On Wednesday, cricketer Jesse Ryder and blogger Cameron Slater gave a joint press conference at a boxing gym in Kingsland. They are fighting each other in the Super 8 Redemption match in Christchurch on March 28. Whoever came up with the name — Redemption! — is a PR genius and I hope they get paid a lot of money. I wouldn't be the PR person involved in The Redemption for all the tea in China.
The press conference went about as well as could be expected. Slater slagged off as many journalists as he could fit into a sentence. Ryder got shirty with a TV journalist; the PR person had to step in. A quiet word was had: He didn't want to be asked any questions about the court case in which two people had pleaded guilty to assaulting him almost two years ago. Their name suppression was lifted this week so the story was back in the news, to his chagrin.
He sat down and said: "I just got ambushed by someone about the incident two years ago when I was attacked." I hadn't asked a question. He said: "Just leave it alone." He said: "I'm not worried about it. It's been two years. You get over things. You move on. She [the TV reporter] said: 'Oh, there's all this new stuff has come out.' I said: 'It's old stuff.' It's like: 'Oh, you were drinking.' I was like: 'Of course I was. It was the end of the season. I was with the lads. We were out at the pub. Ha.'"
That seemed about right. I wasn't worried about it. I wanted to move on. But I felt I was expected to ask a question about what I'd been advised not to ask about. I thought of a question: Would he be attending the sentencing? "No. I don't see the issue."
He looked good; healthy and fit. "Getting there." He looked better than Slater. "You'd hope so! Ha, ha."
He met Slater for the first time at the press conference. He had said that he has no idea who Slater is. I thought he might have been just saying that to wind him up because, I said, nothing would annoy Slater more than somebody not knowing who he was. "No, I've got no idea." He did have a look on Google, but "I didn't read too much into it".
Now he's met him, what does he reckon? "Oh, that's good. He's short. I've got a reach on him." Watch out, I said, he's mean. "Yeah, so I've heard. Ha, ha. Good on him, getting fit and stuff. So we'll see how it goes."
He might be the least curious person I've ever interviewed and the thing he is least curious about is himself. He is certainly the only person I've ever interviewed who has yawned during the interview. He probably didn't even know he did it. It wasn't done to be deliberately rude — if he'd wanted to be rude he'd just have gone ahead and been rude — and he wasn't tired.
I know about the last because I said, a little pointedly, "You're obviously tired," and he said that, no, he'd had a "massive" sleep. There is no point in being pointed with him; he simply doesn't notice. He yawned because a yawn came upon him and it would never have occurred to him to pretend he wasn't yawning (by coughing, say). He is, in other words, entirely without guile and so his rough edges have never been smoothed by time, or media training, or just by living in the world and seeing how other people get by more smoothly by playing nicely.
The really curious thing about his lack of curiosity about himself is that he has spent a fair amount of time seeing shrinks and therapists, mostly at the demand of his cricket bosses, where he went through the motions, but more recently because he wanted to change his behaviour around "anger and stuff like that". You'd think he might have developed a habit of self-examination, but he is not a natural navel-gazer, to put it mildly. He can only take so much of himself and I think he yawned not because he was bored with me, exactly — although he may well have been — but because talking about himself bores him. But other than that, we got along swimmingly, and had a good interview, or so I thought.
It turned out that it was too good an interview, somehow, because he later had some sort of crisis about it and told the PR guy it didn't seem like an interview at all and that he'd told me things he now didn't want in the paper. He said, at the time: "Leave out the complicated stuff." I said: "Jesse, you are the complicated stuff!"
If you left out the complicated stuff, you wouldn't be writing about him. He knows this, sort of, but he hates it because he hates the public scrutiny. He also knows he has himself to blame because he did such stupid things, mostly when he was on the booze. He hardly ever goes out because, "well, it's tough ... If I'm seen anywhere near a pub, it's sort of like: 'Oh, he's out boozing', where I could be just out for dinner or something. I've got that perception, you know, that I'm a massive piss-head." Is he a massive piss-head? "No." Pause. "Not any more." Has he grown up now? "I think I grew up at the end of last year. Ha, ha." So, he's 30 and grown up. What does that feel like? "Boring. But good. I'm enjoying it."
He gave up the booze about four months ago and he says he doesn't think he'll ever drink again. He likes not drinking and doesn't think about drinking and he is much happier now. I wondered whether the drinking had to do with a degree of self-loathing, or led to it and he said: "Well, I think as much as I enjoyed it, you know, the only time I ever had issues was when I was drinking." He likes himself a bit better now. "I do. I actually really enjoy what I'm doing at the moment [playing for Otago] and that's something I haven't done for a while."
He says he has always hated being looked at, hated being a public figure. But he has had moments of being much loved and admired. "Yeah, it's funny because if I'm on form everyone loves me and if I'm being an egg they all hate me." The being loved periods might have been seductive. "No. I hated it."
He was doing a press conference for a boxing match in the week the Cricket World Cup began. That must have felt strange. "Um. I don't know. Actually, I was so up in the air whether I was going to make the World Cup team. Well, it's not just me, it's the selectors ... " You'd imagine he might have hoped to be part of it; in fact it seems a kind of relief to him that he isn't. "It's sort of hard to say [this] because people are always going to take it the wrong way, but it was something I didn't really think about. My goal was to come back to New Zealand after enjoying an awesome season of county cricket [he has been signed for another two seasons with English county team Essex] and then try to build into enjoying cricket here again. I felt like I didn't really get the chance. It sort of blew up, it escalated pretty quickly." He means being back in the public eye. "It was sort of all over the media ... Was I going to play or not? I just wanted to not think about it ... I don't know. It's hard to explain." It sounds as though the weight of the scrutiny was too much for him. "Well, it was just annoying!" Yet he must take some responsibility for that scrutiny. "Well, you know, I've done my stupid things. I'm the first to say that it was stupid, but half the time I'm just doing what everyone else does. Just because I've done stupid things, in the past, it's a big story."
So, to join some dots, he withdrew from a tour to the United Arab Emirates in November, for unexplained "personal reasons". (He still doesn't want to say what these were, but the dates coincide with him giving up drinking.) And that looks like the end of his career playing for New Zealand. He says he doesn't know. He doesn't think about it. It's hard to know how much he'd mind if it is. He says he does care, of course he does, but that he knows people think he doesn't. "I'm just doing what I need to do at the moment."
You can't help but wonder if he — if subconsciously — sabotaged his career. "I don't know. It's like I say, I'm a pretty low-key person and pretty chilled out so I don't even think about stuff like that." Still, on the topic of regret: "Being young and getting all that money, that was nice, you know. I enjoyed going out and partying with my mates ... I didn't really think too much of it and later down the line, you just sort of look back and think: 'Oh, yeah, it probably would have been nice to sort of ... have just been what I am now, really.'"
What he is now, he said, is happy and "chilled out". What he isn't, he didn't say, was quite so prickly and wary as he has been. You don't have to be his therapist to pick that much of his prickliness and wariness came from his upbringing which was rocky. He has a difficult relationship with his father, who he lived with after his parents split up. When he was 14, his father just buggered off, really, to Australia. His mother was living elsewhere and he didn't want to leave Napier, so it sounds as though he just floated about, staying with friends. He told me quite a lot about his relationship with his father, which has had many false starts. His father is, he said, "frustrating". He was very frank and open and this is what he later seems to have panicked about and called the publicist, who contacted me. I'm happy, then, to leave out the more delicate details, but he has talked about his father once before, so honestly!
You'd think he'd have learnt by now that it is possible to apply a little charm and not answer questions in a gracious way. But he's incapable of attempting to charm, not because he necessarily lacks charm, but because it wouldn't occur to him to put it on. He wouldn't know how to. Somehow, despite all of the nonsense over an interview in which he told me things he didn't mean to and that this was somehow my fault because it didn't seem like an interview — two recorders and a photographer, Jesse! — I have a grudging respect for this.
He said, at the end: "Umm, I don't know if you want to talk about the incident at all? The Christchurch one?" He didn't want to talk about it! He talked about it at great length and I was no clearer about what he had to say other than that people should move on — while he went on about moving on. Eventually I managed to work out that he was telling all of this because he was so wild with the reporter who had asked for the interview on the topic that he had decided to give the interview to me, who hadn't asked and didn't want it. He does drive you mad. He must drive himself mad. So he has changed, but not out of all recognition. Nobody ever said that he wasn't contrary!