November 24, 2008

Savage grace

Andrew Symonds is a simple man, yet full of contradictions, who needs to grow up to the realities of being a high-profile sportsman


It has been a chequered last 11 months for Andrew Symonds © Getty Images
 

Andrew Symonds is a simple man who longs for the bush, but is consumed, frustrated and often unable to cope with life as a high-profile international sportsman. He is so talented and entertaining that people are drawn to him, but he carries many contradictions. He can endear and create fear, be selfless and immensely self-centred.

Some days Symonds smiles at autograph hunters and enjoys the attention. On others he has been known to tell them to f*** off as fiercely as he hits in the final overs of a one-day international. He can be pleasant, sincere and hilarious, or sarcastic, cruel and intolerant.

He is a man who will stop on the rural road near his home in the Gold Coast hinterland to check that a lady walking along the road is safe. A guy who loves his family and felt sick when he lost his wedding ring while separated from his wife. And a hunter who gains pleasure from sticking a knife into a wild pig that he has tracked down on foot.

In bars there have been times when he has eyeballed South African rugby players, journalists and supporters. It's unlikely he felt frightened. On Sunday night in a Brisbane hotel he claims he was provoked by a man who became upset when Symonds did not want his photograph taken. This sort of thing happens regularly to athletes all over the world, and it must be incredibly tiring. The others usually find ways to deal with it.

Symonds, whose natural strength is supplemented by the gym, is not a man to provoke, on or off the field. This time it appears the patron was the unhappy one, not Symonds, which is a pleasing sign in another needless off-field incident.

"I appreciate how wild pigs feel when they get caught in a spotlight out in the paddocks," he says in his new book Roy on the Rise. "There aren't too many places to hide once you are in the crosshairs." He was talking about the controversy created from his exchange with Harbhajan Singh at the SCG in January, but it also applies to his public life.

A bunch of little things becomes magnified under scrutiny. For another cricketer this confrontation in a pub would barely register, but given Symonds' year it is a huge deal. Over the past 11 months he has been involved in a race row, has argued with Michael Clarke in the West Indies, has polarised team-mates, has been sent home from the one-day team, has admitted to drinking too much alcohol at times, has performed poorly on the field in his domestic comeback, and has returned to trouble as quickly as he was re-elevated to the Test team.

Any partying male in his early 20s knows that keeping away from bars is a good step towards staying out of strife. Symonds is 33 and unable to work out what is an appropriate safe haven. He was drinking with members of the Australian rugby league team in a venue that is known in Brisbane for its unruliness. It was a bit like catching up with your old street gang mates in the days after being granted parole, then being surprised when the situation became too hot.

As a younger player Symonds once felt he operated "without a road map". Now he needs to be given a satellite navigation system that deletes the pubs and nightclubs from the screen. There is no suggestion he was drunk on Sunday night, but if he wants to stay safe - and employed as an Australian cricketer - he needs more than the security minder who travels with the team. Unfortunately no amount of lifestyle advice seems to stay with him for long.

Since he came back into the side last week the players have said how great it is to have an unchanged Symonds around. Ricky Ponting told him he didn't need to be a model citizen, just himself. In the Gabba indoor nets he swore loudly at his batting mistakes, as sportsmen do - but he was yelling in front of a group of primary school children. Like the pub argument, it was not a good look.

Symonds has had more chances than the occupants of a cattery in peak season, and the speed and publicity of this incident is a disaster. Cricket Australia is investigating the clash, but Symonds will travel to Adelaide on Tuesday to join his team-mates in the lead-up to Friday's second Test. From when he turned up drunk to the Bangladesh game in Cardiff in 2005 he has been on a last warning. None of the alarms registers for long and the threats are forgotten. He is still in the side, but unless he undergoes a legitimate makeover it won't be for long.

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