Symonds’ career trajectory has the potential to be a brilliant case study if cricket is serious about tackling issues like racism and alcohol addiction among players
There are big cricketers and there are big characters. Then there are some whose existence cannot be limited to one bracket. These are a rare set of cricketers who are perfectly ensconced on the overlap of both circles: they play hard but they party harder. Andrew Symonds was one of them, whose complicated existence can not be summed up in pure numbers he aggregated on the field, nor in numerous controversial incidents he often found himself in.
On the field, he was truly three-dimensional, possessing an extraordinary ability to change the complexion of the game not only with bat and ball but also with his impeccable fielding. Off the field, he led a very laid-back life, melded in booze and beers, and was a source of amusement to everyone around him.
Despite being born in England, Symonds very much embodied the heart and soul of Australianism: a fierce competitor born with an ability to stay unfazed even in the face of impending doom. Where the zinc-smeared lips accentuated his fierceness, the dreadlocks made him look like a reggae star on a mission to spread Rastafarianism to every nook of the world.
Above all, Symonds’ career trajectory has the potential to be a brilliant case study if cricket is serious about tackling issues like racism and alcohol addiction among players. It can serve as a guiding light, a course correction measure on how not to deal with certain issues that still plague the game.
Symonds’ cricketing career can be divided into two parts: one before the ‘Monkeygate’ scandal and one after that. If the scars of being subjected to a racial slur — Harbhajan Singh called him a ‘monkey’ during a verbal spat in Sydney — weren’t painful enough, the BCCI’s response made it even worse.
When Harbhajan Singh was banned for three matches, the BCCI, punch-drunk on power and ignorance, threatened to abandon the tour. The ban has to be rescinded and Harbhajan just had to bear a 50 percent cut on his match fees for his action.
Symonds was never the same player after that incident. Born to Afro-Caribbean and European parents, he had to endure racially-motivated chants throughout his childhood in school. His deepest insecurities were laid bare by the whole saga, but what troubled him most was how he and his mates were made to look like liars. The burden of proof weighed heavily on him, the evidence from the stump mic was nowhere to be found, and the words of Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke, and Matthew Hayden meant nothing to the ICC.
“The thing that was grinding on me the most was the lying. I had four of my good mates in there with me and we were made to look like idiots because this hadn’t happened. And it had. Then the lies started, and it became political”, he had said.
“Stick to sports”, has always been a guiding principle for the BCCI. While the board is not responsible for wider social malice like racism, they do have a responsibility to control such situations if it arises within their premises. Had the BCCI shown a zero-tolerance policy, it would have sent an important message to young cricketers. Instead, they cornered the victim and reduced him in front of everyone.
Former Australian cricketer James Hopes too revealed how Symonds became “a lot more wary of everything and disillusioned” after the incident. “He was one of the guys who enjoyed a beer and a drink with mates, but he could flick a switch a month or two out from a series and all of a sudden, his training would be two or three times a day and his intensity would go through the roof. It just never happened after that summer,” Hopes said to the cricket writer Daniel Brettig.
The Monkeygate scandal broke Andrew Symonds; there’s no other way to put it.
Andrew Symonds always remained in conflict with himself, or it appeared so. There was no secret that Symonds loved his drinks. When his straight drive crashed into non-striker Michael Clarke’s leg before lobbing up to the fielder, Symonds didn’t express his frustration. Instead he laughed at his own misfortune and signalled Clarke for a post-match beer. The thought of getting drunk always clouded his mind; it was a ritual as important as scoring runs and taking wickets.
His love affair with alcohol soon turned into a toxic affair, leading to numerous disciplinarian actions against him. In 2005, he turned up drunk for the ODI against England. Three years later, he was involved in a bar fight in Brisbane. Hosting the radio show in a drunken state, Symonds crossed the line by referring to Brendon McCullum as a “lump of shit”. Another alcohol-related incident during World T20 Cup turned out to be a final straw for the all-rounder.
There was a problem, surely. By the time his career started, the age of bar-room cricketers was almost over. And to a nation on their mission to world domination, Symonds felt like a disruptive influence. The numbers, however, tell you a different story. In 18 ODI World Cup matches, Symonds scored 515 runs at an average of 103. Mo
In retrospect though, the board could have been more sympathetic in dealing with his problems. Especially during the T20 World Cup 2009, when Symonds was sent home just for being drunk while watching a game.
Symonds had a drinking problem, but so do many. Ricky Ponting, the man who cajoled selectors to include Symonds in the squad, himself struggled with drinking problems. The list goes on and on. Symonds has grown up watching a team that idolises David Boon for gulping as many as 52 beer bottles on a single flight. He has played the majority of his career wearing a jersey that proudly flaunts the beer brands as the principal sponsor. Cricket Australia (CA) earns a huge chunk of revenue through alcohol sponsorships.
The sporting body has this very weird working mechanism where too much emphasis is being put on the individual, every action is an end in itself, while the very basic fact that the individual doesn’t operate totally on their whims is ignored.
“Andrew Symonds’ sin lies partly in his demonstrating why the makers of alcoholic beverages so love their sport, the hankering to watch State of Origin and the itch for a beer having in his mind acquired reflex connection,” wrote Gideon Haigh in The Ashes 2009: Good Enough.
The dusk of Symonds’ career coincided with the rise of the T20s. In the limited opportunities he got, the all-rounder helped Deccan Chargers win their maiden IPL title in 2009, and scored 337 runs at a strike rate of 160 for Australia. In one of the games for the Chargers, Symonds scored 117 off just 53 deliveries. Even though T20 cricket has gone through a drastic change, his skillset would have still allowed him to flourish. In many ways, he was a prototype T20 cricketer. The brawny build-up, the brute force with which he whacked the ball, his precise throws, an ability to bowl both spin and medium pace — all these characteristics would have surely made him the hottest property in the modern-day game.
He made his ODI debut in 1998 but only cemented his spot after a century against Pakistan in the 2003 World Cup. Coming to the crease when the scoreboard read 86/4, the Queenslander slammed an unbeaten 143 against the pace attack of Waqar Younis, Wasim Akram, and Shoaib Akhtar, to lift Australia to 310. This was also his first ODI century. Since then there was no looking back.
After Damien Martyn’s retirement, Australia brought in Andrew Symonds as a replacement in the Ashes 2006-07. He responded with a maiden Test century in Melbourne Test to rescue his side from choppy waters. He scored a fine 156, and forged a crucial 279-run stand with Matthew Hayden.