For one glorious but all too brief moment in Canberra on Wednesday night, Brett Lee promised to crown a wonderful career with a moment so magical that even comic book scriptwriters could not have believed its creation.
With three balls of the Big Bash final remaining and just a single run needed by Perth Scorchers to retain the trophy, Lee screamed a yorker through Nathan Coulter-Nile's rather bizarre attempt at victory. Now two balls left, scores still tied, and a new batsman asking for guard. Lee took his time, tweaked the field placements, switched to around the wicket for the left-handed Sam Whiteman, and promptly blew him out of the water. The flashing bails danced into the cool night air and Lee performed his own celebration of leap-and-bound and chainsaw reaction.
Next up for Scorchers was the Pakistan fast bowler Yasir Arafat. Sydney's Sixers closed in, vultures to their prey. It hardly seemed fair, this mismatch of cricket. Arafat surveyed the unpromising scene. Lee stood at the end of his run and sucked in the last mighty breaths of a career that began before some of these guys were out of kindy. He looked down at his boots and begged, doubtless, that they would jet-propel him to the hat-trick of his life.
In he charged, that strong rump and those powerful legs driving like pistons just one last time. He reached the perfect delivery stride and noticing Arafat inch away to leg, chose to go with him. The ball was fast and full. It might or might not have hit leg stump. Arafat somehow connected with it and then ran, for all he was worth. But he had no chance. The Lee hat-trick suddenly had become a team hat-trick. Fine by Brett and fine by Sydney. At midwicket, the pick-up was clean and the throw hard, accurate and on the bounce. It reached Moises Henriques, who stood over the stumps, at waist height. Arafat was nowhere.
Moises dropped it. Moises dropped the BBL. Moises Henriques, the saviour of the Sixers batting aberration, dropped the bloody ball. Arafat appeared in the frame, throwing his body across the line. No hat-trick, no tie, no Super Over. No trophy. The Sixers would have won the Super Over because Brett would have bowled it. Fact. Poor, sad Moises, who deserved more.
"The players must interview with grace and good sense. Their spirit must be incorrigible, their reference should be Phillip Hughes. Standards must be set that educate and entertain without rancour"
Lee slumped to his knees, much as he had done at Edgbaston almost a decade ago. That day, Andrew Flintoff knelt by his side, and two fine gladiators were caught in an image that resonated across all sports in all parts of the world. It is an iconic picture and it tells us about men and their games. It tells us that men matter more than games and it tells us that what matters the most is how men play those games.
This time Lee was not slumped for so long. He knew his time had gone. It was for others to weep and others again to whoop and holler. Quickly, Lee went amongst his opponents and shook their hands. When the interviewer from Channel Ten whacked her microphone to his mouth, he spoke of deserving Scorchers, admirable colleagues and a wonderful occasion. And he smiled that irresistible smile. Cricket has been lucky to have him. Goodnight Brett and good luck.
In a fortnight or so, the World Cup begins. Fifty-over cricket is endangered by moments like Wednesday night. Where once patience brought cricket lovers their reward, now it comes in a rush of thrust and counter-thrust and interludes of pop and cheerleading chicks and left-side cleared slogs and bowlers with justifiable economy rates above six an over. We have changed, cricket has changed. Fifty-over cricket has stayed much the same. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose - sort of.
Fifty-over cricket has six weeks in Australia and New Zealand to speak for itself. How many Brett Lees are there out there? Since Sachin Tendulkar was carried on the arms of his men around the Wankede four years ago, Tendulkar himself and many others have gone. No Kallis or Smith; no Pietersen or Ponting; no Murali, nor Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh or Zaheer Khan.
It falls upon the exceptional cricketers of the moment to take this thing by the scruff and make it unmissable. Australia's season of cricket began on November 5 with T20 internationals against South Africa. Much water has flowed under the bridge since. Australians will baulk at Scotland and Afghanistan, to name two. New Zealanders may not even notice such countries are here.
The tournament has too many teams and is too long. The quarter-finals are the best bit and do not begin until March 18th. Thus, the big games during the group stage really matter. Tickets have sold well for the two home teams, South Africa, India and England when they play an opponent of stature. These matches must be played at breakneck levels of speed and intensity, interwoven with skill and craft and patience. Tactics must be original, execution effective. Stars must be born. Stalwarts must shine.
Commentators must bring their imagination to the audience, thinking themselves into a world of fantasy about which others dream. The players must interview with grace and good sense, understanding they are salesmen for the game that makes them wealthy. Their spirit must be incorrigible, their reference should be Phillip Hughes. Standards must be set that educate and entertain without rancour or the chance of regret.
If anyone is in any doubt as to what this means, think back to Brett Lee and three balls that gave us the game as we love it. Three balls of power and depth and years of rehearsal. Three balls that edged us off our seats and led us to hold our heads in amazement. Three balls that told us cricket was anything but ordinary. Three balls that would do any match in the coming World Cup a massive favour.
And think back again, to Lee's response to their ultimate failing. The response of a man who understands exactly what CLR James was saying in Beyond a Boundary 52 years ago: "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?"