlier Queensland had won their first Sheffield Shield title. Mark Taylor was still in his first year as Australia's captain. For an express fast bowler, it was eons ago.
All that time Lee has had the most physically taxing job in the game. Ball after ball, match after match, year after year, he has run in and bowled damn fast, one of the few men to break 160kph. His workload and his unwillingness to give any less than his all took its toll. He missed Australia's historic tour of India in 2001 due to an elbow injury, the 2007 World Cup triumph because of an ankle problem and the 2009 Ashes because of a side strain.
There have also been, among other problems, stress fractures of the back, abdominal injuries and foot surgery. He even missed a tour due to appendicitis. Most players in his situation would have given the game away years ago. It takes a relentlessly upbeat personality to make so many comebacks and whatever the complaint from his body, Lee never whinged. It was his attitude as much as his skill that earned him 718 international wickets.
Only Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath claimed more victims for Australia. Lee the bowler was not in the class of Warne or McGrath, but he provided wonderful support for them during an era of Australian greatness. Warne personified the artistry of the side, McGrath the precision and Lee the sheer aggression. All were defining characteristics of the team.
Consider the batsmen Lee dismissed the most in international cricket: Ramnaresh Sarwan, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Andrew Strauss, Virender Sehwag, Chris Gayle, VVS Laxman. The most belligerent and the most obdurate batsmen of the modern era are on that list. Several would feature in discussions about the greatest batsmen of all time. It didn't matter who you were or how you played, nobody found Lee easy to face.
One of his most memorable dismissals was that of Jacques Kallis during the Boxing Day Test of 2005, when Kallis tried to hook a bouncer from Lee and was beaten so comprehensively for pace that his bat had barely drawn level with his right shoulder as the ball smashed into the logo on his helmet. Next ball, a hesitant Kallis was bowled by an inswinging yorker. It was classic Brett Lee, vanquishing one of the world's finest batsmen with sheer pace. If he could rattle Kallis, he could rattle anyone.
Along with Shoaib Akhtar, Lee kept express bowling alive during the 2000s. It was a passion he honed as a child, playing in the driveway of his Mount Warrigal home, running in hour after hour to bowl to his older brother Shane. The concrete strip that formed the pitch was about 30 metres long. It was also uphill. That didn't bother the young Brett, who used to pretend he was a West Indian quick and would open the front gate and start his run-up from the other side of the road. Eventually the garage door that acted as automatic wicketkeeper became so battered that it couldn't be opened.
But despite the aggressive on-field style that he built up over all those years, from his backyard to stadiums across the world, Lee remained universally popular, both among his opponents and opposition fans. He was a ferocious competitor on the field, but the first to check a batsman's wellbeing after hitting him with a bouncer. It was a trait he often had need to display.
He was never less than a gentleman off the field. He has devoted spare time to good causes, and is the ambassador for a cricket education programme in India, encouraging children to take up the game. During last year's World Cup, Australia had two matches within four days in Bangalore but Lee found time between the games to meet a young child taking part in the programme. They chatted about cricket and life for more than an hour. It was not a media photo opportunity. It was just Lee doing what he likes to do with his time off. He'll have plenty more spare time now, much of which he will spend with his young son Preston.
He will leave international cricket with Australia's attack showing considerable promise. Pat Cummins and James Pattinson are both causing the same ripples of excitement that Lee brought to Australian cricket a decade and a half ago. If they display anything close to Lee's longevity, Australia's fast-bowling future will be in good hands.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here