Free-spirited 90s cricketer Andrew Symonds felt caged by the corporatization of cricket

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Two days before the 2009 edition of the World Cup, Andrew Symonds, after months of bottle abstinence, could no longer resist the lure of wine. In the evening, he snuck out of the hotel room and hit the bottle, where he drank deep into the night. The next morning Captain Ricky Ponting confronted him and delivered the message that he was going home.

But Symonds, far from hurt, felt a breeze of relief. “Once I got back from England and everything calmed down, it was a relief,” he later told the Guardian. At that time, playing for his country, his childhood dream, was a burden. “I felt like I was in a cage. Always under the microscope. I wasn’t having fun anymore. I didn’t like it,” he admitted.

Then aged 34, he moved to Surrey, where he later found happiness, where the laid-back soul of county cricket helped him rediscover the lost joy of playing cricket. For him, a shameless hitter of the cricket ball, playing cricket was all about finding that joy. But somewhere in his day, as cricket moved into a more ruthless professional realm, he became an anachronism, a misfit. The sport itself and the culture around Australian cricket was changing rapidly. Gone was the companion of the Mark Taylor-Steve Waugh era, replaced by a regimented and structured environment of gnarly pros, in which he felt as imprisoned as he was suffocated.

He belonged to that middle generation of cricket, where the game had not lost its rustic charm but had not yet fully embraced modernism. He felt vulnerable. Some of his like-minded teammates resisted the changes, like Shane Warne, who was too big to change. Others, like Ponting, immersed themselves in the fresh waters, re-imagining themselves. But Symonds chose to be who he was, as he had always been in his life, raw but genuine, unaffected, a bit old-fashioned, a 90s Aussie cricketer in spirit, playing the bad era. Values, cultures and perceptions had changed indiscernibly. Former captain Mark Taylor summed up Symonds perfectly. “In a way he was a bit of an old-school cricketer, he wouldn’t have been out of place playing in the 70s or 80s. He just wanted to entertain.

He was a rider in an age of confused roundheads. Not for him the new-age mechanics of sport. “I’m passionate about cricket, but it’s not the end of my life. I like the outdoors and I like having a good time,” he once told reporters. He couldn’t stop time, change it or even go back.

As the schedule grew busier and restrictions tightened, he craved that time for me. He hated all that new-age jazz—the ads, the sponsors, the requests for interviews, the endless team meetings—and on the rare occasions he had it, he would voraciously take the bottle. “I wouldn’t let anything stop me and I drank like alcohol was going to wash off the face of the earth,” he said. He looked like a heavy metal band drummer who found himself in the company of Eminem and Snoop Dogg. He was the cricketer whose only dream in cricket was to share a drink with his charismatic and colorful hero Keith Miller.

Inevitably, as men who broke with the ideals of a milieu, he was called a rebel, worse a troublemaker, a model of fault. Another time, another time, his fishing trip to Darwin would have only embellished his worship; he would have been applauded for McCullum’s rant as a display of Australian vigour; whether he’s punching someone in the bar or in the shoulder while charging a streaker, we’d all affectionately call him “one of those characters.” Or positively macho. Gagging his Mumbai Indians teammate Yuzvendra Chahal and forgetting about the incident would have been seen as a joke and not abuse.

Even the Monkey Gate incident – which would follow him around and invisibly etch itself onto his epitaph – would have been perceived differently, at least not turned into melodrama as it turned out to be. “I hadn’t realized the politics, the power, the money until this point in my career. I hadn’t realized how powerful a player, an incident could be, how much money was involved and the ramifications,” he said. He was oblivious to the changes around him, happy in his ivory tower.

Between January 2008 and 2009, he was at the heart of nearly every cricket scandal simmering in Australia. It was projected as the metaphor for the decadence that had crept into Australian cricket culture. An embodiment of everything that was wrong with the game in the country. He was fined and sacked several times, counseled even more times, forced to apologize and forced to sign an agreement that if found drunk he would be immediately dropped from the squad, ahead of the Cup 2009 T20 World Cup. Turns out he did and was fired forever.

But Symonds, generally, had no regrets. “The only real regret I have in cricket was signing that contract. If I had had my time again, I would have said, ‘You know what? There’s no way I’m going to sign. that,” he said later. Here, too, in the past, Symonds was simply Symonds. True to himself, his instincts and his values, those who would have endeared him to the masses to another era, but found themselves judged by an era that was at odds with his spirit, like a bird imprisoned in a gilded cage. He loved cricket, but perhaps he loved himself even more. The crux of Symonds the cricketer was his own battle with the changing times, a battle he was doomed to lose.

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