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'Free spirit' Symonds happy out of spotlight

When last the Ashes caravan pulled into this Yuletide siding, he was bigger than Santa Claus. Smiting balls into the crowd, taking wickets and throwing them down. Emerging from a car wash wearing only a towel, muscles rippling, dreadlocks drooping, brushing his teeth and wearing a look that said: ''What? Isn't this how everyone takes a shower?''

''He was really the face of our marketing,'' Cricket Australia's Michael Brown says of Andrew Symonds. ''Everybody male and female thought he was a great ad for cricket.''

Adding context, Brown notes it was some effort to cast a shadow over Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist, Glenn McGrath, Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer.asic running shoes ''But he was up there punching at that weight.'' His endorsements included Ford, Solo, Asics, Skins and Gray Nicolls.

Four years on, Langer returns to the MCG as Australia's batting coach, while Hayden's Boxing Day stomach churning will be down to not only nerves, but the occupational hazard of crewing on Sydney to Hobart fancy Loyal. Literally and metaphorically, Symonds is even further away from the cricket field he marauded over.

Two years after the last of his 26 Tests, and 18 months since he lost the battle to conform to the requirements of the 21st century cricketer, Symonds is living in Townsville with plans to buy a property nearby in the country of his childhood, where he'll farm cattle, sugar cane, maybe some mangoes. His love of fishing endures the Pacific Ocean horizon is all that fences him in.

Last Friday, as Mitchell Johnson turned the Ashes series on its head, Queensland Cricket put out a statement saying Symonds would not be playing in next month's Twenty20 Big Bash, having informed the Bulls he was ''moving in a direction that didn't involve playing cricket again for Queensland''.

Where the game that can seem like his cursed gift takes Symonds next will be decided at next month's Indian Premier League auction he has been released after three campaigns with the Deccan Chargers and is now an uncontracted player with a reserve price of $300,000, not quite the $1.35 million he was on.

Even at 35, and with only a handful of Twenty20 games for Surrey this year to showcase his wares, he will surely be snapped up. And so continues the conundrum that has dogged him all along his unique talent guarantees he is in demand, and while it seems he'd be just as happy doing something else, a man can't make the big bucks dangling a rod in the water. ''He worked really hard with trying to come to grips with where cricket had gone to,'' says Brown, who as CA's general manager of cricket repeatedly relayed bad news to Symonds as his disciplinary breaches mounted and ultimately ended his international career. ''Unfortunately it wasn't for him, and you move in a different direction.''

Dixon refers to ''that one unfortunate summer, the one that came after Boxing Day 2006, and served to unravel everything''. He says Symonds ''paid a heavy price'' for the race row with Harbhajan Singh in Sydney, the same game in which he scored his second and last Test century. ''Monkeygate'' left Symonds feeling betrayed by an employer that walked on eggshells through a potentially damaging predicament with India, cricket's new power. A succession of stuff ups followed, most of them spiced by alcohol, some like the 2008 suspension for going fishing instead of attending a team meeting before a game against Bangladesh in Darwin drew the public to him all the more. In his book, Standing My Ground, Hayden recalls receiving a photo message on his mobile as the latest ''Symo storm'' raged. ''Sporting the blissful smile of an angler who'd filled his creel, Symo proudly displayed a giant barramundi,'' Hayden writes. ''The photo was accompanied by a message: What's all the fuss about?''

When the final straw snapped, and Symonds was again sent home for excessive drinking at last June's Twenty20 World Cup in England, Hayden said his best friend needed to admit he had a problem. Brown said his peers ultimately decided his fate. ''The team was doing certain things, there were certain rules and regulations and expectations that were different to his.''

The sense that he was a little lost was no doubt compounded by the retirements of that core of greats who filled the dressing room and cultivated his love for being an Australian cricketer. As Brown notes: ''He lost a lot of his mates.''

Friends this week described him as being ''in a good place'' Bulls chief executive Graham Dixon saw him in October when Queensland played a 50 over game in Townsville, and Symonds spent the day meeting cricket volunteers with Michael Kasprowicz. ''The only thing he complained about was that the engine on his boat was playing up, and he couldn't get out on the water.''

Brown calls him ''a true Queensland boy'' history points to a tendency to seek solace when away from home. Others recall long sessions at the hotel bar in South Africa in September, in between Champions League commentary commitments. One night, a heated debate ensued with a former Australian captain over whose era produced the greater Australian team.

That he was a great short form cricketer, and one of the greatest fielders ever, brooks no argument. Langer, who rates Symonds a mate in the way that opposites so often gel, says his value ran far deeper. ''A lot of people these days and I was probably one of them we take ourselves pretty seriously.

''He always gave the change room a sense of balance and a sense of humour. He'd say it as it was.''

Langer ponders the question of whether Symonds was torn between a game he could play exceptionally well, and the life it denied him. ''I know he loved his cricket, I know his teammates loved having him in the team, and I know the public loved watching him Sometimes, finding balance is a really hard thing to do.''

Brown wonders how Australia's batting line up would look today with Symonds still in it. Langer says he would have him in his team ''every single day of the week''.

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