Kathakali has been a journalist for a decade and a half, working previously with The Telegraph and Times of India. An MA in political science and a Chevening Fellow, she writes on various themes--the business of sports, pop culture, startups, innovation--and co-produces the video series, From the Field. She is also part of the desk, editing, rewriting and putting the print edition to bed. Kathakali is a sports nut and collects autographs as a hobby. She enjoys travelling and music, and you'll often find her humming completely out of tune.
Brett Lee, Australian former international cricketer
Image: Mexy Xavier
When he played cricket, Brett Lee was known for bowling thunderbolts, consistently clocking over 140-plus km/h. But off it, the former Aussie speedster is far more affable and hospitable: “Namaste, kaise hai (hello, how are you)?” he begins the interview with folded hands and a disarming smile.
Lee says he’s picked up a smattering of Hindi from his regular visits to India, “my second home”, and going by its frequent use, “aaram se” could very well be his favourite. He spouts the phrase liberally–whether to ask the kitchen staff at a restaurant to go easy on the noisy mixie during a video shoot, or to answer how Indians should deal with Virat Kohli’s dip in form (the interview happened before the India-Afghanistan match in Asia Cup). “Be patient with him, this guy is gold,” he says.
But “aaram” has eluded Lee, now a father of three, ever since his retirement seven years ago. The Aussie, who has over 700 international wickets, is now a commentator, supports charities and represents a portfolio of brands. A few days after he was in Dubai to watch the India-Pakistan tie in the Asia Cup and a few days before he was to play in the Road Safety World Series to be held in four Indian cities, the 45-year-old was in Mumbai as an ambassador of Jacob’s Creek, the official wine partner of the upcoming ICC Men’s T20 World Cup 2022. Lee sat down with Forbes India during his visit for a freewheeling chat. Edited excerpts.
Q. Since your retirement seven years ago, cricket has undergone a sea change. With the proliferation of T20 leagues around the world, do you see franchise cricket taking precedence over international in future? Potentially, and I think it has already started. You make a valid point, with all these franchise leagues–IPL, PSL, CPL, the CSA and UAE T20 leagues–that are happening already. Here, you have to look at what’s the ambition of a young kid coming through–is it to play for India or Australia or to play for a franchise? I was lucky I didn’t have to make that choice. I picked Australia first, and I still would, and then the others would encompass that. But I think things changed down the next couple of years. Q. Do you think Tests and ODIs will survive the onslaught of the T20s? If you look at T20, what does this format bring? Excitement, fun, energy in three and a half hours. Think about the kids these days– they are on their devices scrolling through all the time. They want action, they want things to happen. With T20 cricket, if you lose three wickets in the first six overs, you are likely to go on and lose the game. So a team can win or lose in the first six overs of the first innings.
Test cricket, which is still my favourite, is not just a format but a test of commitment, courage, and endurance. For a fast bowler like me, to bowl 20 overs in a hot climate like India, it’s highly taxing on the body. It tests all your attributes and your ability to overcome them. I like the format because it’s pure.
But Tests, 50 overs, T20 and T10…I don’t think there’s room for all four formats. T20 will always stay. If I have to pick two formats, it will be T20 and Tests. We need to make sure we look after Test cricket, because that’s where it all started, that’s where the history of the game is. Fifty overs…who knows what’s going to happen with that.
Q. Most modern teams have a fantastic line-up of pace bowlers. Even India, traditionally a spin powerhouse, is deploying its pace battery to win matches. Would you say this is one of the best eras of fast bowling? There are some wonderful fast bowlers now–look at Md Shami, Md Siraj, Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Pakistan, too, has a conveyor belt of young fast bowlers coming through. While it’s hard to compare eras, one thing that I will say is that with batting, the improvement has gone up 10-fold: Bats are better, heavier, batters are hitting bigger sixes. But the pace of bowling over the past 20 years hasn’t really increased. With the technology, training and fitness, these guys should be bowling 160-165 km/h, but that hasn’t happened.
Are we seeing better bowlers? Potentially, yes. But we aren’t seeing quicker bowlers. The way we structure training, sometimes there is an emphasis on too much gym work, bulking up too much, whereas the best fast bowlers are those who can run in and bowl, those who are good athletes with lean muscle mass. To me, that’s the best way.
Q. So let’s come to the pace vs control debate. Let’s take the example of young Indian bowler Umran Malik who bowled with some pace this IPL but also opened up this conversation. Would you rather have pace or control? I want to have both. I like Umran Malik because he’s an athlete. If I am going to advise a young fast bowler on how to bowl fast, I’ll tell him/her to work on their sprinting. When you look at the way Malik runs in to bowl, it’s clear he is an athlete–you can take the cricket ball out of his hand and make him a 400 m sprinter. Guys with a shorter run might hit 140 km/h, but not that 160 mark. Someone like Malik has pace to burn, and control will come with age. I was often asked, ‘would you rather slow down and swing the ball’, and I would say, ‘why not do both’? I am sure he can do both. He’s the most exciting prospect I have seen in the last six months.
Q. Who’s the best captain you’ve played under? Ricky Ponting. I’ve played under Mark Taylor for New South Wales, Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist when Ponting or Michael Clarke weren’t available, but the thing with Ponting is he’s just a great man manager. He understands the players, he puts them first. What you see with him is what you get, very honest and upfront but trustworthy. You need that as a leader.
There was a time we were playing in Brisbane, and I wasn’t bowling well in the first innings. I would probably have been dropped in the next game. And it shows top leadership skills when your captain comes, puts his arms around you and says, “Mate, don’t worry about taking wickets, don’t stress about what’s going to happen if you don’t take wickets, don’t worry about if you don’t get the ball in the right place.” He took all the negativity away and put the fun back into it and said, “Just go and bowl.” And I picked up five wickets in the second innings and was back in the team.
Q. In such a situation, when one of the top players isn’t performing well, would you give him a longer rope given his stature or would you just drop him? I ask this in the backdrop of the dip in form that Virat Kohli went through and the debate it triggered… Everyone seems to be against Kohli. I hear all the time ‘Kohli this, Kohli that’. Virat Kohli is one of the best cricketers ever on Earth. We’ve been blessed with players like Sachin Tendulkar, the best batsman in my opinion, Brian Lara, Jacques Kallis, the best cricketer. Kohli, too, has just gone from strength to strength. Now, if he misses out, the limelight is on him because he is such a key figurehead. On social media, everyone has got an opinion. He can’t score 50 every single time he bats. I am a massive fan of Kohli, and I sometimes think we put too much pressure on him. I want to tell the 1.3 billion people who want him to score a century every time he bats, “Aaram se, aaram se (easy, easy), let him do his trade. He’s great for cricket.”
[Would I give him a longer rope?] Of course. He’s built the stature because of how good he’s played, not because he has come with some famous name. He’s worked his backside off to get to where he is. If you look at his career trajectory, from IPL into being not just the best cricketer but one of the best athletes in the world…look at his fitness, his longevity, his numbers, and then come back and say if we should drop him. This guy is gold, players like him come once in a generation. Q. As someone in a highly competitive profession, how does one turn around from setbacks? It’s how you deal with life and what you are trying to achieve. If you haven’t done the best interview that you could have, you might get it from your boss, but 1.3 billion people won’t see that. Unfortunately, for us, if we have a bad day at work, the world sees it. How do you deal with it? By compressing that emotional wave–don’t be too excited with the highest of highs, and don’t be too downcast with the lowest of lows. Good and bad times aren’t too far apart.
To win the 2003 World Cup by beating India in the final was the highlight of my career, but I’ve also had plenty of injuries, I’ve been dropped from the team too. I’ve had six ankle surgeries, and while I was coming back after my fourth surgery and a four-month layoff, I had to tell my body and brain that I got a five-wicket haul last week, even though I hadn’t bowled a ball in four months. That’s an example of that mental strength. That when people are doubting you, when your body isn’t up to it, when the critics are against you, when they write something in the paper that you don’t agree with, you just block all that out and trust your training and abilities.
Q. Many young cricketers have to combat social media trolling too. You saw the backlash against Arshdeep Singh after he dropped a catch against Pakistan. On social media, everyone is a commentator, a journalist, everyone has an opinion (laughs). Everyone drops catches, I’ve dropped plenty. My advice is to focus on what you are doing. If you want to go on social media, that’s fine…everyone loves followers. But if you can’t handle it, don’t read it. Turn off your notifications. It comes down to your personality trait–if you can’t handle the scrutiny, step away.
Q. What have been your best moments on the cricket field? Winning the 2003 World Cup. Getting my baggy green for the first time. And also having the pleasure and the opportunity of walking on the cricket field, for the first time during an ODI, with my older brother Shane.
Q. Final question. Give me the two finalists of the upcoming T20 World Cup. Australia and India. Despite what’s happened at the Asia Cup, India has a very good chance. Australia will have the home ground advantage, it understands the wickets, and is coming off some good form. Pakistan is a good team, and teams like Afghanistan, South Africa will be the dark horses. But, deep down, I think it’ll be India and Australia.