It was in a pub in inner city Sydney that members of the Australian cricket team first met him. Nobody knew who he was, or why he was hanging around, until the ever convivial Michael Kasprowicz introduced himself.
“Gidday mate, what’s your name?” the big fast bowler asked, extending his right hand. “Rocco? “Nice to meet you, Rocco. And how do you fit in here? Pup’s body guard? OK. Gotcha.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Kasprowicz saw Darren Lehmann reel backwards, sidewards, laughing so hard that beer spurted from his mouth. Body guard? FFS! What does Michael Clarke need a body guard for? None of the punters want to talk to him.
If anybody needed a body guard it was Roy. Andrew Symonds. Symmo couldn’t go anywhere without being badgered to within an inch of life.
Just to be clear, this was early 2005 – Roy was absolute “box office”. With that on-field flair, those dreadlocks and trademark zinc encrusted lips, he was arguably the most recognisable cricketer on the planet.
There was one major problem – Symonds hated it. All of it – the attention, the fanfare, the fuss, the “celebrity status”.
He just wanted to play cricket, with his mates, and at the end of the day, have a beer and a laugh. And at the end of each match – a Sheffield Shield game, a Test, a one day international, a World Cup final, he wanted to go fishing. Quite often alone.
He wanted life to be simple, but unfortunately, on account of his extraordinary talent and charisma, it simply wasn’t. It was almost permanently chaotic.
Wherever he went, Symmo attracted attention, unwanted attention. Perched on a bar stool, wide smile, beer in hand, Andrew Symonds was the bloke that everybody felt they knew, even if they didn’t. He was cricket’s “Crocodile Dundee”, wielding a bat instead of a knife.
It’s hard to know where to start to describe Roy, or Drew, or Albert, or Joe, or any of the other nicknames bestowed on him by his adoring teammates.
Loyal, suspicious, creative, humorous, unreliable, charming, abrupt, uncomplicated, complex, high maintenance, low maintenance, he was somebody who at the airport, could brush past a 10 year old kid wanting an autograph, and 40m later, help a little old lady into a cab at the kerbside. In so many ways, Symmo was a contradiction of himself.
Perhaps most significantly, he was an introvert bottled up inside an extravert’s body, eminently comfortable in the sanctity and privacy of the dressing shed, surrounded by those he trusted, but push him outside, into the glare and unruliness of the public domain, and he gasped, like a fish out of water.
In so many ways, Symmo was a cricketer better suited to an earlier era. Slot him into an Australian Test team with “Chappelli” and Doug Walters and Dennis Lillee, and he would have thrived. He might have even been one of the more temperate in the battling line-up, and could have gone fishing on the rest day, back when Test cricket was punctuated with “time off” between days three and four.
Sadly for Symmo, he arrived on the professional sporting scene at the same time as the internet was exploding. Very quickly, if not overnight, the world became a lot more complicated, a lot more judgemental. Everybody was “accountable”. There were times Roy wanted to hide, and he simply couldn’t.
Like in early 2008, when he flew to North Queensland for the funeral of Jimmy Maher’s father, Warren. In the panic of getting “searched” at the airport (Symmo was always searched), he left his suit carrier behind. The long and the short of it, that afternoon, he turned up at the funeral service in shorts and thongs, having explained his predicament to Jimmy’s mother, “Flower”. She was just delighted he was there. But that didn’t stop the newspapers snapping photographs and the next day, splashing them across the front pages, branding Symonds disrespectful for turning up at a funeral dressed so shoddily.
Later the same year, the media were into him again, this time for bidding against himself in a charity auction to raise money for a needy family. He paid $8000 to go fishing with himself – the allegation? He was in such a reclusive state, he didn’t want company. Extraordinary. In so many ways.
On the back of these sort of episodes and a ka-trillian others, Symmo trusted slowly, even barely, permanently wary of false friends and people wanting to take advantage of him.
He trusted me, perhaps for no other reason that he knew that while working at XXXX, I could get him free beer. And big red and yellow eskies for fishing.
That’s not to suggest that Roy was mercenary, or in any way superficial. It points to our relationship being commercial before it eventually became more personal.
Plenty of others, he shut out, at one point even suggesting to his employers, Cricket Australia, they could cut his contract in half, if it meant he didn’t have to do all that “promo stuff”.
Imagine that, a professional athlete asking for less money. Yes, Roy was different. In so many ways.
In the middle of last week, I found the tube of zinc cream Roy has given me as a “momento” in the dressing shed in Barbados, after the Aussies had beaten Sri Lanka in the 2007 World Cup final.
I wouldn’t dare bore you with the apparent self importance of that little “adventure” in Barbados. The point is the tube of zinc cream, with Roy’s fluent six-beer-signature scribbled down the side, had been missing for 15 years – a little spooky that it should turn up four days before his death.
I’d love to know Symmo’s theory on that one. He loved his theories, his formulas, his calculations. In recent years, BBL fans have been treated to one of his more cerebral undertakings, the live on-air subtraction and addition of points for fielding brilliance and sloppiness, a formula so ingenuous, but so complicated not even Roy could explain it.
That was how Roy rolled, an out of the box thinker who’s brain worked in ways that others didn’t.
There were plenty of times, his Bulls teammates believed his brain didn’t work at all. Like when he was being challenged with “spelling bees” in the back of the team bus. Bet you didn’t know the word “chimney” had an “L” in it. Roy insisted he did. Pedestrian? He never conquered that one.
“Royisms” was the collective term. Across 10 seasons with the Bulls, there were hundreds of them, little moments where cognitive consonance was clearly missing. Perhaps it had “gone fishin’.”
One favourite, the day Roy and a bunch of his Bulls teammates – the usual crew – Kaspa, Bich, Mabo, Lovey – were at the Story Bridge Hotel, swamping down a few beers after a long hard training session at the Gabba.
While getting his shout, Roy couldn’t help but notice the name badge, worn by the smiling waitress, as she laid down his five schooners of Gold.
“By the way luv, how do you pronounce your name,” he asked, carefully mouthing the letters one at a time, trying to get the phonetics right. “Is it SBHLAUREN?”
Behind him, there were roars of laughter.
“Roy, I think you’ll find it’s pronounced LAUREN. And she works at the Story Bridge Hotel.”
A beer with Roy. There was never a dull moment.
It seems only fitting they were all back at “The Bridge” last Sunday, some 35 current and former Bulls players, holding an impromptu wake in honour of the energetic, enigmatic teammate they all adored.
They hugged, they toasted, they sat for hours in a giant circle, taking it in turn to tell their favourite “Royism”.
Around and around they went, long into the night, no tears, just raucous laughter, fuelled by countless memories that will never fade.
It was a reminder that cricket – team sport – is made up of more than runs and wickets and catches. It can also be about contributing to a group environment, having fun, making it better.
In every team he played in – the Gold Coast Dolphins, the Queensland Bulls, Australia, Gloucester, the Deccan Chargers, the Mumbai Indians, even his annual outing with the busted arse farmers who made up the local Charters Towers side that contested the famed “Gold Field Ashes”, Roy did just that. He made it fun.
He’ll be sorely missed, by so many. In so many ways.
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