Cricket: Russell has bark to match his bite

Cricket: Gloucestershire's evergreen wicketkeeper achieves a dream with first appearance in Lord's final
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FOR THE past two years Jack Russell's life has, quite literally, been an open book, entitled Jack Russell Unleashed. The sub-title is simply "Barking?" and as a sportsman's autobiography it is probably one of the most readable of its genre. Russell pulls no punches in his criticism of the English game, he attempts to deal with the premature death of his brother after a freak accident in 1986, he offers an insight into his burgeoning career as a landscape artist and admits that, "one day, after I've retired, I'd like to be in charge of Gloucestershire cricket".

In the meantime, his contribution is as a player and though it seems his England days are behind him, he has a few lost matches to make up for with Gloucestershire. "I want to concentrate all my energies and efforts into winning trophies here and building a successful team," he said, "being a part of it and driving forward with what John Bracewell [the coach] is trying to achieve.

"We've had a history of great players," Russell continued, perched on the balcony watching a rather dismal Gloucestershire batting collapse at Cheltenham where about 500 years ago, as if to emphasise his point, W G Grace made an undefeated 316 against Yorkshire, which is still a county record. "But we haven't had great teams because we haven't won trophies, so it is up to us to be changing that."

Tomorrow would be a good start in the final of the Benson & Hedges Super Cup against Yorkshire at Lord's, though many have poured scorn on a new competition which has already been wiped from the fixture list for next season. "I don't understand how people can belittle it because we had to play 17 four-day matches to qualify in the first place," is Russell's retort. "You had to finish in the top eight of the Championship to get in, so it's probably one of the toughest competitions of all.

"If people knock it, they're either being naive or they're jealous that we're there. It looks like we've only had to win two games to get there, but it's not true and you've only got to look at the reaction from both clubs to see how much it means. You can't tell me that other county captains don't want to be lifting that trophy."

The last time Gloucestershire made it to Lord's for a one-day final, the 13-year-old Russell sat and watched as the drama unfolded, convinced by the end of the afternoon that he would like nothing more from life than to return there as a player, first with his beloved Gloucestershire for a cup final and then with England. As it turned out, he made it with England much sooner but tomorrow, after 22 years, Russell will finally emulate his original childhood heroes.

"I've been here a long time now and it's been a long time coming," he said, while another Gloucestershire batsman trudged slowly back towards the pavilion. "I go back to that '77 final when I was sat there in the stands with my late brother and two of my aunties, who still come to watch. That day was an inspiration for me.

"I saw Alan Knott live for the first time and Kent were a strong side so we weren't expected to win. But Zaheer [Abbas, the Pakistan Test player] got a beautiful 70, Andy Stovold, who was man of the match and kept wicket, so obviously I kept my eye on him, got 70 as well - opening I think - and he took a great one-handed diving catch."

It may be more than half a lifetime ago, but 54 Test matches and countless overseas tours have done little to dim Russell's recollection. "I remember Brian Brain bowling nine overs for something like nine runs from one end, and we bogged them down after making the highest score in a B&H final at that time. The place was packed, and we all ran on to the ground at the end in front of the pavilion.

"I was only about 2ft 6in so I couldn't see anything of the presentation but it's something I'll always remember, one of those great days in your life and hopefully we'll have another one. For me it's the missing piece in the jigsaw. It's going to be a great occasion, and hopefully we'll be relaxed and enjoy it. But winning is still the most important thing for me."

Since his retirement from Test cricket - in typically idiosyncratic fashion he chose a tournament in Bangladesh to mark his exit - Russell's gloves have been off for longer periods than at any time in the past 10 years. "It was a very strange experience to have a winter at home," he said, "but it was refreshing because after Dhaka I had three months off cricket, then three months training and I think it's showed in my performances. I'm fit, strong and enjoying it.

"It was one of the reasons I packed in the international side. I mean, it might have been the end anyway, it's difficult to say, but I had to make a clean break of it mentally. Am I in, am I not in? Shall I try and get back in? I thought, 'no, chop that,' and I don't want to play all year round any more because it's hard work. Last year I had an average season and I was whacked."

His successor in the England side, 20-year-old Chris Read, began as Russell's understudy in Bristol before moving on to Nottinghamshire, but Russell saw enough to be convinced of Read's qualities. "I like his attitude," he said. "He wasn't prepared to wait to see if I was in the England side or if I lost form and he had the guts to get up and go. Now he's got a great opportunity, playing for England so young. He could seal his place for the next 15 years and become one of the greats. He's certainly got the ability and I think he's got the attitude to deal with it."

As for himself, a fortnight shy of his 36th birthday, he reckons there is still plenty of life in the old Jack Russell yet. "With a bit of luck I could play for another five or six years provided the challenges are there," he said. "There are a few milestones, which if you get to are great and if you don't it doesn't really matter. The most Gloucestershire wicketkeeping dismissals and the most runs by a Gloucestershire keeper. They're the sort of things that keep you going on a wet, cold afternoon."

And if the legs do give up on him before then, there's always the Jack Russell Gallery. "I'll be painting for the rest of my life, whether people buy my pictures or not," he said. "I find it a challenge. I've not painted the perfect picture yet and hopefully, touch wood, I won't because then I can keep going, searching for that really magical picture. I don't like things that are too easy, there's no point doing it otherwise is there?" Now what is barking about that?