February 17, 2012

The man who excited and exasperated

Whether Andrew Symonds is remembered as a victim or a villain depends on your viewpoint. The truth probably lies somewhere in between

Andrew Symonds retired this week. There must be those who do not follow the IPL out there surprised to learn he was even still playing. The Mumbai Indians were happy enough to have him last year but the Australian team had moved on from Symonds and his sagas nearly three years ago. At times they missed his all-round skills, but off the field they were better for the clean break.

Symonds was a man with great aptitude - and attitude. His talent allowed him to play 26 Tests and 198 one-day internationals for Australia but his troubles prevented him from playing far more. His legacy cannot be anything but chequered. He won plenty of games for his country but was also at the centre of more than his share of controversies. Neither aspect of his career should be forgotten.

Whether Symonds will be remembered as a villain or a victim depends on your viewpoint. His supporters will say he was hung out to dry by Cricket Australia after Monkeygate; his critics will point to his behavioural problems before that, and argue that he was the architect of his own downfall through choices he made. The reality lies somewhere in the middle.

It is true that he was not the same player after the racism row that starting bubbling in Vadodara in late 2007. Three months later, it reached boiling point in Sydney. Symonds' team-mates decided something had to be done when they thought they heard Harbhajan Singh call him a monkey in the Sydney Test in January 2008.

Harbhajan was banned for three Tests during a tour full of antagonism, and a series in which Symonds added to the tension between the two sides by admitting, after the fact, that he had got a thick edge behind when he was given not out early in his Sydney innings of 162. The Indian board pressured the ICC to replace the umpire Steve Bucknor for the next Test and the ICC obliged.

The BCCI also initially threatened to pull out of the tour if Harbhajan's suspension was not overturned. At the end of the tour, the ban was lifted on appeal. All in all Symonds, who later wrote that he had wanted to ignore the monkey chants in India and was not the one who reported Harbhajan's comment in Sydney, came out of the series looking like the bad guy.

"The behaviour of the BCCI in holding CA to ransom was appalling," Paul Marsh, the Australian Cricketers' Association chief executive, said last year. "It put CA in an extremely difficult position and they were faced with the choice of who do they upset - the BCCI or their own players?

"They chose the players and the fallout was significant. The players lost trust in CA, and I honestly believe this incident was the catalyst for Andrew Symonds' demise as an international cricketer. He was absolutely flying at the time of this incident, was in most people's minds the victim in the issue, and yet he was the person who came out of the issue looking like the guilty party. In my mind he never got over the lack of support CA gave him throughout this whole issue."

That may be true, but Cricket Australia had been generously tolerant with Symonds in the years prior. In 2005 he turned up drunk to play a one-day international against Bangladesh in Cardiff and slipped off the wheelie-bin on which he was doing his warm-up stretches. As he wrote in his book Roy: Going for Broke, he was told "in the clearest possible terms that any further misdemeanours would see me sent packing. For good."

Less than a year later, he was in a bar in Cape Town celebrating Australia's Test win when he asked a Super 12s rugby player to "take it outside". Michael Clarke, also the man who had tried to help Symonds sober up in Cardiff, dragged him away from the situation in Cape Town and prevented a brawl that might have ended Symonds' Australia career then and there.

He was good enough to be a force in all three formats. His batting was muscular and he could leave spectators breathless like few other men in world cricket, but he also had a sound defence when he chose to use it

After Monkeygate, there was a fishing trip in Darwin when he was supposed to be at a team meeting for Australia's ODI series against Bangladesh; a radio interview in which he called Brendon McCullum a "lump of shit"; and he was sent home from the World Twenty20 in England in 2009 when he was spotted drinking at a bar, after having agreed not to drink in public all tour.

During a TV interview later that year, Symonds admitted he had a problem with binge drinking. "I go out and drink hard all in one hit," he said. "Too fast, too much. Everyone's tolerance is different. I became not good to be around. I have let [team-mates] down a number of times. I had to front up and apologise to them a number of times. They were embarrassing, difficult, awkward situations."

That alcohol became such an issue for Symonds is a shame. His talent was not wasted, but nor was it fulfilled. Cricket Australia's chief executive, James Sutherland, a man who grappled with the Symonds conundrum over many years, this week reflected on Symonds' on-field talents.

"I can't think of a more exciting cricketer that's played for Australia, certainly in my time as chief executive," Sutherland said. "He was an electric player and I loved him. My kids loved watching Andrew Symonds, and when he was playing for Australia he was clearly their favourite player."

Sutherland noted Symonds' 143 not out against Pakistan in Australia's opening match of the World Cup in 2003, a brilliant innings, for he had come to the crease at 86 for 4. It gave Australia the perfect start in what would become a perfect tournament, and helped them understand that they could still be a force despite losing Shane Warne to a drug ban.

Likewise, his 156 in the Melbourne Ashes Test of 2006-07 rescued Australia from a shaky position. He was good enough to be a force in all three formats. His batting was muscular and he could leave spectators breathless like few other men in world cricket, but he also had a sound defence when he chose to use it. His medium pace and offspin appeared innocuous, but they bought him 165 wickets for his country.

In the field there were few more electrifying. Off the field there were few more exasperating. Now there is no more "on the field" for Symonds. He will look back at his career, as others will, with mixed feelings. Now fatherhood beckons. There could also be a commentary career ahead of him, for his work on Australian TV during the Big Bash League was well received.

Whatever his future holds, he can now move into a new phase of his life and start afresh. And as the Australian team has discovered over the past year, there's nothing quite like a clean slate.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here