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Andrew Symonds, a player who came from the future

If they had T20 in 1998 and not 2008, Jarrod Kimber wonders, what on earth could he have done?

Jarrod Kimber
Jarrod Kimber
Andrew Symonds was a brilliant fielder, Australia vs Sri Lanka, Brisbane, February 14, 2006

On the field, Andrew Symonds had the speed and agility of a much smaller man  •  Getty Images

Andrew Symonds fielded differently to others. He was a ring-fielding predator. Proactive, with otherworldly athletic gifts, he was like an oppressive force at cover.
One game towards the end of his career he was mic'ed up and he took people through his methods. And you saw how his mind, body and desire came together to make him one of the world's best inside the circle.
The first bit was how much he actually wanted the ball because he believed through that he could keep himself in the game. For all his technical and physical gifts, this was the most important one. He was desperate to be involved. Some players don't want the ball; Symonds needed it.
Then there was the physical prowess. He could change direction like someone far smaller. He was swift across the ground and had a rocket arm. Australia turned Mike Young, an American baseball coach, into a fielding specialist, and paired him with Symonds, which took his fielding to another level. For years when he talked about his fielding, Young's name would often come up.
And then there was his brain. That is what you saw in this on-field masterclass. He was talking about bat faces, areas batters wanted to score in, and his own intuition. You can be the fastest fielder in the world, but it doesn't help if you are waiting for the ball to be hit. Symonds would read the bowler and batter and proactively stop runs.
And in that way, and almost every other way, he was always ahead of the game.
One of the big technical changes that he made as a batter was to stop trying to hit every ball as hard as he could. The reasoning was that because he hit the ball so hard naturally, a swing at three-quarters power, off the middle of his bat, could clear the boundary anyway.
In the era of ODI cricket Symonds played, the average strike rate was 74, and a six was hit every 109 balls. His strike rate was 92.5 and he hit a six every 53 balls. Despite retiring before ODI cricket got a lot faster, he still has the 11th-best strike rate of all time of those with more than 5000 runs.
But the interesting thing is how much Australia tried to rein all that in. We know how much faster he could have scored if they had ever let him off the leash. He averaged a very respectable 40 in ODIs. But what kind of player could Australia have had if they just let Roy be Roy? There are only three players with a career strike rate of over 100 with that amount of runs: Shahid Afridi, Virender Sehwag and AB de Villiers. Symonds held himself back to a strike rate of 92 and an average of 40 and he won twice the number of World Cups as that trio combined, as well as a Champions Trophy. Across two World Cups and two Champions Trophies, he averaged 76 at a strike rate of 95. But what could his ceiling have been had he been truly let loose?
The game was different then. The free market wasn't dictating what you did, and so Symonds had to conform to what Australia wanted. But ultimately you couldn't really make him a normal cricketer because it wasn't how he thought. And so with his bowling, Symonds was two bowlers depending on how he felt and what the team needed.
He wasn't the first allrounder to bowl pace and spin, but he was perhaps one of the first to do it slightly more tactically. Symonds' offspin was very much like the canny part-timers you get in club cricket. It came from a powerful arm, and it wasn't about spin, it was about accuracy and intelligence, and he bowled the ball where he felt it was hardest to hit boundaries from. His medium pace could wobble the ball around and, occasionally, get a bit more out of the deck than others. Neither were frontline skills on their own, but he made them work when he needed to. He was a match-ups bowler before the term existed in cricket. Without being a full-time fifth bowler for Australia in ODIs - they often split his overs between him and Darren Lehmann or Michael Clarke - he still took 133 wickets at 37.
By 2016, when T20s had changed the game, quite a few coaches stopped using the term allrounder as much. Instead, they used something from baseball, referring to a player as a two- or three-tool player: bats, bowls, and fields. Symonds was so far ahead of his time he was a four-tool player: bat, bowl offspin, bowl medium, and field.
And we did see just the smallest amount of what he could have done in the format of cricket that best suited his skills. In 2003 he played five T20 matches for Kent, scoring 170 runs off 75 balls. In fact, over his first 16 games at the back-end of his peak, he made 529 runs from 260 balls while averaging 44. Sadly, the IPL came just after his peak, but he made a hundred in his first year, and over the first two seasons averaged 45.5 while striking at 150.
He got two more years, but one was his 2011 campaign, in which he struck at 97 over 11 matches. He was still playing because he still had so many useful skills. But he was gone as a batter then. Yet his career numbers still look incredible, averaging 32 with a strike rate of 147. It is a badly drawn picture of what peak Symonds could have been. If they had T20 in '98, not '08, what on earth could he have done? It's just sad for him that he was a T20 player before there really was T20. He showed people how to play it and then had to watch others do it.
You can see patterns among the great white-ball players linking different eras. Javed Miandad led into Dean Jones who became Ricky Ponting, and then we had Virat Kohli. Michael Bevan had MS Dhoni follow him. Viv Richards' closest copy is AB de Villiers. Symonds was really very much like Kieron Pollard, a power player with a brain, one who broke chases and bowlers early on, with a freedom that other batters found unnerving. And he continued to bother people with bowling, whatever he could to be effective, and incredible fielding efforts.
Symonds wasn't just some white-ball wizard either; remember he played 26 Tests in a solid era of Australian cricket, often keeping Shane Watson out of the team. And in those matches he averaged 40.5 with the bat while also adding almost one wicket every game with whatever bowling he thought would work best. In a 14-year first-class career Symonds hit 40 hundreds.
He was often wrongly perceived as a slogger, because he was so different. But he was more than that. He was exciting, unique and powerful. He was a player who came from the future. For crowds in the 90s, used to batters pushing the ball around in the middle overs, one-dimensional bowlers and fielders who reacted to the ball, he was thrilling. And we didn't always know how to process that.
Watching him bat was always a bittersweet experience because the thrill was in him pushing too hard, but the fear was that would get him out. And the feeling that no matter what he did on the field, it would always end too soon. Today, I feel that again, only it's far worse.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber