Andrew Symonds: Controversy’s favourite child

Despite his obvious talents, Australia’s Andrew Symonds was always involved in controversies © Getty Images

Andrew Symonds, born on June 9, 1975, was one of Australia’s most talented all-rounders after the turn of the millennium. Jaideep Vaidya goes through the career of the limited-overs specialist whose career was cut short due to one too many controversies.

If you look at Andrew Symonds with no knowledge of what he does or did, never in your wildest dreams would you guess that he was once a cricketer. One of the burliest men to have ever taken the cricket field, he was an intimidating presence all right. His flowing dreadlocks and dark-skinned features, coupled with an athletic build, would make you think he was a Rastafarian from Jamaica. But then, his on and off-field actions in a decade-long international career would go on to prove otherwise.

Symonds was born in England to West Indian parents, from whom he gets his features, and then adopted by English schoolteachers Barbara and Ken when he was a baby. The Symonds family soon moved to Australia, living first in Victoria and then in far north Queensland and the Gold Coast.  The senior Symonds soon realised that Andrew was no normal kid who liked to sit indoors and watch TV. He was an active boy and loved nothing more than taking to the playground and getting his clothes soiled from a very early age.

Symonds loved hitting ping pong balls and Christmas decorations around in mock cricket games with his father, who soon realised that his three-four-year-old son had skills not normal for boys his age. “We spent hours practising. I’d throw balls for him and just get him driving in the ‘V’,” Ken told The Age. “He used to mimic cricket shots I’d play when he was about two years old. By the time he was about nine, it was clear he had a talent for the game.”

Soon, Symonds started playing club cricket in Townsville, which was a good 270km round trip from his home. His father used to drive him every Saturday to play, knowing that it would eventually reap dividends. “Dad was cricket mad,” admitted Symonds to the Daily Telegraph. “He’s the number-one reason I’ve been able to get where I am.”

In 1994, Symonds, a scholarship holder, graduated from the AIS Australian Cricket Academy. In 1995, after developing into an aggressive middle-order batsman, a decent slow-medium pace bowler and a fine fielder, he played for English county Gloucestershire. Here, he hit a world record 16 sixes in an innings against Glamorgan, going on to score an unbeaten 254. Wisden reported that the 16th six “landed on a tennis court about 20 feet (6.1 m) over the boundary” and “though he was undoubtedly helped by the short boundaries, it would have been a hugely effective innings on any ground in the world”. In the second innings, Symonds hit four more maximums to make it 20 for the match, breaking the record of 17 set by Warwickshire’s Jim Stewart.

After impressing one and all with his stint at Gloucestershire, Symonds, who was born in England, was eligible to play for the national team and was picked in the England A squad to tour Pakistan. However, he declined the offer, choosing instead to pursue a playing career with Australia. Symonds played for the Queensland state team from the 1994-95 season and continued playing there till his retirement from all forms in 2011. Symonds scored more than 5,000 runs for his state in that period and took more than 100 wickets. The highlights included a 113 and four-wicket haul in a losing cause in the Sheffield Shield final in 1999, and a Man-of-the-Match-winning performance in the 2002 Pura Cup final after scoring 123 runs and taking six wickets.

Andrew Symonds: Controversy’s favourite child

Andrew Symonds developed into an aggressive middle-order batsman © Getty Images

Australia calling

Before that, in 1998, Symonds finally got a call-up to represent his adopted country in a One-Day International (ODI) against Pakistan. “It was very nerve-racking,” he said. “You look around the room and there are blokes sitting there who you’ve watched on TV as a kid and all of a sudden you’re in the same team as them. You’ve got to really try to compose yourself.” Unfortunately for Symonds, he did not get to showcase his talent in the game since the Australian team was so strong at the time that it did not require his services. “Pakistan got something like 316 and we chased them down. I think Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist and Mark Waugh all got a hundred. I was next to bat. I got to bowl two overs and that was it, my first day out with the Australian team.”

Between then and the 2003 World Cup, Symonds featured in 54 ODIs, where he could muster up only two half centuries; in 15 of those innings he did not get an opportunity to bat. When he was picked for the World Cup, many questioned the decision, citing inconsistency. Symonds got a chance to play in Australia’s opening game of the tournament, against Pakistan. This time, Waugh had retired, Gilchrist was out early and Ponting was at the non-striker’s end when Symonds walked in at a wobbly 86 for four. His skipper departed at 146 for five, and Symonds was left just with the tail, with more than 20 overs to go. What followed was a superb display of rearguard action as Symonds forged partnerships with Brad Hogg, Ian Harvey, Brett Lee and Jason Gillespie, and got Australia to a comfortable 310 for eight. He ended up with 143 not out, his maiden ODI hundred coming in a winning cause as Pakistan were bowled out for just 228.

A year later, Symonds was to make his Test debut in a tour of Sri Lanka. He was so excited on receiving his baggy green that he wore it for five days straight, taking it off only to shower and sleep. However, after managing just 53 runs in four innings, he was dropped from the side. His next chance came in November, 2005, when the West Indies toured Australia, but he failed to impress again. In back-to-back series, home and away, against South Africa, Symonds scored two half centuries, but it obviously wasn’t good enough for an Australian cricketer.

It would take Symonds till the Australian summer of 2006-07 and an Ashes series, before which he played 11 Tests with a batting average of around 20, to finally get the monkey off his back. Recalled for the third Ashes Test after Damien Martyn‘s retirement, Symonds scored a magnificent century at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Australia were stuttering at 84 for five and letting the advantage of bowling England out for 159 slip when Symonds walked in. Recalling the day, Symonds said, “When I look back at my mental state on Boxing Day in Melbourne, it was just about perfect. I was ready for a fight and I had one of my all-time mates, Matty [Matthew] Hayden, out there with me. It was just us versus them. It was the perfect way for me to take on the opposition.”

Symonds displayed a master class in counter-attacking batting as he wrestled the match away from England’s grasp with his powerful strokeplay. The cover drives that pierced the field were an absolute joy to watch as the grins on the Englishmen’s faces were soon wiped off. As Symonds grew in confidence, he started experimenting more with his shots. While his fifty was brought up with a single through the covers, his maiden Test century came via a massive heave over long-on for half a dozen, also bringing up his team’s 300. Symonds went on to score 156, as Australia put on 419 on the board, which was good enough for them to get an innings victory, seal the series and reclaim the Ashes.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that Symonds describes that innings in Melbourne as “the best feeling I ever had. The way I felt was unbelievable. I just completely lost it. I don’t know what was going through my mind. I was just so excited, and relieved. My grandfather had passed away earlier in the year and he always used to come to Melbourne and watch me play, so I got emotional about him. I just wanted to share the moment with him and the whole family. My mum and dad and sister were all there — it was a bit of a fairytale really.”

The 2007-08 season was Symonds’s purple match, where he scored 777 runs in nine Tests against Sri Lanka, India and West Indies, at an average of almost 45 which is pretty impressive for someone who bats in the lower middle-order. However, the season was also to see the beginning of the scripting of the big chapter in Symonds’s career that was called ‘controversies’.

Controversy’s favourite child

During India’s tour of Australia in the summer of 2007-08, Symonds scored an unbeaten 162 at the Sydney Cricket Ground. It was a brilliant knock, full of the flair and flamboyance of Symonds. However, the innings was to take a backseat due to the infamous ‘Monkeygate’ controversy that was to spark during the innings. ICC-appointed Judge Hansen from the New Zealand High Court eventually concluded that there was insufficient evidence for the racism charge against Harbhajan Singh to be proved. Symonds went on record saying that the verdict of Judge Hansen had driven him into a state of disillusion and depression, leading him to take refuge in alcohol. However, the problems did not prevent him bagging a US $ 1.35 million deal with the Indian Premier League franchise Deccan Chargers in the inaugural edition in 2008. In a later edition, he even went on to play alongside Harbhajan for the Mumbai Indians, where the duo buried the hatchet. “Bhajji [Harbhajan] and I have talked about what had happened between us. We have sat down and worked out things. We get along well now. We party, socialise, we get sloshed,” he said.

The dust from the ‘Monkeygate’ scandal had barely settled when Symonds, known for his love of fishing, chose his hobby over an important team meeting ahead of a match against Bangladesh at Darwin. Symonds was sent home from the series and was also not picked for the tour of India later that year. In November, 2008, Symonds was involved in a drunken confrontation with a patron in a Brisbane hotel. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Symonds was drinking with players from an Australian rugby league side following the cricket team’s 149-run win over New Zealand at the Gabba. The match was Symonds’s first following the suspension over the ‘gone fishing’ episode. Symonds defended himself, saying that he “did not in any way provoke this situation”.

Andrew Symonds: Controversy’s favourite child

Although known for his exploits with the bat, Andrew Symonds was very handy with the ball as well © Getty Images

The following year, Symonds was fined A$4,000 for calling New Zealand’s Brendon McCullum a “lump of s***” during a radio interview. Symonds was talking about McCullum’s signing for New South Wales in the domestic Twenty20 final, when he said: “They’re trying to use him [McCullum] as the out because he’s a Kiwi. Yep, we love to hate them, but he’s the lump of s***, sorry, lump of cow dirt, that people are thinking of.” It was reported that Symonds had been drinking before the interview.

The final nail in the coffin arrived when Symonds was again sent home by Australia just two days before the 2009 ICC World Twenty20 began, for going to a bar without telling the team management. Cricket Australia also withdrew his central contract offer, even as Australia crashed out of the group stages of the tournament. It wasn’t such a big incident compared to his previous shenanigans, but “in the scheme of history, they are enough to be the final straw,” said CA chief James Sutherland. Ponting too expressed his anger and grief, saying, “We’re a little disappointed with the events of the last 24 hours and losing one of the best Twenty20 players in the world is disappointing. But he broke a number of commitments that he made to himself and the team. They were not commitments forced upon him by us. He’s let himself down and the team down.”

After flying back to Australia, Symonds released the following statement, citing family reasons: “Effective immediately, I am retiring from all forms of professional cricket.” Thus ended a near 11-year career of a cricketer who showed so much potential, and could have been realised if only he had kept himself clear of controversies and curbed his propensity of getting sloshed. He was capable of so much more than just 26 Test matches and 1,462 runs. He left ODIs with a decent record of 5,088 runs in 198 matches at an average a shade under 40. He was one of the best fielders in the world even on an off day.

Whether Symonds was a victim of his own doing or just caught at the wrong place at the wrong time, depends on which side of the fence you’re on. But let that not take anything away from the fact that he was an extremely entertaining cricketer.

(Jaideep Vaidya is a reporter, sub-editor and analyst at CricketCountry. A diehard Manchester United fan and multiple sports buff, you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook)