A giant cartoon bear smiled at an overly aggressive dog. I’m sure other people saw different things that day, but that was my opinion of Jesse Ryder the first time I saw him. He’d just dry-heaved James Anderson to the leg side and this made Anderson remarkably angry. Perhaps Anderson thought he could get into the new guy’s head but instead he gave me a new favourite player as Jesse just cheekily grinned at him.
It wasn’t the grin of some nervous debutant. Jesse obviously believed he belonged, and was finding Anderson’s histrionics pretty damn funny. There was just something different about Jesse Ryder. You didn’t have to make a joke about his weight to see he wasn’t a cookie-cutter type young cricketer. Jesse was different.
Before he’d played, my introduction was through Adam Parore saying that there was a batsman who was too fat to play for New Zealand. This instantly appealed to me. Perhaps because I never liked Parore, or because I was craving another BBB (Big Beautiful Batsman). Parore’s comments made a few headlines, but the New Zealand selectors didn’t seem to take them too seriously and before long Jesse had been picked for New Zealand.
Jesse may not have smashed England everywhere that series, but he could obviously play. Through the off side he was a dream. For a big guy he didn’t rely on brutality much at all. His timing was extraordinary. His hands were remarkably soft, almost delicate. And his shots could be almost feminine at times. Through the off side he was like Sourav Ganguly in a fat suit. Elegant, delicate and strong. Like a rugged, more man-of-the-people version of David Gower.
Gower was also a bit different to the norm, however, Gower never cut open his hand in a nightclub while trying to break into a toilet. Gower probably never told a nurse he was the future of New Zealand cricket. Jesse was talented, but the troubling signs didn’t take long to show up.
While his hand was still healing there was talk he wouldn’t make it as a Test batsman. His temperament was not suited to the format. To me that always seemed like nonsense. Forget the off-field problems, purely as a batsman he was born to play Test cricket. He was a batsman far more than a hitter, and his skill would be suited to any form of cricket. All he had to do was get his chance on the field and stop stuffing up off of it.
When he drunkenly claimed he was the future of New Zealand cricket, he wasn’t wrong. New Zealand have a good mix of hard-working professionals who come together to form a decent side that, when all on song, can upset far better sides. But they don’t have many players of Jesse’s talent. You don’t keep a player out of Test cricket because he’s a young guy who enjoys eating and drinking too much.
His first Test was against Bangladesh, and was largely uneventful, but in his second he made 91. It was astonishing, but somehow this wild man off the field had kept his temperament well enough to at least make a Test-match 90 without punching anything.
Off the field his temperament hadn’t improved. He was banned from the national team after missing some team meetings in a series against West Indies. New Zealand Cricket chief executive Justin Vaughan went out of his way to assure everyone that Jesse wouldn’t be cast aside, that he’d be taken into the loving bosom of NZC and taken care of. Aaron Klee, Ryder’s manager, did his least favourite thing and fronted up to the media to tell them that Jesse had decided to go cold turkey on the drinking.
This was followed by India’s tour of New Zealand. A series where Jesse didn’t just look like a Test batsman, he looked exactly like what he had told that nurse he was. The future of New Zealand cricket. First Test, Seddon Park, first innings, New Zealand collapse to 60 for 6. And while his captain, Dan Vettori, is playing his unorthodox, aggressive shots, Jesse is playing shots so sexy it makes you weep to watch them. Jesse was reaching the off-side boundary like India had forgotten to put fielders there.
Jesse never looked like a batsman without a Test hundred; he looked like a guy who was ready to be a huge deal in cricket. As he closed in on his milestone, Vettori went out and Jesse was left with the tail. Now, batting with the tail as you go for your maiden Test century is probably not ideal, but with New Zealand’s tail it’s even more scary. Because you know you only have ten batsmen and Chris Martin. If you parked a kid’s tricycle in front of the stumps with a bat taped to it, it would average more than 2.43.
Luckily for Jesse, his batting partner was still Iain O’Brien, his Wellington team-mate who seemed to be doing everything in his fairly limited powers to get Jesse over the line. Until he danced down the wicket like a drunken debutante to be stumped by a foot, though it felt like two pitch lengths. Maybe more. To this day O’Brien claims he was trying to get Jesse on strike. If he was, it was perhaps the world’s most misguided attempt to help a friend, the cricket equivalent of pushing someone in front of a train to get them to their destination quicker.
When he drunkenly claimed he was the future of New Zealand cricket, he wasn’t wrong. New Zealand have a good mix of hard-working professionals who come together to form a decent side that, when all on song, can upset far better sides. But they don’t have many players of Jesse’s talent
Jesse was on 98 when Martin walked in. India did what you do when Martin is at the crease: bring in the field and start to giggle. Martin played and missed, looked like it was his first time with the bat, thrust out his body in what he assumed was the way a normal batsman would, used that weird batting face he has, and had one ball caught close, in from his pad.
At the other end, Jesse laughed. He giggled. He smiled.
I can only imagine what a normal batsman would do in this situation. His face would be clenched like he was going through violent constipation; Jesse looked like he was watching a stand-up show. He was enjoying the situation as much as everyone else was. I couldn’t believe a batsman two runs from his Test hundred would be so relaxed and find the situation so humourous.
Somehow Martin lasted the over.
The first ball next over Jesse played a slightly uglier-than-usual Jesse Ryder swivel-hip pull-shot to bring up his hundred. Next ball he was out. Jesse was a Test match batsman.
In the following Test he made a double-century. By the end of the series he was averaging over 50 in Test cricket. Jesse had also booked a place in the IPL. So it wasn’t just me who loved Jesse, everyone was jumping on board.
In the IPL, Jesse had another bad episode. His cold turkey turned to a drunken incident that Klee originally denied happened. Maybe the press over-reported it, but Jesse certainly was drinking again. Shortly after, Jesse had to pull out of the World Twenty20 because of a groin injury. There were also stories about wild house parties. More injuries. A broken chair that lead to discipline. And the occasional good knock thrown in.
It was now harder to follow Jesse’s career. Even when he did play a game, it was sort of a surprise because he’d be out for so long. When Jesse would play, he’d still show the odd sign of his natural talent, but he never seemed to be around for long before another injury got hold of him. For me he sort of faded into the background. I still loved watching him bat, but just working out when he was in the team was hard enough.
That’s why I didn’t even watch the New Zealand-South Africa Twenty20 on the 22nd February. It was the third in the series, and I didn’t have much interest in the first two, so the third was hardly on my mind. I knew Jesse was back playing, but I didn’t realise how close he had been to a call-up. And I missed the game. Once I heard about Jesse’s role in that game I had to watch the replay. At the start of his innings he felt like normal, if not slightly eager, Jesse, racing to 48 off 27 balls. It wasn’t his best innings; it was equal parts brilliance, luck and belligerence.
Then the man who smirked at James Anderson and laughed at Chris Martin changed.
From 48 to 50, Jesse took 10 balls. He didn’t defend or leave balls, but something was different. The need for a comeback fifty could have got to him. He would have wanted to prove that he was still the Jesse of old. Perhaps he just wasn’t ready, and in the middle overs when the pressure was off he was able to capitalise on a good start without thinking too much. But something did change. He wasn’t free-flowing, looked frustrated and far from carefree. He was batting like something else was bothering him. He lost his timing and patience. His hands seemed harder and heavier. It was unsettling to watch him go through it. And the winning position he had put New Zealand in was fading away.
Jesse’s last five balls were truly awful: He skies a ball that should have been caught, and takes a single. Faces a dot ball next delivery, then takes a single when Franklin wants two. Gets back on strike and faces another dot ball. Then tries to lap-scoop Johan Botha to beat a short fine leg that you’d imagine would have been hard to clear off Botha’s quickest ball. It was bizarre, nervous and ugly, nothing like the old Jesse.
Jesse had made 52 off 42, with four off his last 15 balls. New Zealand needed 20 off 27 before his slow period started; when he got out they needed eight off seven. New Zealand lost that game. Jesse, who had top-scored, got most of the blame.
A week later he was in trouble again. He was caught drinking late at night while injured. Team protocol had been violated, a small misdemeanour to any other player, but for Jesse this was huge. The man with the soft hands and massive frame had again found a way to make himself a punchline and a target. Klee was back under the pump again, editorials were written, John Wright’s patience had been tested, the New Zealand team felt let down, and Jesse would not make a return to Test cricket against the South Africans.
Ryder could find humour in situations that would give other batsmen the jitters © Associated Press
What New Zealand fans would have expected would follow was for Jesse to apologise through Klee and say he was going to do better in the future. Then a few months later he’d do the same thing all over again. With perhaps another injury in between.
But this time the announcement was different. He decided to take a break instead. This was a decision that Jesse, Klee, Karen Nimmo (Jesse’s clinical psychologist) and Heath Mills (CEO of NZPCA) came up with. It was an indefinite, break but seemed more definite than any apology or hollow statements that had come from, or been attributed to, Jesse in the past. It was as if Jesse had finally had enough of what his career had become and was now trying to get his whole life back on track.
Jesse has demons. And Jesse needs to work on those demons far away from the press and public. This decision was the right one for him. He shouldn’t feel the need to rush back, he is only 27. He should devote all his time and resources into just getting himself right.
One day I hope Jesse Ryder is happy. If he comes back to cricket, and I can see that happiness and a few wonderful shots through the offside, that would be a treat. But if not, I just hope that the guy who brought me joy, finds his own. The man has a great smile; I hope he finds many reasons to use it in the future.