"Andrew Symonds offers us variety and match-winning potential. His fielding alone makes him stand out from the crowd and there is also the option he gives us with the ball as he can bowl medium-pace or off-spin. As a batsman he can score at a rapid rate and has the ability to change the course of a game.”
This is how the chief Australian selector Trevor Hohns justified Andrew Symonds’ selection for the 2003 World Cup despite his average returns at international level for five years. The selection raised more eyebrows knowing that a proven player like Steve Waugh was not a part of this World Cup campaign.
With a tall, bustling body, ability to hit the ball miles, pick crucial wickets with the ball and through his peerless work as a fieldsman and never-say-die attitude, Symonds was a dream cricketer. Given cricket was moving into a fast-paced mode with the slow evolution of one-day cricket, the all-round expertise his package offered was a boon to any side. Ricky Ponting, an astute captain, publicly vouched for his selection.
Making his ODI debut in November 1998, Symonds was in and out of Australia team. Until 2003, Symonds played just 54 ODIs where he got to bat only 38 times. Then came the big moment, the 2003 World Cup where he was picked ahead of Steve Waugh. Symonds took that opportunity by the scruff of its neck.
Coming in to bat at 86 for 4 in their first World Cup game against Pakistan, Symonds, averaging only 23 with the bat till that point, notched up his first ODI hundred. His unbeaten 143 propelled Australia to a match-winning total of 310 setting the right tone for their victorious campaign. That one day proved to be the turning point in Symonds’ career.
By backing him for that World Cup, Ponting and the selectors also respected Symonds’ loyalty towards Australia. Born in England with his roots tracing back to the Caribbean, he had the liberty to choose which country he wanted to represent. The country of his heritage - West Indies, the country of his birth - England or the one where he has spent all his life - Australia.
In 1995, during his maiden county stint, with Gloucestershire, Symonds recorded 254 off only 206 deliveries. He plundered 16 sixes - a record that stood till 2015 - in his knock, including a few sending the ball outside the stadium. All this when he was aged 20. It was all natural power flowing through his barrelled arms. England were so wooed, they selected him on their A squad to tour Pakistan. At that point, he was closer to the England cap than that of Australia.
However, Symonds passed on the opportunity saying his heart lies with Australia, hence making the tough choice of breaking into a side that was on its way to attain the invincible status. That World Cup hundred against Pakistan in 2003 laid the foundation for his place in that invincible side.
Batting prominently in the lower middle-order, the right-hander scored at an average of 45.1 striking at 91.8 - an intimidating combination - since the career-changing 143*. He scored six hundreds in total, twice going past 150 and remains the only batsman to score more than two ODI scores in excess of 150 while batting at five or lower.
In addition, he has 133 ODI wickets. His fielding deserves a separate article in itself. Ponting, one of the most complete fielders, called him the best fielder he has seen, putting the Queenslander ahead of Herschelle Gibbs and Jonty Rhodes. The following description of one of his stunning fielding efforts in 2001 by commentator Richie Benaud also sheds light on his brilliance.
"Twisting and turning and diving and then swivelling without actually getting up on to his feet, and he still hit the stumps and ran the batsman out."
The confined length of a T20 game made Symonds an inestimable asset since his bowling became more effective. To no-one’s surprise, he was the costliest overseas player in the maiden IPL auction in 2008, going to Deccan Chargers at $1,350,000 where his all-round contribution went largely underrated, though he played a significant part in his team’s win in 2009.
However, his batting alone makes him one of the first few greats of the format. Playing in the inaugural T20 competition - Twenty20 Cup in England - Symonds clobbered 96* off 37 balls on his debut for Kent. Next season, he thumped Middlesex for a 34-ball hundred - a T20 record which stayed till 2013 when Chris Gayle mashed Pune’s bowling attack for 175*.
He overall averaged 32.4 in 93 T20s with a strike-rate of 147.4, no less than gold even in modern-day T20 cricket where the run-scoring has inflated in comparison to the times when Symonds took the format by storm.
In Test cricket, he was always on thin ice though. Before his maiden Test hundred (in December 2006), he averaged 18.5 in 17 innings. The hundred meant so much to him, he leaped up into his good mate, Matthew Hayden’s arms in delight. The innings also ticked the dual boxes of a Boxing Day Test ton and an Ashes ton which are a part of every Australian cricketer’s wishlist.
His second hundred - 162* at SCG against India in 2008 - sowed seeds of a controversy the consequences of which diverted attention from cricket. Indian spinner, Harbhajan Singh was accused of racist comments against Symonds addressing him as ‘monkey’. Harbhajan received a three-match ban and the Indian team threatened to withdraw from the tour. Consequently, the suspension on Harbhajan was rebuked on appeal.
Ponting states in his autobiography At The Close Of Play that the outcome of the whole episode had a long term effect on Symonds. He was pretty much painted as a villain in a scandal where he was the victim as he did not find any support from Cricket Australia.
Similarly, Michael Clarke, his team-mate, wrote in his book Michael Clarke - My Story that Symonds lost trust in a lot of people in the aftermath of the incident.
A series of bad decisions followed. Symonds skipped a team meeting for fishing in August 2008. He was sent home and was ignored for the subsequent tour to India.
Later that year, he was involved in a pub brawl with a fan in Brisbane. In 2005, he had missed out on the Cardiff ODI against Bangladesh due to drinking on the eve of the match. Another drinking episode (when he had agreed not to drink in public) in the week prior to the 2009 World T20 saw him back home a day before the start of the tournament. Australia crashed out of the first round of the tournament in the ‘Group of Death’.
Symonds’ contract was cancelled in June 2009 with him playing his last international for Australia in May 2009.
He ended his career with 198 ODIs, 14 T20Is and 26 Tests. His Test average was a respectable 40.6, an excellent rise from the point where he averaged 18.5 in his first 11 Tests before his first hundred. It's an indication that Symonds was improving to achieve something significant in the longest form of the game as well. Breaking ties with Queensland in 2009, he continued playing T20 cricket, majorly with Mumbai Indians till the Champions League in 2012.
It often is the case with such exciting talents, the only thing that can surprise them is their own set of choices.