'I'm really here, this is really happening!'

It was nerve-wracking being the new kid on the block. Although I’d been part of Australia’s XII in Perth I still felt the outsider after I arrived in Melbourne for the Boxing Day Test (against India in 1999). That wasn’t because the team didn’t make me feel welcome; it was, I think, a natural reaction for any player on the brink of stepping up to the top level of any sport. There is always the question you ask yourself: ‘Do I belong here?’

Ecstatic: Brett Lee takes a jubilant leap after dismissing Rahul Dravid on Day Three of the second Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1999. Pics/Getty Images

Honestly, I didn’t really care. I just wanted to bowl quickly. If I could ping them at 155 kays an hour, I was ready to play.

Gilly’s a gem
On Christmas Eve, I consciously spent time alone in my hotel room because I didn’t want to pester any of my teammates. Earlier in the day I’d gone for a walk to clear my head, and I ended up running into ‘Gilly’—Adam Gilchrist — and his wife, Mel. They asked me if I had any family with me. I told them Shane (brother) would be arriving just before the match, but Mum and Dad were staying at home. The next morning I woke up to find a gift under my door. It was Eric Clapton’s Unplugged CD with a card that read: Happy Christmas Binga. Wishing you a great day and I hope we play lots of Tests together — Gilly and Mel. That gesture made me feel as though I did belong.

Brett Lee bowls to Sachin Tendulkar during the 1999 MCG Test 

THE morning
By game morning I found it almost impossible to keep waiting. Every minute passed so slowly until we headed out of the dressing room for a warm-up. I was last out with Shane Warne, and as we walked down the steps towards the field he wished me luck and said that if I played I should lap up every second. Then he patted me on the backside and whispered to me: ‘Good stuff, mate, you’re in.’

‘What!’ I replied. ‘You’re in. But don’t tell anyone. So when Tugga tells you, act surprised.’ I couldn’t believe it, and was still stunned after Tugga announced the team at the end of the warm-up. I was going to be Australia’s 383rd Test cricketer. Kasper was one of the first to
congratulate me.

Lee is congratulated after dismissing Dravid

Tugga won the toss and we batted first. That definitely helped my nerves because I spent more than two days in the dressing room getting the feel of the mood and observing everyone’s behaviour.

However, it was a long time because rain meant there were only a couple of hours’ play on the first day. What I remember most about that whole experience was my eagerness to take my baggy green back to the hotel and ring Mum and Dad. I slept with the cap beside my bed. After two days of waiting, my first big moment in Test cricket seemed to come in a hurry. We lost some quick wickets and I was suddenly putting the pads on. While getting ready I saw Australia’s scorecard on the television, and I did a double take after I noticed my name; it didn’t seem real, but then a surge of adrenaline hit me and I thought: ‘Sh*t, I’m really here, and this is really happening!’

I went out and sat in the team viewing area next to Tugga, who encouraged me by saying I just had to bat the same way I had been during training. I tried not to think too much about it until Warnie, who was batting with Damien Fleming, tried to flick a ball down the leg side off Ajit Agarkar. I reckon nearly every cricketer waiting to bat knows exactly what it’s like to feel your heart jump into your mouth the instant you hear an appeal, see the umpire raise his finger, and then realise you can’t hide in the dressing room any longer. My heart was thumping like a sledgehammer as I walked out of the players’ gate and onto the field. The ground looked massive and for a moment I felt as though every one of the thousands and thousands in the crowd was looking at me. I glanced up at the electronic scoreboard and saw: Brett Lee 0, Runs 0, Average 0. This was one occasion it wasn’t wise to charge the first ball!

It took me a few overs to get off the mark with a shaky slap for four through point off Javagal Srinath. Flem said to me drily: ‘You’re not hitting them too well, are you?’ That shot and Flem’s humour got me going. By the time I’d made about 15, I started to tee off a bit and also tried matching Flem sledge for sledge; we were having a good laugh and there were times when I actually forgot we were playing a Test. We put on 59 pretty quickly before I hit a return catch to Srinath and was out for 27; it had taken me ages to get that score in first-class cricket, so I was a happy man. More importantly, Australia made 405, a solid start.

We took to the field not long before lunch on the third day. I looked at Tugga (Steve Waugh’s nickname) for any sign that he might call me up. I also looked over at Warnie. I couldn’t wait to have a crack with the ball. I didn’t have to wait long. After just a few overs Tugga did the shoulder shrug at me, the sign to warm up. I wasn’t nervous. All the build-up seemed to happen in slow motion. I handed my vest and cap to umpire David Shepherd, then gave the crease area—where I thought my foot would land — a scratch with my spikes. I marked out my run, and tried to take in the final words from Tugga: Don’t change anything, just run in and bowl like you did against Western Australia. Just because you’re playing a Test doesn’t mean you have to change anything. You’ll be fine. Apart from my speed, I knew the surprise factor could help me; the Indians had seen a bit of me in lead-up matches, but I was still very new to them.

Standing at the top of my mark about to bowl my first delivery was one of the proudest moments of my life. I still get tingles thinking about it now. The crowd cheered when they heard my name, but I tried to block them out as I took a deep breath and charged in. I can’t actually remember my first three deliveries; just to have landed them on the cut stuff was an achievement. A five-over-old ball and grey skies helped the chances for swing. All I tried to do was bring the ball back into the left-hander Sadagoppan Ramesh. I ran in for my fourth delivery, and before I realised what I was doing I was bumping past Justin Langer at bat pad and racing towards a celebrating slips cordon. Ramesh had edged a good length ball onto his stumps, and I was running around like a madman. I’d got a Test wicket. A bloody Test wicket! Sh*t! Gilly and Slats (Michael Slater) hugged me, Tugga and Warnie shook my hand, and Junior (Mark Waugh), who didn’t like a lot of ‘man-love’, gave me a pat on the back. Once all that happened, I thought: ‘Well, there’s no reason why I can’t get more wickets.’ I got another one in my second spell. It came too easily when Rahul Dravid flashed at a wide one and Gilly took the catch. Although I felt comfortable enough I was still a bit more tense than usual, and it wasn’t until my third spell, when the ball started reverse swinging, that I really started enjoying myself. In my eyes all the pressure was off me. For the first time I could see on a speed gun how fast I was bowling. To see the numbers flash up on the scoreboard was one thing, but to hear people in the crowd talking about it really got me going: ‘He’s bowling at 154.8 kays an hour!’ I heard them because I was only a few metres away when I was fielding on the boundary.

The Members...
I had to laugh at the difference between being in front of the Members Stand and the outer crowd. In one area I’d hear, ‘He’s bowling with decent pace,’ and in the other there’d be: ‘Sh*it, that’s quick!’

I heard someone from the crowd say: ‘He could get five. Five on debut! How good would that be?’ Until then, I hadn’t thought about a 5-for; I was just out there having fun. India were 5-167 when I started the fifth over of my third spell. First ball, I went for the spit-rock yorker that ended up being a shin-high full toss that swung in late and bowled Mannava Prasad. Next ball I went for the yorker again, and this time I got it spot on, hitting Ajit Agarkar on the foot. I appealed, the slips cordon appealed, and I reckon about 50,000 at the ground went up as well. ‘Shep’ — umpire Shepherd — put his finger up, and I was on a hat-trick. I didn’t want that moment to end, but part of me was wanting to race off the field and ring Mum and Dad.

The noise was deafening as I ran in while fans belted the advertising boards around the boundary fence. I let the ball go, and it just wasn’t to be. Javagal Srinath pushed a widish one to cover, and I smiled. I wasn’t disappointed. How could I be? If I could bottle up a mixture of a natural high to sell, I would have chosen that moment.

Fifer on debut
Three balls later I sniffed Srinath and the ball popped off his gloves to Mark Waugh. Tugga came up and shook my hand and said: ‘Well done.’ He didn’t show any great emotion, but I think quietly he was happy because his support for me had been justified. I was glad I’d proved him right; I would rather have let myself down than Tugga. I then walked back to third man, took my cap off and thanked the crowd who were on their feet. It was a great moment, definitely one of the best of my career.

I ended up with 5-47 off 18 overs and I got a couple more wickets in the second innings. We won by 180 runs, Australia’s sixth straight Test victory. But there was one batsman I couldn’t get out: Sachin Tendulkar. He got a century in the first innings and a 50 in the second. I was amazed at how good he was. When he came out to bat I felt the energy lift in the field and crowd.

Super Sachin
No matter how fast I bowled, he seemed to have all the time in the world, and he had incredible wrists that could turn the ball on any angle, especially from outside off through midwicket and backward square leg. There was simply no margin for error in my bowling. I had to pitch on a good length on a fourth and fifth stump line in that corridor of uncertainty. Anything away from this was generally runs.

He was just too good. Despite my success in the Test I still hung back when it came to the winner’s traditional grabbing of stumps at the end of the match. As we walked off Pidgey put his arm around me and congratulated me. Then, I felt a tap on the shoulder, and I turned to find Justin Langer pushing a stump into my hand. It was a Gilly-like gesture that made me feel as though I’d really graduated to being part of the team.

Extracted from My Life by Brett Lee, with James Knight (Random House, Rs 499)

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