Pints and proselytizers

If you'd been vacationing in the rainforests for a fortnight and came back to see headlines proclaiming that Andrew Symonds was in danger of losing his Cricket Australia contract, you'd be forgiven for thinking the worst - that he'd done a Lee Bowyer (the former Leeds footballer convicted of affray, trashing a McDonald's and much else besides). But when you read on, you found that Symonds' crime was to break curfew and turn up on the morning of a match against Bangladesh with alcohol vapours floating freely around him.

He had spent a Friday night on the tiles, perhaps lulled into a sense of complacency by the identity of his team's opponents on the Saturday. Given that he was apparently in no fit state to play, it was expected that there would be a backlash and a ticking off from the team management.

What was astonishing though was the fact that such a trivial episode - a young man having a drink too many on a Friday night, athlete or not - snowballed into a huge media circus, with plenty of preaching and nauseous holier-than-thou attitudes on display. A quiet disapproving word or two from the captain and coach, and a fine, would have served the purpose far better than a public dressing down.

The fact remains that sportsmen and alcohol are hardly strangers in the night, and most of the game's mythical booze-ups have involved Australian cricketers. And while such binges are far less common in the new professional era, you'll still spot the odd cricketer at the bar on an evening off, just as you might spy a doctor, journalist or accountant.

It's also a well-documented fact that some of the game's legends were more than fond of the grog. Harold Larwood was rumoured to be fond of a pint during the lunch interval, while Gary Sobers' exploits while in the company of mercurial Scottish football legend Jim Baxter are mentioned over the course of an entire chapter - Drunk and Sobers in Nottingham - in Baxter's biography.

In Sunny Days, Sunil Gavaskar talks of how West Indian greats like Rohan Kanhai used to come to his room on the 1971 tour and walk off with the bottles of rum that had been left for the visitors. And going back two decades, Keith Miller - the Errol Flynn of the cricket fields - liked an evening out, often arriving back at the hotel so late that he barely had time to change from dinner jacket to flannels before heading to the ground.

While the fitness trainers of today might tell you that these players could have made even greater use of their talent with a more disciplined lifestyle, it's doubtful whether Sobers, Kanhai, Miller and others like them would have captivated the public so much had they been tucked in bed by 9pm every evening.

The beauty of cricket lies in the fact that it can accommodate an Eddo Brandes, a Merv Hughes and a David Boon, men with far from svelte physiques and a fondness for the lager. Boon is now a national selector, and would no doubt have watched the Symonds story unfold with keen interest, given that he still holds the record for the most beer cans consumed on a flight to the UK from Sydney.

Talk of such athletes being poor role models is also incredibly lame. Young men with money and time to burn, living in a celebrity bubble completely isolated from the harsher realities of life, will always struggle to get a sense of perspective and walk the straight and narrow. For every Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid or Michael Owen, there are likely to be ten Shoaib Akhtars. To expect a community of largely immature folk - "Elite athletes are just big kids at heart," said Greg Chappell in a recent chat with Wisden Asia Cricket - to act as torchbearers for youth is nothing less than scraping the bottom of the barrel, escapism in its worst form.

Symonds let his team-mates down, and paid the price for it. The chances are that he'll think twice before heading into town on the eve of a big game in future. But let's not err on the side of the proselytizers. Symonds didn't assault anyone, nor did he rain down bombs from the sky on innocent civilians. Like Shane Warne, whose peccadilloes don't really concern anyone but himself and his family, all he was guilty of was a loss of self-control. There are worse crimes, and better ways to fill reams of newsprint.