I am an alcoholic. At least I had to sign a form saying I was. Twice, actually. The first time was when England toured Pakistan during the 1996 World Cup, the second when we toured the same country five years later. In order to get a drink in the bar at the Pearl Continental in Peshawar (tragically obliterated on Tuesday by a bomb) I had to sign a form admitting to alcoholism. So did everyone else who wanted a drink. A team full of alcoholics! No wonder we were no good.
Am I alone in thinking that there is something deeply ambivalent about cricket’s- sport’s- attitude to alcohol? It is almost impossible to be part of the game, either as player or spectator, and not realise how central to the whole thing booze is. Even if you don’t drink you can’t escape it: you’re either sitting in the stands fearful that some piss-artist is about to drop a stack of beer on your head; or you’re in the dressing room feeling like a bit like a virgin in a brothel.
Actually, in Andrew Symonds’ case, it is the other way round. He’s the hooker in a team full of virgins; the drinker in a team that doesn’t drink. It proved, in the end, to be an impossible situation for him and his team. Eager to watch his favourite rugby team last week he broke the terms of his personal contract with Cricket Australia (CA) and was seen drinking in public- not drunk, just drinking in public- and summarily dismissed. It will prove to be the last in a long list of misdemeanours as an Australian cricketer because Symonds international career is now all but over.
There was a poignant photo of Symonds in The Times on Tuesday, baggy eyed and empty glass in hand, watching rugby now back home in Queensland. It wasn’t a pretty picture and the puffiness around the eyes might have suggested he was on another bender; more likely it reflected a man coming to terms with the fact that his life as an international sportsman is over; brought to a shuddering halt by a number of drinking-related indiscretions over the years, the latest of which would have been the mildest of all.
Reflecting on his client’s demise, Symonds’ manager said: ‘he did tell me that he needs to surround himself with people he can relate to.’ Drinkers, in other words. Jimmy Maher, a team mate from Queensland, put the matter another way: ‘it’s no surprise he did well in the Indian Premier League under the stewardship of Darren Lehmann and Adam Gilchrist. These are guys who work on the adage that you train hard and play hard and enjoy yourself. Now, when he mentions having a beer some of the new generation look at him like he’s from another planet.’
It is true that Symonds has, for some time now, been on the kind of slippery slope that Paul McGrath (and countless others, like Tony Adams) described in his memoir of his time as a professional footballer, where booze became not just an enabler of good times but an emasculator of everything else. At Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United, beer was as much a part of life as pasta. ‘Drink offered escapism,’ wrote McGrath, ‘and in no time I became an expert at escaping everything around me.’
Cricket Australia will argue, then, that sending Symonds home is in his best long-term interests, and it is good to know that they will continue to help him through his troubles. Certainly, it can be argued, despite their missing Symonds so badly on the field in the last week, that it was in the long-term interests of the Australian cricket team. But wouldn’t Symonds be right to be just a little confused at this moral outrage from an organisation that shows such an enthusiasm for alcohol in its commercial arrangements, and a game that cannot rid itself of its addiction? Symonds is out of step with his team, but not the game.
In the days following his shaming there were reminders everywhere that cricket and booze are inseparable. Ricky Ponting, who raised his finger so promptly and dismissed Symonds from his presence, is a reformed boozer himself. A decade ago Ponting was photographed with a shiner after a one-day international in Sydney and a night on the tiles in a 24-hour boozer called the Bourbon and Beefsteak. It wasn’t his first lapse and to his great credit he admitted to an alcohol problem and hasn’t let himself down in public since. Like the born again Christian, Ponting is now a touch evangelical for Symonds’ tastes.
A few days after Symonds was sent home, David Boon- looking ever more like a ‘keg on legs’- waddled out at Trent Bridge to do the ceremonials before the opening delivery of the India/Bangladesh game. Boon was a fine cricketer but is probably remembered just as fondly for his staggering feat of altitude drinking prior to competing in the 1989 Ashes- a feat that he has exploited amply in his retirement. Boon went through 52 cans of lager on the flight over, beating the 44-can record set by Rodney Marsh, who in turn had breezed past the 42-can record set by Doug Walters. Who said modern sportsmen aren’t better than their predecessors?
Next time you happen to be in an international ground, watch out for the Marston’s Pedigree adverts. There’s Hoggy, Vaughny, Belly and little Timmy Ambrose clutching their favourite tipple. They have no choice, since Marston’s is the official beer of the England team- as Tetley was for many years in the 1990s- and has recently renewed its association for three more years. ‘Cricket and cask beer is the perfect match,’ said the marketing director of Marston’s. John Perera, the ECB’s commercial director, said, ‘in the last three years Marston’s has been a shining example of how a commercial partnership can work to exploit a sporting association.’ One more contract for the road, then.
Cricket Australia is itself not immune from taking top dollar from brewers. It boasts Victoria Bitter, a classic Australian lager (fizzy, tasteless), as a commercial partner as well as Johnny Walker and Wolf Blass is the official wine supplier to the Australian cricket team and CA. By the way, did you notice what Ponting was wearing on his head at the press conference when Symonds was expelled? You got it- a VB cap. VB will be adorning the Australian shirts throughout the rest of the World Twenty20 (oops, nearly forgot that they are out of this one already), the Ashes and the one-day series to follow.
Cricket and booze, booze and cricket- a long established partnership and, for the most part, an enjoyable one. From the moment a young player is introduced to cricket, it is made clear that alcohol is a part and parcel of the game. Scored a fifty for your club side on Saturday, did you? No doubt the cap was sent round for donations from the crowd. Hope you bought a ‘jug’ at the bar out of the proceeds.
My favourite cricketing memory of all is of a long night in the Worcestershire dressing room after a memorable semi-final victory for Lancashire. It would be fair to say that we weren’t drinking lemonade. Victories celebrated; sorrows drowned in defeat. Win or lose, let’s sup some booze!
Spectators drink it and cricket organisations promote it. Most players enjoy it, too, and for many this forms part of their legend when their careers are done. ‘Did you see Fred? Couldn’t talk at Trafalgar Square, could he? Did you see his eyes? Piss-holes in the snow. Been on it all night. Thought he was going to drop his daughter off the top of that bus, he was so smashed. Had to have a leak in the rose bushes in Tony Blair’s garden! What a legend!’
Just be careful when and where you do it. ‘Have you seen what Fred’s done now? Got a big match coming up and he’s gone and got shedded. Can you believe it? Drinking all night ‘till four in the morning and then fell off a pedalo. Unprofessional, that’s what he is. What a disgrace.’ Symonds has gone, but not the hypocrisy.