Jesse Ryder - 'I needed to hit rock bottom'

JESSE RYDER: "I want to be one of the best batsmen that New Zealand has seen."
JESSE RYDER: "I want to be one of the best batsmen that New Zealand has seen."

The lowest moment, or, as Jesse Ryder calls it, "rock bottom" came earlier this year.

It came in the days after his botched run chase against the South Africans in Auckland and hot on the heels of "that" incident at a Napier hotel.

Handed a one-match ban for "breaching team protocol" by drinking while injured and getting into a verbal altercation with members of the public after a particularly woeful loss, Ryder snapped.

And instead of staying in camp with the Black Caps, he jumped on a plane and made a beeline for home.

Back in Wellington and feeling sorry for himself, the cricket bad boy once more attempted to find solace where it could always be found – the bottle.

And so began a bender of epic proportions as Ryder, holed up in the safety of his home, embarked on a path towards self destruction, aided by a steady supply of booze.

Friends tried to intervene. But he wasn't interested. He wanted out. Out of cricket, out of the public scrutiny. He wanted to be normal.

"I think throughout that last month after I left the Black Caps, the drinking got real bad and I would start getting on the p... on a Friday night and I'd still be going on Sunday," Ryder says, speaking for the first time about last summer's dramatic fall from grace.

"I was just hammering it and it did get to a point where I think I needed to hit rock bottom to see how bad things actually were."

That was almost four months ago. But for Ryder it feels more like a lifetime.

He hasn't touched a drop of alcohol in more than 100 days. He's looking slim, hasn't picked up a cricket bat in ages and on Thursday will step into a boxing ring in Auckland to fight radio host Mark Watson.

At one point in time, the thought of Ryder duking it out as a boxer would have been laughable.

Now, he genuinely looks like a lean, mean fighting machine.


As if that transformation wasn't unsettling enough, he also appears to have embraced the boxing business in its entirety.

"I just sent a tweet out today about the fact that the KFC Godfather of Fight Nights is ...," he says, unable to finish the sentence after cracking himself up.

"Yeah, I just said that."

Yes, he did. Jesse Ryder just dropped a sponsor's name into a sentence.

This is not normal behaviour from a cricketer whose automatic response, in the past at least, when a microphone was thrust in his face was to throw out sullen one-word answers.

Something is going on here.

"After that low period, I finally managed to really pull my head in and get my s... together, and I'm 102 or 103 days sober now," Ryder says.

"I'm also probably in the best head-space I've been in for a long time.

"In the end, everything's probably going to work out for the best.

"I think I'm a completely different person now than I was six months ago. I'm sharper, fitter and on to it."

Of course, this is not the first time Ryder's talked about his well-documented battles with booze.

It's dangerous territory when anyone starts highlighting how many days they have been sober. Ryder's done it before and he's always fallen off the wagon.

But this time, he insists, it's different.

"When I went to the Indian Premier League earlier in the year, I felt if I could get through it without drinking, the rest of it would be a piece of p...," Ryder says.

"It's an easy life over there. They look after you so well and there's so many parties and at those parties, there's free booze.

"Unlike the past, I got through it easy without drinking or incident.

"I think the whole reason for that is that for the first time, this is my call to stop the drinking. This time it's not about having everyone else push me into it.

"In the past, I've just been frustrated the whole time, you know?

"But this time, it was my call. It's all on me. I want to do this for myself."

Ryder's success on the drinking front also has a lot to do with the network of support people he has surrounded himself with.

In April, he paid for clinical psychologist Karen Nimmo to join him during the early stages of the Indian Premier League before his manager, Aaron Klee, arrived to take the reins.

With someone always on hand to keep him company, Ryder felt no urge to drown his loneliness in a bottle or five of Kingfisher's finest beer.

Hearing that he's been spending time with a shrink, and given his well-documented battles, it would be easy to connect the dots and assume that the former Black Cap, like many cricketers, has also been battling with mental health issues.

Apparently not.

"Look, I know I've had the drinking problem. But that's it and it's sorting itself as we go on a day-by-day basis. I'm all good," he says.

Rather than feel down, Ryder's actually never been happier.

That partly stems from the fact that, for the first time in years, he doesn't have to answer to the powers that be at New Zealand Cricket.

In late May, he signalled to them that he didn't want a national contract, turning his back on a retainer of more than $150,000 a year in the process.

But at the same time, he also discovered a new lease of life.

"I'm definitely not missing cricket at all.

"I've had a whole lot of other things to focus on and, if anything, it's probably been a real breath of fresh air," he says.

"I'm so excited about this winter. I'm going to be able to go snowboarding for the first time.

"It's something I've always wanted to do but because I've always been contracted I haven't been allowed to go out and do that sort of stuff.

"I've got a lot of fitness goals and stuff away from cricket that I want to achieve too.

"I think having this fight has been good motivation to actually help me get fit and I intend to keep up the training beyond Thursday night."

Turning down the contract also had a bit to do with the fact he's still disillusioned with the whole international cricket caper anyway.

As he tells it, he was "hung out to dry" last summer and it killed his passion for the game he loves.

First, in Auckland when he choked out in the middle and contributed to a loss against South Africa, he copped it from former Black Cap Craig McMillan, who described him as selfish.

"I definitely don't hold a grudge against Craig," Ryder insists.

"I also don't care too much what people say about me but there is the odd thing that hurts.

"The whole selfish thing, that really guts me because I'm definitely not a selfish player."

But what hurt far more than a few harsh words from 'Macca' was the fact a minor incident at a Napier hotel was "blown way out of proportion".

According to team rules, Ryder, due to a hand injury, wasn't supposed to drink.

But along with the injured Doug Bracewell, he went out to see some old friends anyway, "had a few" and got into a verbal slanging match with a couple of members of the public. In true Ryder fashion, it became a huge story.

"I think what happened in that South African series really did burn me out – the whole going out and wrecking team protocol thing," Ryder says.

"In my opinion, I didn't do anything wrong whatsoever.

"I wasn't even injured and it all just escalated into something that it shouldn't have.

"I felt like I was hung out to dry. I knew I was going to take the full force of it too because that's just the way it goes really.

"Other guys would argue that I shouldn't have put myself in that position but I didn't see anything wrong with what I was doing.

"I didn't go out and get drunk. The only reason it escalated was because two guys at the pub were giving us s... and I told them to F off.

"All of a sudden, New Zealand Cricket was getting calls to say that we were in a fight and that was just bollocks."

For the time being, Ryder has fallen out of love with cricket.

He doesn't yet know when the love affair will be rekindled.

What he is sure of, though, is that he will be back.

He is not retiring and nor, for that matter, does he intend to trot around the globe, working as a freelancer and cashing in.

He may not come across as the most driven individual in the world, but deep down he is desperate to be remembered as a New Zealand great.

He's a long way from that right now, but, with a new-found happiness, it would be foolish to write him off yet.

"I'll definitely love cricket again. I think this little break will do me wonders.

"If I continue the way I'm going, I'll come back as a better player and a better person," he says.

"I want to be one of the best batsmen that New Zealand has seen, really.

"I'm sure if I get the chance again later in life, I will prove that to everyone.

"A whole lot of stuff that I'm doing now is basically done with the intention of proving a point to a lot of people who have bagged me or said I couldn't do something.

"I want to get in there and shut them all up."

Boxing opponent Mark Watson, it starts with you on Thursday.

Sunday Star Times