A player of 60s vintage who showed us what 2020s might be like

Symonds was a throwback to an age where the sport wasn’t an all-consuming task-master and accommodated a wider variety of temperaments

Updated - May 18, 2022 05:42 pm IST

Published - May 18, 2022 02:06 am IST

An art student gives final touches to a painting of late Australian cricketer Andrew Symonds as a tribute in his memory in Mumbai on May 15, 2022.

An art student gives final touches to a painting of late Australian cricketer Andrew Symonds as a tribute in his memory in Mumbai on May 15, 2022. | Photo Credit: AFP

It is impossible to be objective about death. If it involves an accident that ends a sportsman’s life prematurely, you think about his family; then you ask, did he live up to potential? That question can seldom be answered in the positive, for it is human nature to believe that the next event will be the determining one, the next assignment will establish the legacy.

Those who play sport at the highest level are judged by performance and not on potential. Once a career is over, there is no room for could-have-beens. Whatever problems the late Shane Warne had outside the sport, he will always count as one of the all-time greats, his 708 Test wickets testimony to that. Did he live up to potential? It doesn’t matter. What we know is good enough to guarantee him a place among the finest.

Andrew Symonds was a cricketer of 1960s vintage who played in the 2000s and showed us what the 2020s might be like. He was a throwback to an age where the sport wasn’t an all-consuming task-master, and accommodated a wider variety of temperaments. But he played like a post-modern cricketer, with his big hitting and ability to throw down the stumps from any angle.

Living life on his terms

The fatal car accident also took away someone who lived life on his own terms, even if it meant a shorter career in cricket with unfulfilled promises. Former Aussie captain Mark Taylor said of Symonds: “He wanted to go out there and have fun and play the game he played as a kid. At times he got in trouble for not going to training or having a few too many beers but that is the way he lived his life…”

Did the ‘Monkeygate’ controversy (Symonds claimed India’s Harbhajan Singh had racially abused him during a Sydney Test) effectively finish his Australia career? His captain, Ricky Ponting thought so; Symonds felt let down by his cricket board which didn’t back him. But swings and roundabouts, a few seasons in the IPL made him millions.

Symonds was a great all-round fielder, one of the hardest hitting batsmen, and bowled both off spin and medium pace. He could have finished as one of Australia’s greatest all-rounders, to be spoken of in the same breath as Keith Miller, a similarly flamboyant character. But he didn’t fit in snugly in the uber-professional times he played in, making no secret of the fact that sometimes he would rather go fishing.

It made for a combination of man and player who was simultaneously both an anachronism and a herald of the future. The T20 revolution arrived towards the end of his career; a younger Symonds would have staked a claim to being among the finest in the format, his skills spread over a wider range than most.

He was the highest-paid overseas player in the inaugural IPL. He could have been a first-choice player in an all-time white ball team, but his career had the feel of a Formula One car being driven at less than maximum speed.

There might be harder hitters of the ball today, better off spinners, superior medium pacers, more energetic fielders even – but not all these skills are invested in the same person like they were with Symonds. The all-rounder once got into trouble when he decided to go fishing rather than attend a team meeting ahead of a game against Bangladesh.

Taking a cut

He also agreed to take a cut (20% was the figure mentioned) in his fees if it freed him from public relations duties with corporates and gave him more time to go fishing. A modern cricketer voluntarily taking a pay cut? This is a rarity. And it brings mind to something Richie Benaud wrote in the 1980s about past players (in every generation) always claiming that they had more fun, that the current crop didn’t enjoy the game as much as they did.

Benaud’s response to this was unequivocal. “When next you hear someone moaning that the modern day cricketer doesn’t enjoy himself as much,” he wrote, “put it down to wishful thinking on the part of golden oldies living in the past…”

Still, would any contemporary player take a pay cut to free up time to attend a season of classical music, or participate in a safari or anything that is a passion with him? Cricket, like all modern professional sport, is a demanding master. The amateur spirit is looked down upon, enjoyment is for the birds. Time spent away from the game and training is often seen as time wasted.

Yet Symonds was a reminder that while cricket may have been his life, his life wasn’t cricket. He was the answer to old-timers’ notions of modern players who eschewed all fun and enjoyment in pursuit of success – however they defined it.

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