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Dressing Room, Not Boat

17 September 2008.

Over the next few weeks Andrew Symonds will realise that he needs the game more than the money, the commitment more than the independence, the fuss more than the peace, the attention more than the solitude, and the dressing rooms more than the boat. He will understand that the time for fishing has not yet come, that first he has some serious work to finish on the field: playing against rival nations, serving his country, standing firm alongside his team-mates. He will appreciate that cricket has been the making of him, maybe the saving of him, and that it is well worth all the clutter and claptrap.

Sometimes a man has to go away to come back. Heck, he has been playing cricket all his adult life, and most of his boyhood. Of course he yearns for another life. None of us is made of stone. But he must come back. Cricket, or his body, will tell him when it is time to go and then he can start his farm and his fishing full-time. In the meantime his brain needs to settle down.

Still his statement of independence was startling in its boldness. Although it might seem a stretch, his decision to go fishing when his colleagues expected him to join them can be regarded as the latest development in the revolution now underway. It belongs alongside Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s withdrawal from the Test leg of the tour of Sri Lanka, the resignation of six Bangladeshi cricketers so that they can sign for the ICL, the refusal of various western countries to tour Pakistan, and the willingness of the same teams to play in India and even Sri Lanka notwithstanding recent unsettling events. These apparently distinct acts tell a tale of player impatience and the power of the marketplace. Once they have established their credentials, players can make their piles outside international cricket.

Andrew Symonds

Andrew Symonds on the way to his maiden Test hundred in 2006.
Photo ©: Jes from Melbourne, Australia / CC BY-SA (

But it is a mistake to curse the game with all its warts, for then one damns oneself. In most cases premature withdrawal leads to emptiness. Most players need the game more than it needs them. Moreover cricket has a structure and a history, and a player rises and falls within that framework. Satisfaction comes from serving the team and the game, not from living outsides its parameters. Just that the authorities need a kick along now and then. And if personal life is suffering it is always possible to sacrifice some of the lucrative outside activities.

A professional must find a way to make his career work. And that means remaining fresh and staying close to the main activity, not mistaking the tributary for the river or confusing pleasure and fulfillment. Pleasure is a daily distraction; the latter is a life’s work. And few men are given two routes to fulfillment.

In his heart Symonds knows all this, knows that the fishing trip, with its planning, was an act of folly. It was a self-indulgent protest about a game that, taken as a whole, has treated him well, and a betrayal of his friend, fellow fisherman, and new captain, Michael Clarke. Symonds forced his pal and Australian cricket to turn their backs on him, which they did not want to do. Doubtless he had his reasons, but they pale beside the consequences. But then he has always been an unusual man, a mixture of traditionalist and contemporary, foreign and local, fizzy and flat, assertive and restrained. His life has been a search for himself.

Only when he had found an identity he could recognise and accept could his cricket start to flourish or his character begin to grow. As a result he has tended to push along too hard, making up for lost time with a singular combination of superb performances and self-destructive episodes.

Even now he does not give himself easily, has been hurt too often to trust lightly, tends to mistake criticism for condemnation and so defies the world to do its worst. Rather than give ground, he will embark on a doomed course. He must know that the only man capable of bringing him down is himself, and yet periodically he imperils his position, willfully risks all the ground he has gained in the record books and in the hearts of friends and even foes.

The reason is simple. Although he has energy unlikely to be sated by milk and muffins, it is not that he lacks discipline. Indeed he was raised within its framework and has no complaint about that. Rather he has a terrible fear of rejection, a fear founded in the confusions of his background. Emotional vulnerability can be a mixed blessing. It can drive a man along and also hold him back. It can make him draw attention to himself in times of disturbance. It is a trauma that can make him reticent one day and headstrong the next.

And so Symonds went fishing, a pursuit he relishes. Surprisingly, considering his image, he does not jump out of the boat and wrestle with sharks. He just likes putting a rod into the water and biding his time. Probably it is a big rod and conceivably the worm is as long as a snake, but it is not so much the capture that he craves, or even the contest, as the respite, the simplicity. Out on the high seas with a pal and the silence and lapping water, he can relax. Hours pass without a murmur. Many energetic men go fishing for that very reason. It allows them to remain active whilst also making them slow down. In Symonds’ case it is also part of his search for peace, outward and inward. Of course fishing does not bring inner peace as much as quietness, but that is a start.

But he is not going to walk away from the game. Although he is inclined to tempt his fates, and has a stubborn streak as wide as the Mississippi, he is neither arrogant nor foolish. Strip away the moments of excess and he emerges as a durable, reliable cricketer. Hardly a day, let alone an entire match, goes by without him contributing something.

In any case it has taken him so long and so much effort to reach this status – a feared opponent in Test cricket, a one-day player of immense value, that it’d be madness to put it all at risk. Only in the last two years has he known that he was good enough to make the grade as a Test batsman. Only in the last two years has he been able to convince observers that he belonged in this company. In a trice, or so it seemed, he has gone from his casting as a raw and rough outsider without the wherewithal needed to prosper in the best company, to one of the most explosive players around.

Actually Symonds’ career has been instructive. Along the way he taught us not to measure every player by the same perfection, not to underestimate the importance of power, to appreciate the liberation enjoyed by allrounders, and to understand that some men must succeed before they can succeed – a circle that in some cases remains incomplete. Plain and simple, some men are born insecure, some men achieve insecurity, and some men have it thrust upon them.

For years he used to cart the ball around, and often out of, provincial grounds. Teams kept signing him and speaking highly of him and they kept winning, but still most of them cast him as a hitter as opposed to a batsman, a domestic as opposed to international cricketer. The same mistake was made with Kevin Pietersen, a player of similar outlook but much deeper roots and belief. The lesson is clear. Players and observers must respect the basics of the game, but also take into account its changes.

Symonds will be back. Nor is he going to be ditched. Apart from anything else, he averaged 77 in Test cricket last year. As a rule, teams can absorb all sorts of excesses. The notion that every day every player walks into the rooms as full of beans as a Brazilian coffee shop, and that all day team-mates slap each other on the back and tell merry tales, and are generally as harmonious as the Beach Boys is optimistic. Only press boxes work along those lines.

Symonds’ aberrations tend to be dramatic and public and that makes them hard to contain. He does not turn up with a hangover but in his cups. He does not run up late for a meeting after spending an extra ten minutes with a pretty girl, but hauls his boat up to the Northern Territory and goes AWOL. Nevertheless it is hardly a capital offence. And anyhow, blokes capable of belting the ball out of the park, throwing flat over 100 metres and taking wickets with pace and spin tend to get a little more leeway. Ask any captain worth his salt to chose between inflexible discipline and a maverick match-winner, and he’ll find a way to accommodate the player. Of course it is not a carte blanche, but Symonds is a long way from becoming more trouble than he is worth.

Symonds’ career has contained several tipping points. His stunning hundred against Pakistan in the 2003 World Cup proved that he had immense ability and competitive instinct. Just that it was all bottled up in a muscular frame that contained an uncertain mind. On that occasion his talent was unleashed by the news that illicit substances had been found in Shane Warne and he had been sent home. In that single explosive innings, Symonds changed the course of the match and tournament. He proved himself in his own eyes, and before a sceptical audience, that he was a considerable cricketer. Not even Waqar Younis’ beamers put him off his stride. He had needed something to let him loose, could not give himself that permission, did not want to let anyone down. He had been a Gulliver tied up in doubt.

As far as Test cricket is concerned, Symonds proved himself against England in the Boxing Day Test match of 2006-07. Till then, he had been hanging on, taking a few wickets to give himself another chance, scoring a seemingly flukey fifty just as the axe was being sharpened. That day he stood beside Matthew Hayden with the team in trouble, and lost not an inch beside him.

Ever since, his cricket has consolidated at a high level. Ever since, he has enjoyed the fortune denied him in his tentative times. Have faith and faith shall be given to thee. But it took a lot of persistence by the selectors, captains and colleagues to get him to that point. He has been a slow starter.

But the mistakes have been just as emphatic, among them the drunkenness on the morning of an ODI in Cardiff that should have ended his tour, the fishing trip, and the SCG Test match against India that caused such a furore.

Afterwards, in Bowral, Symonds said that he did not know what all the fuss had been about as he had not been upset. But his friends and team-mates were determined to protect him from any hurt, especially the sort suffered previously in India, and so went into battle on his behalf. That time Symonds kept his head, and his mates lost theirs. Perhaps his influence had become too strong in the rooms and within the team. The new batch of senior players proved to be more dogmatic than anticipated.

Now Symonds will miss the tour to India. It was a harsh response, but then he has been let off lightly in the past. It is not so much that he missed a meeting as that he did so willfully. His boat and his mind were elsewhere. Although the opposition was lamentable, he was representing his country. But he has been given a yellow card only, and will be back this summer. Unless, that is, his replacement takes his chance. Simon Katich is a fine cricketer and ought to play in any case, and Shane Watson’s promise has long been recognised. It is never wise to give a rival an even break.

This article was written for ESPN Cricinfo.
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