Brett Lee: his moment is now
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When Brett Lee bounded into Test cricket's playground in 1999 and started bullying anyone he set eyes on, he did so with an impunity that few cricketers have ever been granted. Lee had licence to do what he wanted, to whoever he wanted, because he was protected. Now a rival mob want a piece of Lee's men - but when he looks over his shoulder at the MCG on Boxing Day, he won't see the usual faces. This time, effectively, he's all on his own.
Only once before has Lee played a Test without Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Shane Warne, and that was a one-sided match against Zimbabwe. Having those three at your side is like being in the good books of Michael Corleone, John Gotti and Tony Soprano. Up till now, Lee knew he could bowl flat out in pursuit of one thing only: wickets. That's why he's got an average worse than Dominic Cork's. In many ways, failure had no price. If Lee got in too deep, as on his wretched 2001 tour of England, one of the big guns would rescue him, and Australia.
There is no such luxury now. And all this in Australia's biggest Test match for eight years - which is a long time in today's programme. Given that Australia just do not normally draw Test matches (just one throughout Steve Waugh's 55-match reign that hasn't been rain-affected) then this is it, make or break: 1-1, with momentum to add, or an irretrievable 0-2.
It is impossible to overstate how big a Test this is for Lee. If he doesn't fire, it is hard to see how Australia can bowl India out twice. If Lee against Rahul Dravid is the irresistible force against the immovable object, then Lee against India is irresistible force against irresistible force. It will take something special to contain the trance-like momentum that India have now, but Lee is capable of it.
He will need to be. Matchwinning help is unlikely to come from Andy Bichel, whose gradient has levelled off after a year of glorious overachievement; or from MacGill, who has been treated with the same disdain as every other spin bowler who faces India and, worse, has gone public on his impotence; or from Nathan Bracken or Brad Williams, who share 55 years but only seven Test wickets. This is a job for men, not boys.
Which is where Lee comes in. He seems eternally young, and with that fresh face and shock of blond hair he could almost pass for a teenager. But Lee is 27 now: at that age, Glenn McGrath had just gone from good to great by persecuting Brian Lara, Dennis Lillee was about to terrorise England in the Centenary Test, and Ray Lindwall had just proved himself Invincible. Everyone has to grow up and embrace responsibility sometime. This is Lee's moment: it's time for the next step.
In the grand scheme of this great Australian side, Lee has been a novelty - a brilliant, blockbusting novelty, but a novelty nonetheless. His role has been to ice a cake baked by others. There have been unforgettably visceral moments, but no defining performance. Indeed, when asked to select his career highlight by Australia's Inside Edge magazine recently, Lee chose his five-for on debut - against India, at Melbourne, exactly four years ago - a game in which he wasn't even the Man of the Match.
But if he delivers now, people will forever remember the time Brett Lee waded in after injury to put the Indians in their place. Fail, and sceptics will mutter that all along he was just a good bowler in a great team. That great team could not resist India's power in 2000-01, but injury meant that Lee was not part of that tour. Unlike his team-mates, Lee's last Test-match memories of India involve batsmen hopping around, the smell of fear in the air.
Success at Melbourne and Sydney won't buy Lee greatness, but it would buy him a shot at it - and a legacy worth the name. Besides, Australia could really, really use a sporting hero just now.
The script is written; the pitch is fast and obliging. The scrunch of Michael Di Venuto's index finger in the Pura Cup last weekend was the warning shot. Australia's bragging rights, Steve Waugh's farewell and a place in the pantheon are at stake. Here's to the next step.
Rob Smyth is a freelance journalist based in London.