Andrew Symonds has an alcohol problem. So does Cricket Australia. Andrew Symonds has been forced to make public acknowledgement of his, and now to pay a massive price. Cricket Australia is still in denial.
Time was when Symonds thought seriously about giving cricket away in favour of rugby league. He evidently made the wrong call. Had he defected to the Brisbane Broncos, as he fantasised of doing, sneaking out of a team hotel to have a few beers while watching the State of Origin, as he is meant to have done in London, would then have been a compulsory rite of passage, not the subject of mandatory punishment; indeed, had there not been a gang bang involved, he would probably have been regarded as an underachiever. Whatever the case, there do seem two extraordinarily different codes of behaviour involved: League has made the blind eye as much a feature of the game as the grapple tackle, while cricket appears to have imbibed Mencken’s famous definition of puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone somewhere is enjoying themselves”.
There’s a third standard involved too. Twenty years ago, David Boon, now a Test selector, staggered off an airliner at Heathrow the worse for a record number of beers consumed en route from Australia — a record that he has parlayed into a healthy post-retirement career, and which has for years been celebrated by one of Cricket Australia’s major sponsors. Cricket Australia, then, has more than a nodding acquaintance with the irresponsible drinking for which it has convicted Symonds.
In hindsight, it appears obvious that Symonds should never have been picked: his behaviour smacks of a player who wasn’t quite sure how much he wanted to be in England in the first place, who wasn’t comfortable about his place in the team having been excluded from the Ashes squad, who had come from the big money and VIP treatment of the Indian Premier League, missed his old mucka Matthew Hayden and found accounting for his whereabouts every moment of the day to be inhibiting, and maybe even a little demeaning. If you’re trying to resist the enticements of alcohol, it’s such pressure situations where willpower is most routinely found wanting.
While Symonds confuses easily, furthermore, here he has some right to be so. For the last year he has been undergoing a “rehabilitation” process described in the woolliest terms of therapeutic ideology, the creepy, infantilising tyranny of the twelve-step programme. Now, having been pardoned and excused for more significant misdemeanours, he finds himself in a zero-tolerance environment and punished for a trifle. Why? Because, Ricky Ponting explains, impressionable young teammates might have their heads turned. But if that’s the case, then what does that say of Ponting, who after leading Australia in 56 Tests and 184 one-day internationals is still so unsure of his own authority? Was the environment really so risky, so fraught? Perhaps Symonds has more faith in the common sense of his comrades than his captain.
The counterargument is that Symonds has been penalised not for falling off the wagon, but for deviating from the straight and narrow path set him by Cricket Australia and the team “leadership group” — that peculiar oxymoron. But how realistic were those expectations, and how proportionate is the penalty? And while personally I think James Sutherland is a better man than this, some will also see CA’s as an opportunistic punishment, meted out because Symonds has so forfeited public popularity that he can easily be made an example of.
Whatever the case, Symonds would be justified in reflecting on the example set by his newly punitive employer. Many people in this country drink to excess rather too often. This is sometimes because they are helpless to do otherwise, but also because advertising, by associating itself with the positive reputation of sport, has successfully reinforced the idea that alcohol is integral to any good time in the making.
CA certainly loves a drop. CUB is doubly represented in its sponsorship portfolio: its number one beer brand VB, with its now rather tired vaunting of Boony, Beefy and Warnie, is a Platinum Partner; its number one wine brand, Wolf Blass, is a Gold Partner. Diageo is also a Gold Partner in the brand name of Johnnie Walker; Asahi Breweries is an Official Supplier as the owner of Schweppes. Andrew Symonds’ sin lies partly in his evincing why the makers of alcoholic beverages so love their sport, the hankering to watch State of Origin and the itch for a beer having in his mind acquired reflex connection.
In the mid-1980s, an earlier cricket maverick in Greg Matthews was penalised for publicly disavowing tobacco, thereby offending Australian cricket’s then sponsor Benson & Hedges. One wonders how CUB will feel about the message from CA that drinking while watching sport can actually destroy your career.
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