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When Peter Lee came upon the first-class cricket scene he was given three commandments. The Northamptonshire coach and scorer Jack Mercer, the one-time Glamorgan bowler and one of the most talkative characters remaining in the first-class game today, took the young and ambitious Lee on one side and said: "If you want to make the grade, lad, keep fit, keep straight ... and keep an eye on Brian Statham." That was way back in 1967 and from that moment onwards the great-hearted Lee has done just what Mercer advised. His fitness is a by-word in cricket. His straightness of line and command of length have earned him the respect and even the admiration of batsmen in every county.
What is more his respect for Statham was such that Lee lost no opportunity of watching the Lancashire and England bowler in action. It was always from a distance because by the time Lee moved from Northampton to Old Trafford in 1972 Statham had gone into retirement. Nonetheless it was no mere coincidence that saw Lee travel from the Midlands to Lancashire and really make the grade. Always the thought of what Statham had done for Lancashire spurred Lee on and last summer he was the only English born bowler in first-class cricket to top 100 wickets. He had achieved the same distinction in 1973 when he became the first Lancashire bowler to do so since Ken Higgs in 1968, but what gave Lee greater pleasure was the fact that he had joined the ranks of the county's bowlers in the 100-plus class and earned a ranking alongside Statham who, of course, achieved 100 wickets nine times in a career that also brought him more wickets than any other Lancashire bowler.
Peter Granville Lee was born in the Northamptonshire village of Arthingworth on August 28, 1945 and was captain of his school as well as the opening bowler before he had trials with the Northamptonshire second team that led to an offer of an engagement on the staff in 1967. One of four cricketing brothers who formed the backbone and the background of the village team, Peter Lee stepped into the game because it was the natural thing to do. First one Lee joined the village club and then another. Eventually all four were members of the first team but before that there was no cricketing history in the family, at least none that left an impact, but as Peter says: "There was always cricket talk and cricket deeds in the air at home." Yet he was the only brother ambitious enough to take his chance at first-class level.
He had no illusions about the task ahead. For him bowling meant hard work and long hours. He had watched Northamptonshire whenever he got the opportunity as a schoolboy and a teenager and eagerly accepted the offer of trials at the County Ground. "I think I just had to prove myself at the game's highest level," says the modest Peter, and he found the going tough. The encouragement he received from Jack Mercer really spurred him on and he made his first-class début in his very first season with Northamptonshire and was always on hand to keep one end going and provide the batsmen with problems. He gained no spectacular successes and never really anticipated any. His job was he saw it was to keep one end going as economically as possible and welcome the wickets that did come his way as the fruits of hard, very hard, labour. For five years Lee was in and out of the Northamptonshire side. Fast bowlers came and went with an amazing degree of regularity as the placid County Ground pitches took their toll and it was men like Lee, short of real pace, but always pegging away on a line and length that had to do the real hard work. Uncomplainingly and without any real chance to better himself, Peter always had the urge to step up but seldom the opportunity and when, in the winter of 1971-72, Northamptonshire signed Cottam from Hampshire and Dye from Kent he realised the going was going to be tougher still.
To his surprise, and relief, he was told that Lancashire had made enquiries about his availability and would he like to talk with the Old Trafford officials. He would and he did. After carefully weighing up the prospects and finding the Lancashire terms satisfactory he decided to move north. But it was not the money that really prompted the move. "I was assured there would be more opportunity for me at Old Trafford than at Northampton and that was what I craved," says Lee... and he packed his bags to move north and prove himself all over again. It was a step he has never regretted for Lancashire, badly needing support for Lever and Shuttleworth, both of whom had reached Test status and toured Australia, turned to Lee for insurance and found it. He slotted into the team Jack Bond was driving to the top with rare enthusiasm and found the encouragement he received and the support he was accorded just the incentives to drive him on. Yet his figures in 1972 did nothing to suggest that the way to the top was open. Taking 37 wickets and bowling 370 overs Lee claimed his victims at a cost of nearly 30 runs each but only the spinners, Simmons and Hughes, did better. Lee emerged as Lancashire's top seamer. Modest though his figures were he did better than either Lever or Shuttleworth and instead of becoming a stand-in had earned a regular place on merit.
In 1973 he built a solid foundation. Always fit and ever willing to bowl into the wind or with it, Lee broke through in a big way to take 101 wickets at less than 20 runs each. Day after day, match after match, Lee, Leapy in the dressing-room, was always producing the figures that mattered, but there was more to cricket than merely getting wickets. The former Northamptonshire man had to polish up his fielding and make sure that he did what was needed whenever he went out to bat as the regular last man in. The No. 11 batting spot was always his. At Northamptonshire he seldom aspired to rise in the ranks although at school he batted in the middle and liked it. At Old Trafford it suited Lee to concentrate on his bowling and fielding but be prepared for the odd occasions when he had to hit out or hold out.
At the end of the 1973 season Peter Lee was generally acknowledged in the places where it matters most--the first-class cricketing dressing rooms -- as a seam bowler who harnessed accuracy with the ability to swing a little each way and keep on bowling for long spells. Such men are rare when cricket is played seven days a week, but no honours came the way of Lancashire's discovery. Official tours and representative matches have evaded a tireless bowler but he has toured South Africa and the West Indies with private parties and gained from the experience.
In point of fact it was a knee injury sustained in South Africa that made the 1974 season something of a nightmare for Lee. Throughout the summer he was in pain and trouble and captured only 25 first-class wickets at a cost of 27 runs each, but was encouraged to be patient and provided with first-class treatment as he strove and succeeded in conquering a troublesome injury. Last summer Lee repaid his debt to all those who had expressed their confidence in him. Fit again, he resumed his marathon spells and provided the cutting edge along with Lever to Lancashire's new ball attack. Once again Peter Lee topped the 100 wicket mark. At the age of 32 he proved himself the most successful English bowler in a summer of glorious weather and mainly batting pitches and it was a happy man who went back to his Northamptonshire home to his wife Sue and two young daughters, Maxine and Rachel. He is now considering moving house and home to Lancashire. He keeps fit by playing local football, training two nights a week and going to the indoor nets at Northampton. There are no hard feelings between the player and his former club. Peter Lee is not like that. He is a cricketers' cricketer. A real professional. A trier and team man. Who could ask for more? -- J. K.