Jesse Ryder: New Zealand’s fallen hero

Sandip G

Jesse Ryder was recently fined for drunken driving by Napier Police. (File Photo)

A fortnight ago, when New Zealand celebrated Ross Taylor’s 100th Test, Jesse Ryder sprung back into public consciousness when the country had nearly forgotten his name. The sudden reason for the recollection was the same as that for which they once consigned him as their fallen hero.

Ryder was fined for drunken driving by Napier Police. The press dug up juicier details: He returned a breath alcohol reading of 873 micrograms per litre of breath - more than three times the 250mcg limit. He had drunk turbo shandy, a heady cocktail, blended with beer and spirits. The judge sentenced him to nine months of supervision and ordered alcohol and drug counselling.

No one was surprised. Most scorned him: “Oh again, Jesse will never learn.” A few others sympathised: “What a waste of talent. If he had kept the bottle away, he would have played 100 Tests like Ross.”

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Both were of similar age, Ryder a few months younger, grew up in the same locality of Masterton in Wellington, played for the same school and club, and were from similar backgrounds too. Ryder was half Maori and Taylor half Samoan. Their talent was spotted around the same time and sent to schools with cricketing pedigree.

Taylor made his Test debut exactly a year before Ryder, so chastening an experience that Taylor thought he would never play another Test. Ryder looked the part straightaway, and a year into his international career, was already being hyped as the best Kiwi batsman after Martin Crowe. The rest of their career graphs is well documented: Taylor’s soared, Ryder’s plunged.

As the news of his latest escapade filtered onto the public domain, some of his friends and well-wishers sighed. Some others chose silence, fearing it would unnecessarily rake a controversy. Like Karen Nimmo, the psychologist Ryder had closely worked with to stay away from the bottle for half a decade.

To an extent, she had succeeded in keeping him off alcohol, but after she shifted from Wellington to Dunedin, he resumed the habit. “The work I did with Jesse a few years back was all confidential. And it will remain confidential. All I can is that it’s sad that such a promising cricketer fell apart,” she says.

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His long-time manager, confidant and friend Aaron Klee said they were no longer in contact. “After we split in 2014, we are rarely in touch. In my time, I have helped to get him out of all the trouble and agony as much as I could. But after that, zero contacts. He’s like that, we should give him that space.”

Former Black Cap Matthew Sinclair occasionally bumps into Ryder on the streets of Napier or during club games. “But it just ends with a ‘hello’ or a ‘bye’. He doesn’t talk too much. I have heard he’s planning to start a courier business or something like that. But one day, I will ask him if he wants to join me in coaching kids in Bangalore. But for that, I need to have a conversation with him,” says Sinclair, who coaches for three months at the St Francis Academy in Bangalore.

A few streets from Sinclair’s real estate office is the Napier Technical Old Boys Cricket Club, the team Ryder coaches and intermittently plays for. They are the defending T20 champions and won back-to-back club championships in 2018 and 2019. Ryder, according to some of the players, played an influential role in moulding the club into a competent team.

Asserts captain Jayden Lennox: “He has been an inspiration for us, always passing on his knowledge to us and making concerted efforts to improve our team. None of us has any international experience and he’s really guiding us, helping us to become a professional team. He’s guiding a lot of youngsters in the team, some of whom are already in the reckoning for the Northern Districts. As a coach, he’s very hands-on and calm, and when in his mood still plays a lot of shots that we could only imagine.”

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However, outside the field, Ryder is aloof. He keeps his personal life to himself. His relationship with the club remains strictly professional. Says club manager Morten Freer: “He is very well behaved and cheerful when he’s in the club. But he doesn’t discuss too much of his personal stuff with us. He’s bit of a loner. And we let him be, because we don’t want to rake up the old demons. But we have told him that in case he needs emotional support, he can lean on us.”

He keeps away from the media glare too. Says a local newspaper reporter: “Jesse, as a rule, steers clear of media. He is nowadays a shadow of the cricketer he was or could have been.”

But Ryder doesn’t divulge his grief even to his best friends. Recollects his former club-mate Craig Findlay, whom he last spoke to five years ago: “You can’t get much out of him. He doesn’t like what you call self-pity. Obviously, we know how difficult his childhood was, especially after his father (Peter) left him. It's got to be tough without a father figure when he was growing up.”

Desert is a better word. A few years after divorcing his mother who still stays in Masterton, Peter dropped Jesse at a friend’s flat, told him that he will return in a week’s time and never came back. Ryder was only 14 then and the incident left a lasting wound on him. His mother persuaded him to return, but he refused. So he was taken in by family friends Toro Brown and Diane Ransom, and lived with them for four-and-a-half years. But before leaving his son in the lurch, his father, a competent former club cricketer, had taught Jesse cricket using a ping-pong, golf ball and a stick. So cricket, in a sense, was both pain and retribution.

Devastatingly, Ryder picked another habit from his father — the love of the bottle. “He used to have an occasional bottle of wine when he was with us, to lighten his social awkwardness. All of us do, but I don’t remember him exceeding the limits when he was with us. All I can say is that I’m sad that he couldn’t fulfill his cricketing potential. He could have conquered the world with his ability,” says Findlay.

So feels Billy Graham, his friend, boxing coach and former fitness trainer in Wellington’s Lower Hutt neighbourhood. “In 2013, he joined our gym and told me that he wants to kick the bottle and regain prime fitness. So for several months, we worked towards it and he was out of alcohol for nearly 300 days, lost a lot of weight and gained muscle. He was on his way back, but then he lost it again after he was attacked on that horrible night in Christchurch,” he recalls.

Ryder had an altercation with two people that night at a bar and had a physical tussle outside with one of them. The brawl seemingly ended and Ryder was scrambling across the road when the second, unprovoked, attack came from the other person. Ryder was knocked out, inhaled his vomit and slipped into a coma for three days. “He lost his drive, and was never the same again. He stopped visiting the gym and vanished. Whatever happened to him is just sad,” says Graham.

Though in the public eye he continues to be an enfant terrible, the talented cricketer who could handle neither a drink nor success, continues to be - for his friends and former associates - a victim of circumstances. As Findlay says: “Whatever happened to him is sad, but let him find peace in whatever he does.”

A fortnight later, as New Zealand celebrated their Test series win over India, Ryder’s recent drunken episode elapsed into oblivion. Some scorned. A few empathised. A fallen hero, still finding pain and retribution in the game his father taught him before deserting him.