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.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • cliff on November 27, 2008, 4:26 GMT

    Freedom of the press is, rightly, one of the most important pillars of any truly democratic society. However, such freedom should depend on fairness, objectivity, and above all responsibility. That has not happened here.

  • fred on November 26, 2008, 6:10 GMT

    i find it ausing how the press has created a storm in a teacup. Firstly is was reported he was in an altercation and if found guilty his contract would be terminated. The implication of the way everything was written was "lets hope he is guilty, but if he isnt, then lets make everyne think that he should be" then it looked like he wasnt the instigator so he was now deemed irresponsible for having a drink in a pub when his drinking is a problem. lets have a look at that "having a drink". the publican has come out saying he was drinking light beers. he was with friends - the fact that they were rugby players is irrelevant (unless all ruby players are thugs...) and he was in the not immediate company of other players from the team. wow - if that is irresponsible, then lets lock everyone up for beeing a lout! how many people here have missed something, work, family event or what not because they were either drunk, or hung over. get a grip!

  • Nathan on November 25, 2008, 23:30 GMT

    I don't think that Roy has done anything wrong, on this occasion. In fact, it sounds like he was quite restrained because it's not easy for some people to walk away when a drunken idiot takes a swing at you. But common sense says, with Symond's record, he would probably be smart to avoid drinking in public for a while. To jamrith : Australia had various restrictive immigration policies from 1901 to 1973. To call this 'centuries of 'White Australia" policies' indicates that you are just another ignorant indian who will clutch at any straw to denigrate Australia. Racial tensions exist in india too so let's try to be realistic and stick to the subject.

  • lasitha on November 25, 2008, 16:35 GMT

    Mr. English, I'm shocked at your choice of title for this article. Surely, you must be aware of the long history of using words such as 'savage' and 'simple' to demean and belittle people of colour (particularly indigenous)? Surely a professional journalist is sensitive to coded language that is even today used to perpetuate racist myths about the 'savage, fearsome native' who is for example, 'naturally unable to cope with the stresses of international stardom'.

    I would like to believe that you yourself are neither racist nor are swayed, even subconciously, by such stereotypes of people of colour . But I urge you to be much more careful with your choice of words. It is all too easy to perpetuate ugly myths and language is one of the primary vehicles used to do so. Overcoming centuries of tragic social conditioning requires care and vigilance, particularly by folks like you in the public sphere.

  • CHANDRASEKHAR on November 25, 2008, 15:50 GMT

    "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." -- Excellent expression, I liked it very much.

  • James on November 25, 2008, 15:07 GMT

    As a newspaper and magazine editor, my first thought would be that what might have happened in a bar was not in the public interest. There is also a risk that a report might not be 100 per cent true or 100 per cent fair. I wouldn't touch it.

  • Magadi on November 25, 2008, 6:49 GMT

    First things First.Roy is not a particularly likable person. I strongly believe he courts controversies. Having said that, This incident has been blown out of proportion. I am actually amused at the OZ fans here. There used to be a time when these very fans would lap up every word spat out by the Aussie press particularly when they would describe in great and gleeful detail the agony of the opposing teams when faced with Aussie sledging and/ or what the world considers as unacceptable behaviour. Now the same Aussie press is being slammed. Hmmm... interesting

  • Alex on November 25, 2008, 5:41 GMT

    Andrew Symonds longs for the bush?! Now what exactly are you implying there? Seriously, he's interesting because of all these things. Sport needs its human dramas, even if they are being played out by sometimes less than agreeable characters. I don't like Harbajan, but I'd hate to see India without him. So many sportsmen, cricketers included, are so BORING, perhaps because professionalism drubs all the life out of them, perhaps because they were just boring in the first place. After all, what do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?

  • Jairam on November 25, 2008, 5:02 GMT

    I agree with Mahesh; I too am a hard-core Indian fan and did not appreciate Symonds' behaviour in India last year ( taunting Indian fans about their euphoric reaction tot the Indian team's T-20 win) and his provocation that led to the incident with Harbhajan. I think he has played the race card in self-serving fashion, and the Aussie media and fans have been quick to spring to his defence perhaps as a mea culpa for centuries of 'White Australia" policies. However, his recent indiscretions, such as going fishing and being accosted by an over-zealous fan in a bar are trifling, and certainly do not deserve any punishment. He is a great athlete though not the most affable or likeable of persons.

  • kris on November 25, 2008, 4:32 GMT

    "Live and let live" is an aphorism that is still acceptable in the civilized world. But "do unto others..." is not quite acceptable. If some people are trying to say that to be provoked, is an excuse for a street fight, I am sorry, they are not justified, at least by the tenets of "civilized behaviour" that is being dictated to us. By that token, the Harbhajans and the Gambhirs would not have done anything wrong.

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