‘A force of nature’ – How county cricket remembers Andrew Symonds and that T20 knock

Australia

As Kent and Surrey players lined up on the boundary in front of the Beckenham pavilion to observe a minute’s silence to honour Andrew Symonds, they represented two clubs which had been touched by his “magic” more than most.

It was on this suburban out-ground in South London that Matt Walker, the Kent head coach, can remember Symonds whacking a Hampshire attack featuring the likes of Wasim Akram and Alan Mullally into the adjoining training facilities of the Crystal Palace football club. Indeed his unbeaten 96 off 37 balls against Hampshire in the first season of the Twenty20 Cup in 2003 remains a pivotal innings in Symonds’ career.

Another innings Walker shared with Symonds was arguably more of a trailblazing one, even if the true significance of it was somewhat lost at the time in an air of puzzlement about the feat and the format itself, which was still very much in its infancy. A good distance from Beckenham, deep into Kent at Maidstone, was where Symonds struck his world-record 34-ball hundred in 37 minutes against Middlesex the following season. It was the fastest T20 hundred until Chris Gayle reached the mark off 30 balls in 2013. Symonds went on to reach 112 off 43 deliveries as Kent won the rain-affected match by seven wickets with 29 balls to spare.

“It was almost surreal, because it was so early on in T20,” Walker says. “No one really then knew how to play the game. It sounds really strange but those first couple of years it was so far removed from anything we’d done as cricketers. This new form of cricket came in which I think everyone was scratching their heads about how they go, some people would try the slog first, it didn’t really work out, and the game sort of passed us by and no one really quite got it. But he got it.”

Symonds clubbed 18 fours and three sixes in that knock, Walker came in a No. 4 with his powerfully built team-mate all guns blazing and ended unbeaten on 12.

“Looking back I can’t remember a shot he played because it was so long ago, but what I do remember is there was such shellshock around the ground, especially from the Middlesex players, they couldn’t quite believe what was going on,” he says. “It was almost a sense of this is like nothing we’ve ever seen before.

“Now it happens quite a bit, doesn’t it? We see it most weeks in the IPL or in our Blast and it’s quite commonplace, but bearing in mind when that was, I don’t think anyone could quite believe what they’re seeing.

“It just felt like he was playing in the back garden with his kids, how easy it was, with how much power he gained, how hard he hit the ball. We just were left a bit sort of bewildered by it really. But Symo being Symo sort of walked off, bat under his arm and, ‘whatever, no big deal’.”

It was Symonds’ ability to combine a larger-than-life physical presence with a down-to-earth, humble, honest persona which swept people along with him – made them feel special – that Walker remembers most from the Australian’s time with Kent from 1999 to 2004.

“He was a force of nature and an incredibly talented athlete that probably could have played any sport he wanted to if he chose, and he was magic, he really was absolutely magic,” Walker says. “It was the presence he had everywhere he went… you felt unbeatable with that sort of bloke in your presence.

“He made it a great place to be for those years and that period was one of the happiest I think I’ve been playing cricket, with that group of players and him in it.”

During his time with the county, Symonds made 49 first-class appearances, scoring 12 centuries and amassing 3,526 runs at an average of 45.20. He also contributed 65 red-ball wickets with his right-arm seam and off-spin.

Symonds also made 62 List A appearances for Kent and scored 1,690 one-day runs at an average of 30.17. His highest one-day total of 146 came against Lancashire at Tunbridge Wells in 2004 and he took 69 wickets at 21.53, including two five-wicket hauls. In 2020, he was voted Kent Spitfires’ Greatest Overseas Player by the club’s members and supporters.

Speaking about Symonds’ death, just hours after the news broke late on Saturday night UK time, Walker is almost overcome with emotion initially before the memories flow and he returns to his usually verbose self.

“He’ll be hugely missed,” he says. “I know that for a fact. And I can say that when he was with us at Kent, it was an amazing period of time of cricket. We won a lot of games. We were one of the best sides in the country. We won a couple of things and he was a massive part of that and my thoughts are so much with the family and especially the Australian group of players that have had such a horrible time of it.”

Symonds’ death in a single-car crash in north Queensland at the age of 46 follows the deaths of Shane Warne and Rod Marsh in March. Their loss has been felt around the sporting world, and other corners of English county cricket who were moved deeply by Australian cricket’s latest loss, including Surrey, whose players stood shoulder to shoulder with Kent’s under Sunday’s leaden skies which ultimately contrived to end their Championship contest in a washed-out draw.

Symonds joined Surrey for the Friends Provident T20 campaign of 2010 and Gareth Batty, then Symonds’ team-mate now Surrey’s head coach, vividly remembers the Australian’s classy response to a then 19-year-old Jason Roy scoring his maiden T20 hundred to propel their side to victory against Kent at Beckenham that season.

“Andy Symonds is someone that we knew personally, we had him for a period of time at Surrey nearer the end of his career and l he was very big around the group,” Batty says. “I remember Jason getting his first hundred in a T20 game and he was the one, fresh into the group, that said, ‘hang on a minute, we’ve got a young fella here, we hang around for 20 minutes and we bask in his glory with him.’

“I certainly think Jason will remember that to this day. I certainly remember it and I still try and aspire to be as good a team man as he certainly was throughout his life. He’ll be sadly missed.”

“He was a brilliant, three-dimensional player but he was also very driven and asked a lot of his team-mates,” Mark Chilton, Lancashire’s director of cricket.

“We caught him at a time in his career when he was flying and he seemed to affect every game in which he played. He was a cricketer who imposed himself on the opposition in a competitive way but without crossing the line. You felt his presence and he had a massive impact on what we were trying to create.”

Valkerie Baynes is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo

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