Top Performer - Andrew Symonds October 10, 2007

The return of the king

Australia's No. 5 bids fair to become the most complete one-day cricketer of his age - much like a certain IVA Richards in the eighties

Sir Viv in dreadlocks: Symonds has hit the ball as hard as Antigua's favourite son © Getty Images

Even if the victim hadn't been Stephen Rodger Waugh, the howls of outrage would have resonated around Australia.

In more than four years and 54 appearances for Australia, Andrew Symonds had managed two half-centuries, one of them against Zimbabwe. Bowling was his stronger suit, but again, a tally of 44 wickets at 32.13 didn't quite make him Glenn McGrath Mark II. So when he walked to the crease with Australia tottering at 86 for 4 in their 2003 World Cup opener against Pakistan, the knives were out. After all, the man who might have been there in his place was a bonafide legend, the most successful captain of the modern era and a hero of World Cup wins in 1987 and 1999.

Only Symonds could tell you if any of that was playing on his mind when he got to the middle at the Wanderers. They say a life can change in an instant. For Symonds it took 139 minutes, just over two hours of brutal, controlled hitting that eviscerated Pakistan's campaign. He finished on 143 not out from just 125 balls, and by the time he performed an encore with a glorious unbeaten 91 in the semi-final against Sri Lanka on a spiteful pitch at St. George's Park in Port Elizabeth, Waugh had become just another fond memory.

The numbers that Symonds has put up in the four years since are frightening. In 120 matches since that O Henry twist, he averages 47.11 while scoring at close to a run a ball. Toss in 80 wickets, 50 often spectacular catches, and innumerable run-outs, and you have perhaps the most complete one-day performer since a certain IVA Richards roamed the playing fields.

But unlike Richards, who inflicted his damage from No. 3 in the line-up, Symonds has most often come in at No. 5, in situations where the need is to press on at breakneck speed after splendid starts provided by the triumvirate of Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting. He has seldom failed to do so, thumping the ball as hard and as far as Antigua's most beloved son did in his prime.

There will be those who bristle at the suggestion that Symonds is a great player. For most purists, greatness is the preserve of those who did the business in Test cricket. And while that view has its merits, you can't quibble with the fact that one-day cricket has developed its own unique character and skills in the three decades since Richards' thrilling fielding won the inaugural World Cup for West Indies.

The numbers that Symonds has put up since 2003 are frightening. In 120 matches he averages 47.11 while scoring at close to a run a ball. Toss in 80 wickets, 50 often spectacular catches, and innumerable run-outs, and you have perhaps the most complete one-day performer since a certain IVA Richards roamed the playing fields

Men like Symonds and Michael Bevan, who have awesome records in the one-day game, are considered lesser players because they never convinced in Test cricket. Symonds has done better than Bevan, scoring a magnificent 156 in the Boxing Day Ashes Test last winter, but at 32 it's doubtful whether he has the time or the style of play to leave his imprint on the longer version of the game.

Should that detract from his luminous displays in the green-and-gold though? Ian Botham and Sunil Gavaskar, to name just two, were distinctly average one-day players, but you won't find any sane soul doubting their greatness. In the same way, in years to come, you might find Bevan and Symonds given unqualified praise for the manner in which they mastered the one-day arts.

For the moment, there are more runs to be scored, catches to be nonchalantly grabbed and matches to be won. Time, too, for a spot of seam-up or offspin when required. And as India's bowlers are finding out, there's no more dangerous opponent than Symonds, especially when he's been riled a little. He pummelled 87 at Kochi, a blazing 67-ball 89 at Hyderabad, and a tremendous 75 at the Sector 16 Stadium in Chandigarh. He would have taken little joy from the last though, as his dismissal sparked the collapse that allowed India a route back into the series.

Given his form and tremendous fitness, it would surprise only a few if he made it back to the subcontinent for the World Cup in 2011. If he does, he may well reflect on a Johannesburg afternoon when everything changed. Ricky Ponting, who risked his reputation by asking for Symonds' inclusion, was vindicated, and Australian one-day cricket was never quite the same again. The wild pigs in the Australian outback, that might otherwise have succumbed to his dead-eye marksmanship, were no doubt grateful too.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor on Cricinfo