It’s Saturday, January 3rd, 2004. It’s the second day of the fourth Test between Australia and India. It’s Steve Waugh’s last ever Test match. It’s the SCG. It’s packed to the rafters. And it’s bloody hot. Everyone is here to see Australia win the final Test in a fiercely fought series. The touring Indian outfit had been surprisingly competitive on Australian soil up to this point. After the epic 2001 series in India (which featured, of course, that Test) everyone had expected a tight contest but one that Australia would, naturally, ultimately win.
So far things hadn’t been going quite to plan. Steve Waugh’s drawn out final tour had brought out crowds the likes of which hadn’t been seen for years, nor would be again until the epic, mythical Ashes of 2006/7. The first Test at the Gabba had been a closely fought draw, but after a second innings brain fade by Australia, India, led by two mammoth Rahul Dravid innings, won the second in Adelaide. An immense Boxing Day innings from Virender Sehwag threatened to take the series away from the hosts, who were without the banned (don’t do drugs people, not even if your mum gives them to you) Shane Warne, but a determined fightback, and a Ricky Ponting double century, saw them square the ledger.
And so we came to Sydney for the last hurrah. Every second bastard in the crowd had a replica red hanky ready for the moment when Captain Waugh claimed the inevitable victory. But it all began to go terribly wrong. On that second day Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman put on 353 runs for the fourth wicket and effectively destroyed any chance of an Australian victory and fairytale Waugh farewell. There was obviously very little to cheer from the outfield, so when the opportunity did arise it was taken with gusto. And that opportunity came near the end of the day, when Brett Lee conceded his two hundredth run of the innings, and was jeered by all and sundry ’til our throats were sore.
It’s strange as an Australian supporter to see both the reaction Lee receives in places like India and England, and the outpouring of plaudits that accompanied the announcement of his international retirement last week. Whilst he looks every inch the typical Australian fast bowler, he has just never been all that popular down here. Aussie quicks are supposed to be as angry, mean, and thick as Steve Waugh’s autobiography (816 pages if you’re curious). Lee had all of that in spades, but he had another side to his personality that grated. His wicket celebrations, for a start, were an embarrassment. Wicket celebrations can be a contentious issue, and certainly raise the odd argument here in the 51allout bunker. Some favour seeing the bowler charge down the wicket, unleashing abuse on the departing batsman all the way. Others prefer the Mark Waugh approach, where a wicket is met with a raised eyebrow, a shrug, and a nonchalant trudge back to the top of the mark. Nobody liked seeing Lee’s ‘chainsaw’ celebration. Or his stupid ‘heel tap’ move. And certainly nobody liked seeing it pulled out when he had just dismissed a tailender.
Whilst his antics may have been a dream come true for the game’s marketers, proper cricket fans (like us; we even tried reading one of John Buchanan’s coaching books once, before we got bored and played Test Match instead) don’t want to see that sort of thing. Just ask some of the 51allout crew what they thought of Flintoff’s Jesus Christ pose ‘celebration’. And then there was Lee’s off-field antics. Proper pastimes for an Australian fast bowler include smoking, drinking, gambling, pig hunting, and owning a greyhound. This sort of thing definitely doesn’t fit any of those criteria. And then there was his band, the seminal ‘Six and Out’. If they’d been your typical pub rock setup, covering Dire Straits and Cold Chisel in equal measure, everyone would have approved. But instead they attempted to write saccharine pop songs, in an endeavour to corner the cricket-loving teenage girl market (which to-die-for heart-throb Steve Smith has subsequently made his own). And finally there was his nickname. Bing? It’s neither clever (being based on an Australian electronics franchise, Bing Lee, rather than the rubbish search engine), nor funny. Sure, neither his first or last name naturally lend themselves to typical Aussie nicknames, like Bretto or Leeo. But surely that was just an excuse to come out with something truly memorable. Like dickhead. Or wanker.
Of course opinions on Lee in this part of the world aren’t all bad, it’s just that he’s simply not rated as highly as he seemingly was elsewhere in the world. Even the most iconic incident involving Lee, the 2005 Edgbaston Test, doesn’t exactly sit well with Australian fans because we bloody well lost the game, and despite his heroics with the bat, Lee bowled like a busted arse all series (finishing it with an average of 41). It seems churlish to criticise Lee’s record, particularly since he carried a litany of injuries for the majority of his career, but his Test bowling average was over 30, which is just too high for a front line Aussie quick.
Lee leaked runs throughout his career, and the popular consensus is that after being encouraged to let rip and simply bowl fast in his early career he failed to adapt when he didn’t have someone like Glenn McGrath holding up the other end. That conclusion isn’t completely fair; Lee had Stuart Clark to fill McGrath’s boots, and in any case showed himself to be to an ‘intelligent’ fast bowler (if that’s not a complete contradiction in terms) in his twilight years. The fact is that Lee was never really that brilliant. Whether it was the impact of consistently playing while injured or not, aside from a few occasions (the last being against Ireland in the aborted ODI last month) he often proved painfully inadequate in his primary role, that of being a top order destroyer.
In his defence we must concede that even we accept that Lee typically comes across as a genuinely nice sort, and we’d gladly let him marry any one of our daughters, had they not been taken away by Social Services after we forgot to lock the gin cabinet. We’re not easily impressed by nice guys round here, far preferring moody, distant, Steve Smith style characters, so for Lee to receive our admiration is no mean feat. But we’re otherwise reluctant to extend the same plaudits towards his cricketing ability. He simply wasn’t that good a Test match bowler, and the statistics bear that out. He was considerably better in limited overs cricket, and again his stats prove the fact, but in the second half of the last decade, when Australia were confronted with the toughest challenges in the Test arena that they’d faced since the early 90’s, they looked to Lee to lead the line, and he often came up a little short.