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Knight In Shining Armour
Had Andrew Symonds accepted the place he was offered in the England A squad back in 1995, he may by now have played far more of both Test cricket and one-day internationals. He may have even figured in the 1999 World Cup. But it would all have been for England, a country he was born in but left when he was barely two. Symonds with his typically Aussie traits, marked by tenacity and aggression, would probably have been a misfit among the Poms.
Symonds declined the offer, preferring to gamble and gain a place in the Australian national squad by turning out for Queensland in domestic cricket. He did make the Australian team in 1998-99, but missed out on the World Cup squad in 1999.
As things stand, Symonds, though acknowledged as one of the hardest hitters in the game, has played just over 50 odis for his adopted country but is yet to play Test cricket. Before this World Cup, he had not even come close to a three-figure knock—a highest of 68 not out, one of his only two knocks of over 50—would hardly qualify as being close to a century. Yet, there is not a single Australian, least of them his captain, Ricky Ponting, who would hesitate in acknowledging his incredible talent as a hard-hitting batsman, a more-than-useful right arm off-break bowler and a brilliant fielder, one of the very best in the world. But all such accolades in cricket lexicon count for nothing, if the scores are not forthcoming. And, so it was with Symonds, till last week.
Shrugging off the shocking news of teammate and Aussie icon Shane Warne having tested positive for a banned substance, Symonds rescued Australia from a tense 86 for four to a superb 310 for eight.
When the dust settled down, he was still unbeaten with 143, his career-best and a knock which in its wake left Waqar Younis shell-shocked to the extent that he bowled two beamers, resulting in umpire David Shepherd first warning him and then asking him to go off the attack midway through the over.
In the absence of the injured Michael Bevan, suspended Darren Lehmann and the dope-tainted Shane Warne, Symonds was the knight in shining armour. He had more than justified the faith reposed in him by the Australian selectors, whose choice of him in the first place was looked at in amazement. His other supporter has been skipper Ponting, and it was quite fitting that he was at the other end when Symonds began his brilliant knock against Pakistan and the two lifted Australia from a perilous 86 for four with a 60-run stand for the fifth wicket. With the team still not out of the woods, Symonds went on the overdrive and played the innings of his life.
Smacking the ball to every part of the ground, he moved stealthily to 50 in just 33 balls and 21 minutes and reached his first century in 92 deliveries and 98 minutes. When the 50 overs ran out, he was still around with 143 off 129 balls. It was not only the highest score at the Wanderers but also the highest by an Australian in any World Cup match.
Andrew Symonds had arrived. And he underlined that arrival with an amazing piece of fielding. When Pakistan were batting, Yousuf Youhana pulled a short ball from Ian Harvey and it seemed fairly safe until Symonds came charging in off the boundary, dived forward full length to take a two-handed catch inches off the grass. Youhana was gone for 27 and Pakistan were 103 for five. The writing was on the wall and Symonds was ready to take a bow.
Born in Birmingham in the same month when the inaugural World Cup was played in England in June 1975, Symonds played most of his early cricket in Queensland, leading their Under-17 team and then the Under-19 squad. He played for Australia Under-19 in 1993-94 and for various Queensland teams, Colts, Academy and the second XI. He occasionally played for the main Queensland squad, but despite his undeniable talent, he never really made his place permanent.That was the Symonds story through the 1990s.
Unable to make his place permanent even in the state squad, Symonds ventured once again to the land of his birth in 1995. Playing for Gloucestershire, he earned the reputation of being a merciless hitter. He once smacked 20 sixes in a first-class match, 16 of them in a single innings. Two good seasons for Gloucestershire prompted the English selectors to ask Symonds if he was willing to join the A squad, but Symonds had his eyes set on a place in the Australian side. The way Australian cricket churns out youngsters and given his own inconsistency, Symonds may have been justified in taking up the offer. But he preferred to wait for his time. He also played for Kent in 1999 before returning to Queensland.
Talking of the run-up to the World Cup, it would not have been wrong to say he had missed his chance, when after being recalled for the VB series against England, he averaged a disastrous four in five innings with the bat and over 82 with the ball. His fielding was the saving grace.
Not surprisingly, more than a few eyebrows were raised as Symonds' name figured in the Australian squad for the current World Cup. In fact, he made the team only when Shane Watson withdrew because of a back injury. Imagine, a man like Steve Waugh had already been left out, and what's more even in the 15, he faced competition from Ian Harvey and Brad Hogg, both of whom can bat and bowl, just like Symonds.
Ponting has often said the inconsistent Symonds is just "one game" away from a dominant performance that could see him cement his place in the national side. "It's in there, we know that it's there, just waiting to come out," Ponting said recently of Symonds' match-winning abilities on the eve of the World Cup and before the warm-up matches.
Yet, Symonds may have found himself on the bench. But after the innings against a Pakistani attack having Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Shoaib Akhtar, Symonds has made his place more secure.
Now that he has done it once, the pressure is off and Symonds can continue smacking the ball around as he is wont to.