There is still video footage available of the boy, barely old enough to drive a car, cutting menacing Australian fast bowlers to size in 1992. You can close your eyes and imagine what must have happened when the West Indian who once talked to no man made batsmen dance in 1993.
The bare-shirted Indian captain had several accomplishments across the globe, but he considers the century that kicked off the 2003-04 tour Down Under his best Test knock. When England’s most charismatic batsman penned one of the most controversial books in cricket, one of the phrases that leapt out and stayed with you was what he felt while watching the left-arm slinger begin his demolition job: “I was sitting there thinking: I could die out here in the f****** Gabbatoir”.
Sachin Tendulkar and Curtly Ambrose at the WACA. Sourav Ganguly and Kevin Pietersen v Mitchell Johnson at the Gabba. And countless other tales of batsmen braving bouncing, seaming conditions; bowlers using those same conditions to make physically and mentally destroying batsmen an art.
The scorecards of the current India-Australia One-Day International series belie that history. Totals of 300 were put up, and successfully chased, on the two Australian grounds that have traditionally been the best ones for pace bowlers. No bowler on either side has had any game-breaking spell. And to someone who epitomised ‘fast’ bowling, it’s agony.
“I think this is where I start crying,” said Brett Lee, when asked what he made of the pitches at Perth and Brisbane. “I’ve been really disappointed with the Australian pitches. I’m at the stage now where you can only say it so many times that you think it’s a flat wicket. You also don’t want people to think you’re an ex-fast bowler and you want green pitches. We’re not saying that. We’re just saying that we want something that’s competitive. The last two games – we’ve seen the WACA and the Gabba, which are flat, offer nothing for the quicks. There’s no sideways movement. There’s three balls that missed the bat in the last innings.”
Lee, who retired from domestic T20 cricket last year after last turning out for Australia in 2012, was consistently rated among the fastest bowlers in the world. His lament on the pitches was not based on just a single ODI alone either – in November, Australia and New Zealand played out a Test in which only 28 wickets fell and both teams racked up more than 550 in their first innings.
“The thing I’d like to see is to go back to the original wickets. The WACA is known to be the quickest wicket in the world. It’s probably the slowest in the world at the moment. It’s disappointing,” rued Lee, while pointing that preserving tradition and character was an important part of the game. “It’s about preserving the character of the pitch and the character of the ground, but it’s also about preserving the fast bowlers. How do you expect a young bowler from India to learn how to bowl fast when there’s no wicket to bowl fast on in the world? How do you expect a young kid in Australia to want to come in and bowl super quick when 300 is a par score? If you have 300 being the par score, it means five bowlers go for 60 runs on average. When I was growing up, that wasn’t one-day cricket. It was 220 to 250 maximum, not 300 or 330 or 400.”
So if Lee had been born 15 years later and was making his way into cricket now, how would he – an express bowler – have bowled on these new, batting-tilted tracks? “Pray,” said Lee with a deadpan expression that belied the half-joking, half-pleading voice. “You’ve got to get through and you’ve got a find a way to evolve with the game. You still run in to bowl quick, you won’t get the bounce of the wicket that we’ve seen, but you’ve got to find a way to be more skilful. Change-ups, slower balls, slower-ball bouncer, wide yorker, straight yorker, back of a length … all these things come into play.”
“Sran looks like a really good bowler. He’s got a nice action, he’s a tall-left-armer, decent pace. He’s still not that express pace yet, but he’s still only 23. That will come as he gets naturally bigger, naturally fitter through his body. Getting a bit more bowling under his belt will help.”
It hasn’t been entirely doom and gloom from Lee’s point of view though. Three pacers earned debuts in the series, Joel Paris and Scott Boland for Australia, and Barinder Sran for India. And Lee has liked the promise he has seen, particularly from Sran.
“I’ve liked all three. They offer something different. Sran looks like a really good bowler. He’s got a nice action, he’s a tall-left-armer, decent pace,” enthused Lee. “He’s still not that express pace yet, but he’s still only 23. That will come as he gets naturally bigger, naturally fitter through his body. Getting a bit more bowling under his belt will help.
“It’s not easy to increase your pace. If it was, everyone would be bowling at 150km an hour! That comes with experience, confidence, knowing his body. It doesn’t mean going to the gym. I’ve always said, ‘Stay out of the gym’. A little bit of gym work is okay but not too much. Getting miles in the legs from bowling in the nets, will naturally increase his pace.”
Lee also had encouraging words for Paris – “he’s got a lot to offer Australian cricket. I think he has a really nice seam position too” – and Boland, who has a “tough role”, according to Lee. “I don’t think he’s bowled that badly. The scoreboard doesn’t really reflect the way he’s bowled. He’s missed his length on a couple of occasions but he’s got a tough role. He’s asked to bowl up front and at the death when you’ve got world-class batsmen. These guys will learn from it. I’ve been impressed with the way they play.”
But that apart, the state of the modern game, particularly in limited-overs, wasn’t something the fast bowler in Lee enjoyed. “Pitches are getting better, batsmen are getting better, bats are getting bigger, grounds are getting smaller. Sounds like fun to me!”