You only have to look at the rapid turnover of national selection jobs to know that whilst being a national hobby in most cricket-loving nations, the art of choosing the perfectly balanced side is both taxing and difficult. With multiple voices in the room, concessions and compromises are necessary and not a little bit of foresight. When and whom do you “pick and stick”? Has this guy got credits in the bank? Is this one ready yet? Is that one talented enough to warrant the hassle and justify the risk? Isn’t he too old?
The selection panel for Australia’s 2003 World Cup squad had reason to ponder a few of these questions when it came to a decision on mercurial all-rounder Andrew Symonds. There were ample grounds on which to leave him out. Symonds’ 54 one-day internationals to that point had left him with a rapidly-deflating batting average of 23.81 and the unbeaten 68 he’d scored in his third match – now four years into the rear view mirror – remained his best effort. His bowling? An acquired taste.
At the insistence of captain Ricky Ponting, Australia’s selectors cut Symonds some slack and picked him more or less on talent and potential alone. You couldn’t justify it any other way. On the tournament’s eve the defending champions were in a state of mild crisis too; Shane Warne sent home after a positive drugs test, Michael Bevan injured and Darren Lehmann suspended for racial abuse. Could a flake like Symonds turn it on when his team needed him most?
At 86-4 in the 16th over as Symonds strode to the crease in his side’s first pool game against Pakistan, the world was about to find out. Internal expectations were possibly a little higher than those held by the average fan but finally something clicked. Everything clicked, in fact. Watchful at first (his first 50 took 60 deliveries) Symonds launched an unforgettable attack on a rampant Wasim Akram, plus Waqar Younis and Shoaib Akhtar, raining 18 boundaries and a pair of sixes on his way to an unbeaten 143 from 125 deliveries. His second 50 came from just 32 balls. Symonds had arrived.
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There was more to come too; 59 against Namibia, a match-winning 91 not out in the semi-final against Sri Lanka when no other man progressed pass the 30s and then a symbolic skittling of the tail in the Cup-winning triumph against India. By the time Australia had completed their three-peat at Bridgetown in 2007, Symonds’ blade drew a touch under 40 per redemptive innings.
A spectacular catch in the outfield, and the 82-run win, was the perfect icing and Symonds apologised after the game for having disappointed people for so long. Ricky Ponting kept it simple: “We saw his talent and we’ve known it for a long time. It was about time it started coming out.”
“It was an example of a captain’s faith in a player,” explained Ian Chappell, “how important it is and how that faith can be rewarded, particularly if the captain has picked the right bloke.” Not only was it the definitive Symonds but a catalyst too for everything else of value in his international career. With that you’d expect it lodged well in his mind’s eye. Well not quite. Symonds had to re-watch it on DVD before passing any judgment in his autobiography. Most of the rest of us remember it a little better.