To a generation of 21st-century cricket fans, Andrew Symonds was a real-life action hero. He had Superman’s physique, Batman’s mystery, The Hulk’s power and The Flash’s agility. Little wonder cricket-mad kids worshipped him across three decades. With a few swings of his bat, an over of crafty medium pace or off-spin, or a spectacular leap, dive and throw in the field, Symonds could turn a game on its head.
He was a gifted athlete, a born entertainer and a reluctant celebrity. Most of all, a true allrounder, on and off the field. The news of his death is tragic. He leaves behind a wife, two children and a legacy of greatness.
Symonds was born in Birmingham in 1975, two days after the first Cricket World Cup kicked off in London. His parentage was a mix of Afro-Caribbean and Swedish or Danish blood. Although he was adopted at 12 weeks old by school teachers Ken and Barbara Symonds, and emigrated to Australia soon after, his instinctive brilliance as a junior cricketer fed a mythology which passed from town to town, over rivers and down coastlines about the big boy wonder whose father drove him 270km twice a week to bat and bowl the house down for the Townsville Wanderers, a club whose bucolic home ground was 50km from where Symonds’s rolled car was found by police in the wilds of Hervey Ranges, west of town.
Although he made his first-grade debut in 1994-95, scoring more than 5,000 runs and taking more than 100 wickets, Symonds came of age in his UK birthplace, bludgeoning his name into county cricket infamy with several rousing innings including a famous 254 against Glamorgan in 1995 that included 16 sixes (and just as many pints afterwards). Such feats of power and instinct saw England rattle his cage to claim his Pommy birthright and defect. They even picked him in an England A side. But not for the last time, Symonds went his own way, defecting to his homeland.
If Shane Warne was Australian cricket’s most brilliant larrikin, Symonds was its wildest colonial boy, more at ease mud-crabbing or deep sea-fishing than playing organised cricket with its traditions, rites and passages and pressure tests. He famously showed up to a contract negotiation with the suited chieftains of Australian cricket wearing double-pluggers and a mud-and-salt-encrusted Akubra, swinging into the driveway with crates of crayfish on the back of his ute, some fat barramundi on ice and half a dozen empty cans at his feet.
Australia’s hero of that 1975 World Cup had been another burly showman, Gary Gilmour. But like ‘Gus’ Gilmour, ‘Roy’ Symonds never settled into his groove as the allrounder Australia had craved since the late Keith Miller sheathed his rapier, hung up his comb and went to the races. Although he wore the green and gold in 1999 and showed glimpses of the pyrotechnics for which he became famous, Symonds did not fulfil his promise until 2003 when he lit up that year’s World Cup with a pulverising and unconquered 143 not out in the opening game against Pakistan, steering his depleted side from 86-4 to 310-8 and setting in train the juggernaut that won Australia the tournament and made Symonds a lock in the ODI side.
A Test debut came the next summer but at first he looked ill at ease in white. There was none of the swagger he carried into the short-form game, where canny captains like Ricky Ponting knew not to assign him a role but merely turn him loose. Symonds struggled on that first Sri Lankan tour in 2003-04 then underachieved against the West Indies. His frustration showed in some loose off-field behaviour. It was a pattern that repeated throughout his career and it cost him Test caps – but never fans.
After five Tests, he had a batting average of 12.62 and a bowling average of 85.00. But with critics calling for his head, Symonds showed his mettle on the biggest stage of all, the MCG and the 2005 Boxing Day Test against South Africa. After a golden duck in the first innings, he blazed 72 off 54 balls in the second dig, including a new Australian record for the fastest Test 50 (40 balls) and backed it up with five wickets.
But Symonds’s thirst often outweighed his ambition and, after showing up drunk to training or failing to heed wake up calls for the team bus, he was dumped, recalled then dumped again. In the coming years, Symonds would speak of his problems with binge drinking.
For the fourth estate, he was manna – enigmatic, untameable and unaffected. As a young cricket editor, I waited three days for an interview with Symonds only to get a better headline when he and fellow Queensland outdoorsman Matthew Hayden were rescued from shark-infested seas after their fishing boat sank and left them clinging to an Esky lid.
Trying to track him down for an interview was like chasing marlin. Most of the time he was out back and “out of range” and you came back empty. When he appeared, though, it was brilliant. Symonds was gruff and dry, but funny and honest. He laughed like a drain and his smile – a flash between two forever-zinc-creamed lips – could light up a stadium.
Symonds’s 2008 season showcased his brilliance, courage, fecklessness and controversy. He kicked it off with an atypically disciplined yet typically dynamic innings of 162 not out against India, taking his side from 134-6 to a final total of 463. In the same test, he took exception to Indian spinner Harbhajan Singh touching teammate Brett Lee. Words were exchanged. Symonds’s remarks were profane, Singh’s were racist. A tribunal intervened but it soured a triumphant game – and ultimately lit the fuse on his last blast. Soon after, Symonds was axed from the Australian side after he missed a team meeting to go fishing. Instead he took a gig in the Indian Premier League worth $1.8m, the second-biggest salary in the league.
Shortly after he retired to commentary, family life and chasing the horizon on fishing boats, Symonds explained his drinking to 60 Minutes as a case of “too fast, too much”. It proved a neat distillation of his cricket career too – a whirl of shorts, catches and wickets almost too brilliant for the eye to see from a talent who always defied convention and sometimes belief.
Andrew Symonds is dead. But to his friends and fans he lives on. He’s simply gone fishing.