The first time I saw Brett Lee, I wasn't marvelling at the pace he produced, or his gritty determination to bat his team out of the hole they'd found themselves in. It was more along the lines of "who is this bad bleach job? And why won't he just get the hell out?"
Lee epitomised the 'go down fighting' mantra that the Aussies adopted throughout the late 90's and beyond. The 2005 Ashes will remain his most memorable series. McGrath had the persistence and the precision; Warne the elegance and the intimidating persona. Lee had the aggression. Sometimes wayward, always fast, Lee provided support for McGrath in the first test, before spearheading the seam attack after McGrath's injury, Gillespie's awful form and Kasprowicz's lack of penetration.
Lee will be remembered for the pace he achieved, but he was more than just a fast bowler continually banging it in short. At Edgbaston, Lee sent a bouncer searing down the pitch to Strauss. Strauss tried to pull, misjudged and received a firm whack on the helmet as the ball reared up, bounced over Strauss' bat and rapped him on the chin. Lee was straight to the other end of the pitch; Strauss waved him off and re-marked his guard. The next ball? A slow yorker. Strauss, unsettled, not thinking especially straight, pushed forward unconvincingly, shimmying slightly across his stumps and turning to see his off stump lying on the ground. It was a brilliant bit of bowling. Unnerve the batsmen with too much pace, defeat him with a lack of it.
It is such a cliché, but Lee gave Australia everything in the test arena. The picture that heads this article is synonymous of this series; Lee, slumped to the floor, defeated after coming within two runs of victory, and Flintoff placing a consoling hand on his shoulder whilst the remainder of the England team celebrated their win. The image is often used to epitomise the mythical spirit of cricket. It also shows the effort that Lee threw into saving that match, into pulling Australia out of the mire.
Along with Warne and later Kasprowicz, Lee faced England's hostile bowling attack for the majority of the fifth day. England went after Lee in any way they could. Flintoff smashed him on the hands with a bouncer; Harmison sent one flying into his ribs. But there was enough presence of mind to take the singles, rotate the strike and, occasionally, edge the thing to the boundary.
Putting it mildly, it was frustrating for the England fans. There were heads in hands across the ground; those at home yelling at their television sets and radios. But when the game had ended, there was a respect towards Lee from commentators and, presumably once the alcohol had worn off, the England faithful. It was a gutsy innings, and it perfectly set up what, in my mind, is the greatest series ever.
2005 was the series that drew many people into cricket, myself included. And whilst at the time we shouted, swore and cursed Lee for firstly prolonging our agony at Edgbaston, and then saving the game at Old Trafford, it will remain his finest series. He led the attack twice in the absence of McGrath, his four wickets at Edgbaston setting up that ridiculously exciting finish. He batted with - and again, it's a horribly overused cliché, but there are few better ways to describe it - his heart on his sleeve.
He left England, as Rob Smyth said, as the Australian that it was okay to like.