The third Ashes Test, which starts in Perth on Thursday, is not just a pivotal game for England; it is a make-or-break match for Andrew Symonds, the Queensland all-rounder. Symonds is the Graeme Hick/Mark Ramprakash figure of Australian cricket; a hugely gifted sportsman who has found it difficult to come to terms with Test cricket.
The Birmingham-born 31-year-old turned down the chance to play for England in 1995 when he declined the offer of a place on an "A" tour, and since committing himself to Australia he has had stints with Gloucestershire, Kent and Lancashire as an overseas player.
Symonds owes this opportunity to resurrect his Test career to the surprise retirement of Damien Martyn and the ongoing hamstring injury to Shane Watson. That he bowled well at the WACA for Queensland in a Pura Cup (Sheffield Shield) game a month ago helped his cause, but his gentle medium pace and occasional off-spin is unlikely to cause Kevin Pietersen sleepless nights.
Symonds is one of the most dangerous one-day batsmen in the world. He has scored almost 4,000 runs in 154 limited-overs appearances at an average of 39. In the last World Cup he was the player of the tournament. Yet he has found Test cricket, with all its intricacies and pressures, a far tougher game to crack. In 10 Test appearances he has passed 50 on just two occasions and averages 19.
"I thought my Test career might be over," Symonds admitted after his last Test appearance against South Africa earlier this year. "I was really shocked about my recall. I actually got my 'baggy green' out a few days ago, looked at it, smelt it and wondered whether I would ever wear it again. It smelt nice. It smelt of sweat and beer."
A "baggy green", the cap worn by Australian Test cricketers, is possibly the most prized possession in sport here and Symonds has not had his off his head since he arrived in Perth. He even wore it at practice yesterday. "The boys were ribbing me a bit for wearing it," he admitted. "But I might not get the chance to wear it again so I'll be wearing it whether I play or not for the next couple of days."
Symonds is still very chippy when questioned about his English connections, as a journalist found out when he asked him how seriously he had considered playing for England in 1995. The indignant and confrontational reaction gave an indication as to why he has not been able to crack Test cricket. In one-day cricket a player often does not have time to think, he just plays. Yet in a five-day Test a lot of unpleasant questions are asked of you.
Symonds admits that he has struggled to come to terms with what Test cricket is all about and he is hoping to follow the example set by the England captain, Andrew Flintoff. "I played a bit with Freddie during my time with Lancashire, although our conversations were rarely about cricket," he said. "I have watched him play and he is a similar type of player to me. He plays instinctively and doesn't think about it too much. Train hard then go out there and react. That is how I play my best cricket.
"Before practice John Buchanan [the Australian coach] came up to me and asked me to play freely. He told me not to worry about the results because they will look after themselves if you go out there and enjoy yourself. In the past I have probably tried too hard and I need to be a little less intense. In the past I have clammed up a bit. It is hard to say 'bugger it' and walk out to play. After all," he added, "you're not playing backyard cricket - you're playing for Australia."
Hick's and Ramprakash's final chances went before they could show people how good they really are. Will it be the same for Symonds?
Symonds' Test record
Batting average: 19.06
100s: 0 50s: 2
Top score: 72
Balls bowled: 894
Bowling average: 45.44
5 wickets in innings: 0
10 wickets in match: 0
Best figures: 3-50
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