January 24, 2014

To hell and back

Jesse Ryder has always been a gifted athlete but it's only now that he seems to have let go of the unimportant stuff and begun to believe

For Jesse, the penny has dropped. Since his troubled teenage years, he has been on a famously wicked rollercoaster. He has been trapped in a mind and body that has struggled to find peace, flow and consistency, and fluency of self-acceptance and public admiration. Jesse is a gifted athlete, but it appears that only now can he can truly look in the mirror and nod, "Yep, I am ready." For life, that is.

Without question, he looks the fittest we have ever seen him. Trimmed down, mature in uniform, calm in appearance, he finally looks at some ease. He looks pleased, too, to be here. No doubt. Yet there will be some doubt lurking and Jesse will feel the old demon trying to gatecrash this new party. That dark imposter will come knocking, but Jesse looks ready to rescind the intrusion. This new Jesse; I like what I see.

Jesse the batsman has always been appealing. Old-fashioned in stance, late in stroke, he looks a player who bats in his sleep. He dismisses bowlers nonchalantly. He eases the ball out of the ground. He oozes power and touch in the same breath. He can really bat. Except, up until this summer, he has always found trouble in his path. Often, he would promise and then somehow he would stuff up. He brought much of it upon himself. And then recently he didn't. Some dumb idiots turned on him.

Jesse, who last year lay in a coma after a sickening assault and came close to a shocking death, is a man who has been given a second chance. He has done enough soul-searching, and so it's his time. He has felt enough pain. It's time for some pleasure. It's time for revenge on a few bowlers.

Against West Indies recently, in his first two one-day knocks back in the New Zealand uniform, he scored a duck and a 46-ball ton. Yet as he walked off both times, you wouldn't have known which was which. There was a self-acceptance across his face. He went with the flow of life, a life that was starting to give him a break. In the past, his walk off the field was an ugly affair, an uncomfortable ride for all watching and no doubt for the man himself. (Mind you, my walk-off could be tumultuous too). Now, Jesse walks off a freer man.

Notably, his language has matured and is thoughtful, wiser. He is enjoying his cricket, as he says himself, no matter what happens. He is, in sport-psyche terms, "grounded" and "positively aroused". It's a massive shift, a penny-dropping moment. In that coma, perhaps, deep in his subconscious, something clicked. When he came through it, he knew nothing could be as bad again. And he started to let go of the unimportant stuff, and he started to believe. Letting go of that false image is the beginning of true redemption.

Jesse is best, at present, playing the short forms of the game only. To express himself at the top of the order, with a license to enjoy and enthral, is the best single purpose and uncomplicated role you could give him. He should stay focused in this mode right through to the World Cup, only 12 months away. This will be a significant stage for him to explore within, express himself, and explode in front of the world. Over the next year, at the top of the order, let Jesse flow, I say, let him flow.

Only he knows his dreams and goals, yet if I possessed such prodigious skill, I would aim for a century every five Test matches and every 15 one-dayers

As he showed in the opening match against India in Napier, his game is still too one-dimensional. Footwork to an immaculate length on or outside off stump remains a work in progress. This is due to playing at a lower level for a long period, so over this year we will see him tighten his defence where needed, while his shots all around the wicket will continue to intimidate bowlers who stray from the corridor of uncertainty.

After a stint raising his game in the shorter forms, he will be ready to regain his Test place. It could be that Brendon McCullum may then be ready to just focus on the short forms himself, given his ageing and sore body. A rest from the demands of more travel and long days in the field during Tests may be a smart move. Jesse would easily step into that No. 5 slot with aplomb. By then Kane Williamson will be ready to be Test captain, and McCullum could extend his run to the end, wheeling in fast food feats to further his "brand". It could work as easily as that after the World Cup.

Over the next year Jesse only needs to maintain speed, a steady flow of positive thought, and that inner calm that he has finally found. He needs to maintain that discipline he has discovered and is enjoying. He will maintain that speed if he can expand his life to include other interests so that batting is only part of his new make-up, as his overall fix on life as a 30-year-old evolves.

If he does stay grounded, there is a good chance he will bat on for New Zealand for another six or so years. To do so his body will need constant attention. His nutrition will need to be fine-tuned and his training will have to increase in intensity. It's all about intention. Only he knows his dreams and goals, yet if I possessed such prodigious skill, I would aim for a century every five Test matches and one every 15 one-dayers. It's possible if he wants it. The work has only just started. And it must continue, to maximise this god-given talent and this second chance in life, and especially his love for batting.

Finally, let me say that Jesse has not been someone I have admired or focused on that much. Indeed, I have only met him fleetingly. He seemed, back then, to be tortured, disengaged. And yes our tortured paths passed by each other for a few seconds with no real recognition either way. However, this last fortnight, he has turned my head. I am liking all I see and hear. I am happy for him. He has gone through hell and he has returned a richer man.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s and early '90s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand