Ryder's talent will be tested against Australia

BACKING: Black Caps coach John Wright has publicly backed Jesse Ryder.
BACKING: Black Caps coach John Wright has publicly backed Jesse Ryder.

"Not bad for a fat lad," was how Freddie Flintoff, rolling around in his Lancashire vowels, famously defined one of his early swashbuckling efforts for England. But will Jesse Ryder be able to boast as much after the upcoming matches in Australia? Will we hear: "I'm the rock hard tub of lard" after a double century or will the fat boy melt away in the heat of Brisbane and Hobart?

It is a very important question for John Wright because the Black Caps coach, in his most significant statement so far, has publicly backed Ryder.

Wright said: "He's a special cricketer. There's a lot written and spoken about Jesse Ryder. All I know is he can bat. We need him to score some runs."

Wright's endorsement of Ryder brings me back to Flintoff. Early in his career, fat on chips and beer and going nowhere, Freddie was read the riot act by his management team. The message was "shape up or clear out".

After shedding a few pounds, Freddie was still a heavy man, but he was now capable of the heroic performance. Ricky Ponting called one spell of Freddie magic "the best I have ever seen". On his day, Flintoff could surpass anyone. And that's the killer phrase – "on his day".

You don't hear people talk about Don Bradman or Sir Richard Hadlee or Michael Holding and say "on his day". On his career Bradman was better than anyone, because the days stretched into whole summers and on and on down the years. The runs didn't just come on the Don's day. They seemed to come for ever.

Fat Freddie happened in fits and starts. Flintoff could reduce Australia to pie crumbs, but he also captained England to a losing Ashes whitewash. Flintoff MBE was both the BBC sports personality of the year and the happy drunk washed up on the "Fredalo".

And through it all how many test centuries did Freddie score? The answer is five, all in a four- year period. He also took five wickets in a test match on only three occasions. Flintoff's test batting average was 31.77 and his bowling average was 32.78. A bit sad for a fat lad with so much talent.

Ryder is nothing like as talented a cricketer as Flintoff, but the Black Caps coach sees something there. Wright probably reckons if he can handle the godly Tendulkar, stuffed with sweetmeats by an adoring nation, then Ryder should be a more worldly task.

But it may not be so simple. In some ways Ryder personifies a problem that the whole of Western society is struggling to cope with. Disgracefully abandoned by his father when he was 14, Ryder took comfort in alcohol and the sort of fast food that is shamefully promoted through sports sponsorship.

Ryder is colossally popular with the public of one of the world's most obese nations (28 per cent is an appalling proportion) because New Zealanders see some of their own excesses in the lad. It's a common phenomenon.

John Daly was adored by half of America but resorted to stomach surgery to counter his addictions. William Perry, aka the Fridge, was a vast hit with the public. Now he needs help to get out of bed in the morning and uses a cane to inch towards his armchair where he spends his day eating, drinking and watching telly.

Fellow athletes tend to be less tolerant of these junk consumers. Adam Parore called Ryder "too fat" for test cricket and his team-mates turned on him when he arrived for training with a hangover. It can be a team breaker. Wright needs to be careful he does not show – or is perceived as showing – Ryder special treatment, however much the lad may need it.

At the moment Ryder's backers point to a test average of 44.85. It's a flattering figure, not a phrase often used about Ryder. Against India, the West Indies and Bangladesh (not the bowling giants of the modern cricket world), Ryder averages 65. Against Australia, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, teams with a bit of fizz in their fast bowling, Ryder averages a shade under 20. He has not played against two of the world's top teams, England and South Africa.

After limping home from Zimbabwe because he was too fat to bowl, Ryder cannot afford to break down again. But he will be targeted. Peter Siddle and the 18-year-old Aussie tearaway Pat Cummins know that there is plenty of Ryder to hit.

Has Jesse Ryder the self-discipline that all great cricketers need to come through such personal attacks on and off the field? England became the world's best team when Flintoff retired. Ryder has much to do if Wright is to avoid the same lesson.

Fairfax Media