Published in The Independent on 27 April 2011

Australian speedstar Brett Lee

“Eighteen months ago, the only person who thought there was a chance I would play in the World Cup was me,” says Australian cricketer Brett Lee with a satisfied grin.

The 34-year-old’s return to international cricket following a two year absence is remarkable, though less surprising considering his long history of resilience.  Since Lee’s debut in the Australian squad almost 15 years ago, “Bing” has conquered career-threatening injuries affecting his back, elbow, ankle, abdominal muscles and ribs.  In 2008, he bowled against South Africa with a broken foot.  Thankfully, he’s just played three ODI matches against Bangladesh without so much as a scratch.

“I think I’ve had 12 operations,” says the 1.82 metre blond, whose mere presence in the lobby of Dhaka’s Hotel Sonargaon creates enough excited whispering to drown out the piano.

Even when he’s in peak form, the comeback king concedes that pain is a constant companion.

“I’ve felt pain during every match for the last 17 years.  But if I was told to stop as soon as I felt pain, I would never have bowled.  You just have to block it out.”

In a former incarnation, Lee may have been a highly successful aerobics instructor.  At any rate, his updated status as the world’s fastest bowler (following the retirement of Pakistan’s Shoaib Akhtar during the World Cup), and a solid World Cup performance should be enough to silence the cynics, at least for the time being.  On the day before the interview, Lee played his 200th ODI match, the second milestone to be achieved in Bangladesh — in 2006 he made his 1,000th Test run.  He has scores of other accolades, some more unusual than others: a greyhound named after the speedster earned Tk 1,174,686,932 (AUD$15 million) in stud fees.

However despite retaining the top ranking for ODI matches, Lee’s national team has lost their gloss in recent times.  Australia lost the Ashes again, failed to win its fourth consecutive World Cup and has slipped to fifth place in Test match rankings.  How long does the Aussie stalwart believe it may take for his team to dominate international cricket once more?
“I don’t see it as being too long,” he says, “but I can’t put a figure on it.  I don’t have a crystal ball…”

Brett Lee in Dhaka, April 2011

Lee acknowledges that a “great era” in Australian cricket is over, with the retirement of many star players.  He and former captain Ricky Ponting are the only two lights still shining, and Lee has confirmed that he will not play in the next World Cup.  The current team, he insists with characteristic optimism, are going through a “transitional phase.”

“We have a new captain and a whole new, young side coming through.”  The team, he says, is made up of “a great bunch of guys who love playing cricket.”

Although Bangladesh was given a whipping by Australia during the ODIs, Lee had some kind words to say about his opponents.

“In general, Bangladesh has a very good squad and there were some very good performances during the World Cup.”

When asked who he considers to be Bangladesh’s strongest player, Lee says, “There are a few, obviously the captain Shakib Al Hasan and opener Tamim Iqbal.  There are some good bowlers too, but it would be unfair to single out any player, just as it would be for me to name an Australian player.”

Lee said the ODIs were “a lot of fun” and that the Australian team “always enjoys playing in front of crowds here.”  However he added, “It’s always tough for us guys to play in the subcontinent because we aren’t really used to the zapping heat and humidity.  The other day [in Dhaka] it was only 32 degrees, but as soon I walked outside I was perspiring a lot.  I lost five litres of fluids a day.”  The upside, possibly, is a suntan so golden it defies the hotel’s dimmed lighting.  He looks healthy and relaxed.

Whilst Lee has only visited Bangladesh a “handful” of times – as compared with 50 odd trips to India – he described its people as “friendly, lovely and caring, and very passionate about cricket.”

He added, “Bangladeshis are probably less fanatical about cricket than Indians, but that’s from a general point of view.  If you asked a kid here whether they love cricket as much [as in India] they will say ‘Definitely, yes.’”

Lee was once described by an Indian journalist as “the most famous Australian in India,” and when I cite Shah Rukh Khan as one of his fans, Brett laughs and quips, “Oh really?  I’m playing for his franchise, the Kolkata Knight Riders. I might ask for a few acting tips as well.”  Lee should be plucky enough to ask for a role, as he has already made a cameo appearance in a Bollywood film (funnily enough, it’s called ‘Victory’ and it’s about cricket) and recorded a duet with Asha Bhosle that topped the Indian and South African charts.  In November last year, his band “White Shoe Theory” performed six shows across India – “It’s always nice to break things up,” said Lee of the change in lifestyle.  Lee is currently writing new songs and, for the record (pardon the pun), he is “potentially interested” in other Bollywood opportunities.

Interviewing Brett Lee at Hotel Sonargaon, Dhaka

Although Lee is by no means the only foreigner playing in the Indian Premier League, I wondered whether he ever encounters language difficulties on the field.

“Most guys speak English, and do so very, very well.  And I try my Hindi occasionally,” he adds.

“You can speak Hindi?” I ask.

“Thora thora,” [“A little”] he shoots back with a grin.  “I can understand the gist of what’s going on.”

Lee said that the sporting culture in the Indian Premier League (IPL) differs from Australia, the latter of which has a strong association between beer and cricket (its national sponsor, Carlton and United Breweries, promised to give every Australian adult a free beer if its team won back the Ashes).  However Lee avoids making generalisations on the subject.

“Culture depends on the person,” he says.  “Some people don’t like drinking alcohol and some do.  It’s not frowned upon if one person wants to [have a drink] but another doesn’t, or vice versa. Everyone [in IPL] understands that every culture is different and that’s great.”

Lee’s first visit to India was back in 1994, when he toured with the Australian under-19s as a 17-year-old.  After turning 18, Lee spent two weeks at MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai – and it now appears that the coaching tables are beginning to turn.  Lee said he will be “heavily involved” in an upcoming programme combining education and cricket in India.  “It would be great if something could happen here in Dhaka also,” he said.

Indeed it would.