Jesse's crash course for trouble

By Dylan Cleaver

As Jesse Ryder recovers from a vicious attack outside a Christchurch bar, Dylan Cleaver examines the difficult life of our most naturally talented cricketer

Ryder playing for the Wellington Firebirds. He had withdrawn indefinitely from international cricket. Photo / Greg Bowker
Ryder playing for the Wellington Firebirds. He had withdrawn indefinitely from international cricket. Photo / Greg Bowker

A batting savant. It's a good starting point in the quest for a fitting description for Jesse Ryder.

Having stumbled inarticulately through life, Ryder's one great gift has always been the ability to make his bat talk. Never a classicist in a textbook mould, the sound of the ball hitting the middle of his bat was, however, as pure as cricket got.

The pitch represented a refuge for the 28-year-old, according to those who know him best. It's the one place everything made sense: he saw the ball, he hit the ball. There was nothing else to clutter the mind. When Ryder was on form - which was often - the world's best bowlers provided a less complex puzzle than life outside the white lines.

That life came perilously close to ending in the early hours of Thursday morning. His thumbs-up to hospital staff yesterday was the first indication to well-wishers around the world that he was likely to survive his critical injuries, which included a fractured skull and punctured lung.

The news that Ryder was the victim of a brutal assault outside a bar was sickening. Witnesses said it appeared to be totally unprovoked, yet it was not altogether surprising.

If ever New Zealand has had a sportsman whose internal sat-nav seemed locked on a crash-course with trouble, it is Jesse Daniel Ryder.

A recent email from an unnamed punter reads: "I can tell you that Ryder is not off the drink. After the Wellington v Otago T20 final in Dunedin, Ryder was.....(under the influence) at the new Macs Bar in the Octagon and ended up jumping behind the bar and was serving drinks to his teammates and some Otago players, and had to be asked to leave by ... management."

This newspaper's website received criticism from readers on Thursday when it published a list of Ryder indiscretions down the years, the argument being that they were irrelevant, given he was unquestionably the victim of mindless violence.

The criticism is understandable, though context is a delicate and subjective matter. Throughout Ryder's public life, alcohol and his relationship with it have often provided that context.

Ryder was drinking on Wednesday night and whether or not he was sober (eyewitnesses and teammates insist he was), history has not treated him well when he's been out on the town late at night. He has become a magnet for stupid behaviour, his own and that of others. In the coming days, Wellington Cricket will be asked whether they were monitoring Ryder closely enough; whether it was wise to celebrate the end of their season, no matter how low-key, with Ryder in tow.

"At the end of the day, Jesse Ryder is an adult and you can't tell him what to do all the time," said Players' Association boss Heath Mills, who flew to Christchurch on Thursday to offer support.

"It's my view that Jesse shouldn't drink and, listening to the experts, he is an alcoholic. However, he has made a decision recently to drink socially again and believes he can manage it. I don't know."

"He's fighting his demons in a working environment that is full of criticism at the best of times. This is also taking place in the public domain, which makes it harder for any person to deal with."

But it was important, Mills emphasised, not to "blur previous incidents with what happened (in the assault).

"They are two separate things."

Emails like the one printed above used to be more frequent, but over the past year it became apparent how hard Ryder was trying to get on an even keel.

But here's the Ryder paradox: the more erratic his behaviour was, the more endearing he seemed to become. This was never more evident than when he was made 12th man for a one-day international at Eden Park because he had broken team protocols with a big night out earlier in the week, and he received a hero's welcome when he entered the arena as a rather shamefaced 12th man.

His connection to Joe Average fan seemed unbreakable.

"I'd describe him as one of our least boring cricketers ever, on and off the field," says Paul Ford, founder of cricket disciples, the Beige Brigade.

"I think people like me relate to Ryder - he likes a few beers, doesn't seem to take things too seriously, has a healthy disregard for authority, carries a few kgs under his belt and belts a cricket ball on the field like we all do out in the backyard."

The same things that made him so attractive to the everyman scared the hell out of his paymasters.

All the while he was picking up new fans with his reluctance to conform to the elite sportsman norm, he was picking up demerits from his bosses.

He was walking an impossible balancing act and, after a minor fracas in a Napier bar after a one-day loss to South Africa last year, he decided to hop off the highwire before he fell.

Ryder was no longer capable of being in the spotlight, so his advisers - including long-time friend and manager Aaron Klee, Mills and, by now, clinical psychologist Karen Nimmo - effectively withdrew him indefinitely from international cricket.

It was a brave decision: he was walking away from a lucrative, yet troubling, environment.

There is cruel irony in the fact that he was attacked after he made the decision to step out of the limelight, to become less of a target for the boofheads.

Ryder's mother, Heather, flew to Christchurch to be with her son in the aftermath of this week's assault. The pair reconciled some time ago after she left Ryder's father when Jesse was very young.

He and dad Peter shuttled around Wairarapa before pitching up in Napier.

In terms of a parental role model, Peter had shortcomings. A decent club cricketer with a fondness for the social aspects of the game, father passed on to son his love of the sport. Other aspects of his influence were not so positive.

One day, aged 14, Jesse was dropped at a mate's place. Peter told him he would see him in a week but instead left to start a new life in Australia.

In an interview with the Herald in 2008, Ryder's long-time friend B.J. Crook, a former first-class cricketer, said simply: "It's got to be tough without a father figure."

Klee has filled that void to an extent. Nominally Ryder's manager, Klee has always been much more than that: friend, counsellor, defender of his reputation, gatekeeper; providing a shield for Ryder.

Over the next few months, he's going to need help, though he shouldn't be short of offers.

It's hard to find a teammate who wants anything but for Ryder to realise his extraordinary talent. That's always been the way. Even at the worst of times he was a popular team member.

New Zealand has seldom produced a batsman so naturally capable of destroying opposition attacks; New Zealand has seldom produced an athlete so seemingly capable of destroying himself.

As long as he was continuing to do the former and was endeavouring to stop doing the second, they wanted him alongside.

Captain Brendon McCullum said in December it was "tough" to watch Ryder smashing domestic bowling attacks, knowing he was capable of doing the same thing at international level, but at the same time cautioned about Ryder coming back too early.

Now the question is whether he can come back at all. Ryder faces his toughest battle - first to survive, then to recover. Everybody who has any passion for the game wants it to happen. Getting him back to play international cricket - or any sort of cricket - might seem hopelessly irrelevant, were it not for the fact that out in the middle, with a 156g projectile flying around, is the one place he has always been safest.

- NZ Herald

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