Ricky Ponting knew how to get the most out of pace ace Brett Lee.
RICKY Ponting has never known a more loyal teammate than Brett Lee. From the slips, the infield and the dressing room, Ponting marvelled not only at the withering speed Lee generated, but at the back-breaking effort he mustered to overcome one setback after another.
Many of those setbacks the whole cricket world witnessed - Lee running in to bowl on a busted foot during his last Boxing Day Test springs to mind. Others were played out behind closed doors.
In the change rooms at the Gabba, during a Test against the West Indies in 2005, Lee confronted one such crisis.
''He'd struggled through the first part of the first Test and we sat down in the lunch break and had a good chat ? He just sort of said, 'I don't want to bowl any more'. I said to him, 'That's not going to happen, mate, we've got to make sure we're nice and clear about what you want to do, what fields you want','' Ponting recalled.
''We went out after the break, set the exact fields he wanted, and he ended up taking five wickets in the innings. That was a turning point in his career as a Test bowler. He probably got caught up in being the out-and-out attacking bowler that everyone wanted him to be, got carried away with just trying to knock batters over. He needed to charge in and bowl aggressively with slightly more defensive fields, and towards the end of his career that's what he did.''
Ponting was moved to talk extensively about Lee after his retirement from international cricket for a few reasons. First, though Lee's excellent record, especially in one-dayers, has been recognised, Ponting believes his professionalism in an age before bowling coaches and scientific workload management has been under-estimated.
''The professionalism he brought to the group is something that has been overlooked,'' he said. ''He had certain times in his career when he didn't have a drink for 12 months, or when he was in the gym for every minute that he wasn't bowling, whether that was coming back from injury or just trying to keep himself as fit and strong as he possibly could, and that set a great example for other fast bowlers.
''You knew he was busting his backside every ball. Most of the time, you knew he was in a bit of pain, but he kept charging in and doing whatever I wanted him to do, whatever any captain wanted him to do.''
Ponting's second reason for wanting to acknowledge Lee's contribution is that their friendship stretches beyond cricket. ''Binga and I have had a lot of time together over the years and you become very close. You know with Binga, he's as loyal as anyone I've ever played with,'' he said.
They had their moments, too. Ponting says both men moved on quickly from the on-field argument between the fast bowler and his skipper in Mohali in 2008. That difficult tour of India followed the break-up of Lee's marriage, and he struggled on a reduced preparation and unresponsive pitches, but Ponting believes Lee's situation was handled the right way.
''I was right there by Binga's side through that tour. We had some really personal one-on-one meetings when we first got on the tour as to how he was going and there were times when he wasn't sure if he wanted or needed to be there, but in talking to him about it we decided he was going to be able to give it his best,'' Ponting said.
''As long as he could look me in the eye and tell me he was going to do that, I was absolutely happy to have him in the team because he was going to be a match-winning bowler for us in that series. What happened in Mohali didn't have anything to do with what was going on in his personal life, it was probably a build-up of a bit of frustration of what was going on in the series. He didn't understand why he wasn't bowling at the time ? and I had to pull him aside and let him know it wasn't acceptable for him to talk and play up in the group. It was unsettling for everybody. Once I explained to him how far behind the over rate we were, we both just got on with it.''
Having witnessed from close range Lee's most devastating spells, Ponting knew he had the rare ability to unnerve his opponents with pace, then disarm them with a smile.
''I watched him even when he broke down in that last game in England and he was running in with a smile on his face with a torn calf, knowing that might be the last game he played. That sums the bloke up,'' Ponting said. ''His [Test] average (30.81) has probably always been a bit higher than [Glenn] McGrath and [Jason] Gillespie. Because of the time he played, he was always going to be compared to those guys, and their wicket-taking abilities were unbelievable, but they weren't the same sort of bowler as Brett, trying to run in and bowl as fast as they could every ball.
''If he had started his career the way he finished it as a Test bowler, I've got no doubt he would have ended up with a lot more wickets and his average and economy rate would have been right down as well.''
Lee has already influenced the young quicks around him, but with such bowlers as Pat Cummins and James Pattinson bursting with potential, might he make a good bowling coach? ''I think he'd rather be sitting at home playing his guitar and making music than teaching blokes how to bowl,'' said Ponting. ''But I'd love to see him stay involved.''
Chatting to Lee this week, Ponting remarked that ''it would have been nice to get one more [one-day] wicket to go past 'Pigeon' wouldn't it, mate? He just said, 'It's not about numbers, who cares?' He got everything he could out of himself. I thought that was a terrific thing for him to say.''