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By Partab Ramchand
Brett Lee’s retirement announcement did not come as a surprise. Not only because he had been hinting at quitting Test cricket for some time but it was also clear that his body had `had it’. Bowling at express speed consistently does take its toll on the frame however sturdy it might be. One recalls how another famous fast bowler England’s Frank Tyson was plagued by injuries and his career was restricted to 17 Tests between 1954 and 1959. Given that, it is a tribute to Lee that he lasted as long as he did, playing in all the formats of the game. A combined total of 76 Tests, 186 ODIs and 17 Twenty20s in about a decade was obviously more than he could take and, after dealing with long-term foot, ankle, side and elbow injuries over the past 15 months, Lee knew more than anyone else that his body couldn’t take the strain any more.
Yes, there have been fast bowlers who have prolonged their careers by cutting down on pace and concentrating on seam and swing but Lee was always an express fast bowler. He made a name for himself by hurtling down deliveries consistently at over 150 kph and touching 160 on one famous occasion and it was not in his nature to be anything else. He remained a true blood fast bowler till the end. Fortunately, however, both for Australia and cricket fans the world over, Lee will be around to grace the shorter versions of the game and, in this, he has followed the likes of Andrew Flintoff and Shane Bond.
These days Lee has reached the status of elder statesman for there are a number of young pace bowlers who have suddenly cropped up. The bench strength of the team is so strong that even following the departure of Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Michael Kasprowicz quality pace bowlers still abound and this is one reason why Australia are still able to maintain their #1 ranking in ODIs.
Lee thus faces the unenviable situation of forcing his way back but then he has always been a fighter and patience is one of his many virtues. He had to spend a lot of time on the reserve bench as the Aussie pace trio led by McGrath was irreplaceable. But even when they were around he made himself a regular in the ODI squad and with 22 wickets played a leading role in Australia emerging triumphant in the World Cup in South Africa in 2003.
His tremendous pace, boyish good looks and gregarious personality made Lee an exciting discovery and he exploded on to the scene with 46 wickets in seven Tests before he required surgery following a severe elbow injury that threatened his career. Following his recovery Lee graduated to first change after McGrath and Gillespie. But with the decline of Gillespie and Kasprowicz in the early years of the new millennium Lee became a first-choice weapon for Australia between 2005 and 2008. He really announced his arrival in the memorable Ashes series in England and from then on there was no looking back. And finally with the departure of McGrath after Australia had regained the Ashes in 2006-07 he finally took over as spearhead guiding young bowlers like Stuart Clark and Mitchell Johnson.
With 310 wickets in 76 matches since making his debut in 1999, Lee is Australia’s fourth most successful Test bowler behind Shane Warne, McGrath and Dennis Lillee. He is also credited with sending down the second quickest recorded delivery when he bowled at 99.9 miles (160.8 kms) per hour in 2003, a speed beaten only by Pakistan’s maverick speedster Shoaib Akhtar.
Lee’s last Test was against South Africa at Melbourne in December 2008 when he suffered a serious foot injury. This kept him out of last year’s Ashes series even as the younger brigade took over.
Ricky Ponting possibly put it best. "If we all just take a minute and think about what he's put himself through in the last 10 or 12 years, running 35 metres to bowl every ball, bowling every ball at around 150kph, and putting his heart on the line every ball he bowls, this bloke deserves a massive pat on the back." And though he will still be around in the shorter versions of the game – he has a particularly splendid record in ODIs - Lee will first and foremost be remembered as a great Test fast bowler.