CRICKET: Russell bows out of the Test arena

THE MOST famous floppy hat in international cricket has performed its last tour of duty. Yesterday, after an England career spanning 54 Test matches and 40 one-day internationals, Jack Russell announced he would in future be keeping wicket only for Gloucestershire.

Russell's decision, at the age of 35, may mean that the world stage has seen the last of the great eccentric backstops. The fidgety Russell brought to the game more quirks even than Alan Knott, from the hat that has been his constant companion since 1981 to the ritual consumption of cups of tea and soggy Weetabix, soaked in milk for precisely 12 minutes.

His England career might have gone on longer and gained more caps but with no world-class all-rounder to bolster the batting ranks the selectors often preferred to entrust the gloves to Alec Stewart, much to Russell's frustration. He made up his mind to call it a day when Lancashire's Warren Hegg was chosen as Stewart's understudy for this winter's Ashes tour.

He announced his retirement at a news conference in Dhaka, having made his swansong in the Wills International Cup 50-over match against South Africa on Sunday.

"I've had 11 years of international cricket and there comes a time in your life where you have to move on," he said. "It has been a brilliant time. I started in Peshawar and ended in Dhaka and I have been to every stop in between.

"But touring gets harder and harder and I had made my mind up that the Ashes trip was going to be the last tour for me if I made the party. When that didn't happen it made it seem now was the right time to move on and do other things.

"I've been lucky enough to play in 54 Test matches and, for a grubby- haired little schoolboy from a council house in Stroud, I can't complain."

The "other things" in his future plans will include more painting, an activity that has earned him a reputation almost to match his renown as a cricketer. His works are traditional, many depicting cricket scenes, steam trains or sumptuous English landscapes. A student of military history, he has a fascination with war-time scenes and is particularly proud that his painting of the Cockleshell Heroes hangs in the Imperial War Museum.

He would never pretend his efforts were important in terms of critical merit but their vividness and colour give them popular appeal and saleability. When he returned from England's venture to Zimbabwe and New Zealand two winters ago, the 30 paintings he had completed on tour made pounds 35,000.

As a cricketer, his international colleagues and opponents will remember him as a courageous if slightly barmy competitor. His autobiography, Jack Russell Unleashed, was subtitled "Barking?"

Much mirth stemmed from his peculiarly individualistic dietary habits - on one sub- continental tour he ate well-done steak and chips on 28 consecutive nights - but much admiration from his bravery when batting. His part in helping Michael Atherton famously save the Johannesburg Test in December 1995, in which he also set a world record with 11 dismissals, will long be recalled. He made his Test debut in Sri Lanka in 1988 and scored a century against Australia at Old Trafford the following summer.

Speaking from Perth, the England captain, Alec Stewart, described 35- year-old Russell's retirement as a "sad day".

"I've always said that he is the world's best and has certainly been England's best in recent times," Stewart said. "But he has made his decision and you have to respect that.

"He is someone I have always looked up to and learned from, but it's good that he's finished at the top. We are very close friends and if I was not keeping wicket he would probably still be playing.

"He's been brilliant and helped me a lot. I don't know his reasons but I will be speaking to him. He may have thought he was not going to play for England again, but it will give him more time for his painting."

The England chairman of selectors David Graveney, who was Gloucestershire captain when Russell made his debut for the county in 1981, said: "You never notice the best wicketkeepers and you could say that about Jack.

"His hat will go down in the history of the game, but he set a standard in terms of wicketkeeping that all the young guys who play first-class cricket in England will do well to reach."

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