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Tanya's Take

No more the rocker

The thrill of watching Brett Lee at the top of his run-up in a Test match was something else

Tanya Aldred
Tanya Aldred
Brett Lee flies up to his delivery stride, England Lions v Australians, New Road, 2nd day, July 2, 2009

Brett Lee: Mr Nice Guy when the ball is out of his hands  •  PA Photos

Right back, just before the turn of the century, an Australian friend was boasting about a new young blade who had rocked up on the cricket scene over there. We'd heard this sort of thing before, always followed by a lecture on the superiority of the Australian way of life in creating sporting greatness. So wearily we nodded and waited for this latest superstar in waiting to pass.
But no, he told us, this bloke was it, the real thing. He was young, he was wiry and he was very, very, very fast.
And so it came to pass, that Brett Lee did emerge from Wollongong with a Test debut in December 1999. He was not your typical baggy-green wearer. He was very smiley. He looked as if he was enjoying himself from the moment he walked on the field to the press conference afterwards and even as he climbed upon the team coach at the end of the day. He had a nice guy's haircut, a blond floppy mop that he attacked with various amounts of hair gel. He had a band, Six and Out, that released real records, though not real enough for people to be jealous of. And he worked in a gentleman's outfitters, because he liked clothes and people and making the perfect fitting for a suit.
But the real reason Test audiences loved him was for his speed. That little tantalising rock forward on the ball of his foot, the 21-pace run up which became a sprint, the front-on action, the snap of the wrist and the bullet of a ball which emerged. The deadly yorker or the fearsome bouncer. Then the leap of delight at crashing stumps or dazzling catch by the ever-helpful slip cordon. This was Tigger, made real and antipodean.
There had been a short-term dearth of fast bowlers. The West Indian greats were fading - Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh were at the end of their illustrious careers and though Glenn McGrath was almost insurmountable, he was more metronome than razzle-dazzle. The mojo had been with the spinners, with Shane Warne, with Saqlain Mushtaq and with Muttiah Muralitharan. But now there was Lee and over the sea, Shoaib Akhtar.
He had a nice guy's haircut, a blond floppy mop that he attacked with various amounts of hair gel. He had a band, Six and Out, that released real records, though not real enough for people to be jealous of
And if there was no real rivalry between Shoaib and Lee, the rest of us enjoyed pretending there was. It was a virility contest - the hirsute Pakistani (who later tested positive for nandrolone, though later cleared on appeal to the dismay of international drug agencies), or the clean-shaven Australian. The race for the first 100mph ball went to Shoaib in 2002, but both were constantly testing the speed gun.
Lee's Test career wasn't always consistent. He had a disappointing first Ashes series in 2001 - with just nine wickets in five Tests. But in England in 2005, he was unforgettable. He took 20 wickets, at just over 41 - but the statistics didn't tell the full story. His finest game was Edgbaston where McGrath trod on a ball in practise and was injured and Lee became the spearhead. A furious three-wicket spell in two overs on the third morning dented England, and then on the Sunday morning Lee, first with Warne and then with Michael Kasprowicz, inched Australia towards the finish, battered and bruised by England's desperate bowlers, only to fall just short. In despair he fell to the ground, where Andrew Flintoff's giant paw found him and you had that iconic photograph. Twenty wickets followed again in the 5-0 whitewash of England the following winter, he was injured for the last Ashes, and now will not play again.
If he never had quite the menace of McGrath, he was the box-office star. The Botham, Shoaib, Marshall, Shane Bond, the strike bowler to concentrate your mind and keep you on your seat.
And though hopefully he will have a fulfilling career in one-day and Twenty20 cricket, and though he now has a clothes line, has released a song in India and starred in a Bollywood movie, the thought that he will never be thrown the ball again in a Test match is a doleful one. Seventy-six Tests, 310 wickets at 30.81 tells part of the story; five ankle operations tells some more. The thrill spectators at a Test got when he stood at the end of his run-up and started to rock is something quite else.

Tanya Aldred lives in Manchester. She writes occasionally for the Guardian