That Brett ‘Binga’ Lee was consistently ranked amongst the top 10 bowlers in ODI cricket since 2003, is a testament to his potency and durability in limited overs cricket. Even at age 35, an age where most ‘fastest bowlers in the world’ are busy gingerly fishing with a new family, contemplating a career in administration, Lee was still regarded as the most reliable bowler in a Champion T20 side (KKR) and in a third-generation transitional Australian team- whose young erratic bowling strength he had led, nurtured and helped shape over the years.
At one point in his career, in 2006, he did try to sacrifice raw pace for line and length, like most Indian bowlers who never turned back (Munaf Patel). This was also the year he endeared himself to the Indian audience, entering hearts with his music, recording a duet with the legendary Asha Bhosle– apart from spending most of his spare time at an ad or film shoot in Bollywood. But Lee quickly realized that longetivity and superstardom may not really be his calling, and other bowlers (and batsmen) could be known for that. Just like his spells, he decided to play his career in short, sweet, sharp spells of pace and mayhem- illustrated by the fact that he had decided to retire from Tests as early as 2008. 2008 was a tough year, with his marriage falling apart too- and Lee, the human, had to go back to the basics. He had to face some searing decisions.
Sacrificing the longest form of the game for continued success in the shorter versions, was always on his mind. Bowling 5 days at over 150 km/hr, as Andrw Flintoff will testify, is not possible for more than 5 years. Hit the deck at that pace for longer than that, and you’d get your action intro trouble, spending the rest of your career trying to prove that you’re not breaking elbow-flexing rules. Lee, while never really in trouble for his action, was one of the most round-armed, cleanest bowlers of the ball with Shane Bond, his grace and form a spectacle for anybody with fond memories of the West Indian Quartet of the 70s. With Adam Gilchrist, he is one of those rare Australian sportsmen who’d always be remembered with a handsome grin on his rather pleasant face- a far cry from the slouching, snarling, mental-disintegration-obsessed, frowning more famous members of the legendary team. To add to it, he possessed more sportsman spirit than any of his predecessors, a characteristic not often appreciated enough by the highly competitive Australian fans.
When he finally did hang up his whites in 2010, he was the fourth most successful Australian bowler in test history, with over 300 wickets to his name at an ordinary average of 30- which belied his real worth to the teams he played in. He’d bowl some of the longest fast-bowling spells in Test history, and even prove his worth with the bat time and again, not really bothering about the numbers. His 2006 Ashes performance against an inspired English team, will go down in history as one of the most large-hearted, courageous and passionate performances by a Test cricketer, where he almost challenged history itself by taking Australia to within 2 runs of an unlikely second test victory. When Kasprovicz nicked the ball to the keeper, one could only see Lee, on his knees, after giving it his all, at the non-strikers end- yet to be dismissed. He knew how close he had come to changing something that was written, something that was pure destiny- and he was never to reach that pinnacle ever again.
As a test bowler, he will be remembered gliding in, almost on thin air, in all-whites, his blonde hair playing with the wind, as part of the most successful bowling combination in cricket history.
Like any other tearaway, Lee had to come to terms with inevitable wear and tear of his athletic body, tendon sprains, torn hamstrings, a faulty knee and several other ailments.
He also had to come to term with the fact that he would be remembered in a yellow jersey, coming in at crucial times, taking wickets by the dozen, with an awe-inspiring ODI average of under 23- and as a two time World Cup Winner who made up for Shane Warne’s absence in 2003 with great aplomb.
The nation he loved the most- India- was ironically a nation that may have also accounted for his downfall, after two bad tours here, and the 2004 Home tour where Tendulkar and Laxman tore him into pieces. Nevertheless, the last memory most Indian fans will have of the man in this country will be representative of everything he ever stood for- when, in a lost cause, at the WC Quarter final match in Ahmedabad, when Australia were at the cusp of becoming mortal again, he dived hopelessly at the fine leg boundary to stop a ball that bounced straight into his forehead. He shed blood, but came back to take the crucial wicket of Dhoni.
He was also the only Australian player to hug Yuvraj Singh at the end of it all, a fine gesture by one of Australia’s most boyish cricketers- a last throwback to an entire generation that grew up comparing Lee and Akhtar, enthralled by this imaginary pace competition- a war that was often won by Akhtar, with the final battle being won by the Australian with a twinkle in his eye, and shoulders that didn’t hesitate to lift up ex-team owner Preity Zinta, as a sly mischievous dig to the hyperactive Indian media channels.
Finally, Brett Lee ended his career while being part of the Australian team, not on the sidelines. There is no greater pride for an Australian cricketer, to know that he has hung up his boots at a height yet to be reached by his young ‘replacement’ Mitchell Johnson over the years.