Cricket: Russell revels in the rat race

Andrew Longmore finds England's artist behind the stumps has toughened up his act
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The Independent Online
A KNOCK on the door interrupts our conversation. "It's all right," Jack Russell says on return. "Only the cleaner." A productive artistic winter often begins with a knock on the door. In Zimbabwe and New Zealand a year ago, Russell had enough free time to fill the walls of his Gloucestershire gallery, except that 19 of his 20 oil paintings sold within 48 hours of his return. The 20th was doubtless tagged by David Lloyd, the England coach, conscience money for another lost cricketing sojourn.

Russell has been waiting for the knock this past fortnight. But when it came, the news was good. "Put away your brushes, Jack, come and play some cricket." It did not take long for those cussed old qualities to surface. Tight bowling, a dodgy pitch and his side in strife on the opening day of the tour's first match.

Five down and out saunters Russell, shirt flapping like a pillow case, head jutting, pugnacity personified. The Australians were delighted not to have to scratch that little itch last summer.

The West Indians might not be so lucky. Though an England line-up with Adam Hollioake at No 7 looks temptingly secure, the selectors are returning to basics. The Caribbean is not an easy place for wicketkeepers. Russell should be back for his 50th Test, at Sabina Park next week.

Russell's calling card says "wicketkeeper/batsman" these days and with 1,000 runs to his name last season, the description is more accurate than many presume. "That was batting at No 7 for Gloucestershire," he says. "Not much chance to make big runs there so you have to be consistent." Stung by his omission and by a well-publicised philosophical difference with the English Cricket Board over his autobiography, Russell nursed his grievance up and down the counties. "My target was to play against the Australians. I failed in that, so my next target was to get on the tour. Now I want to get back in the Test team."

He is 34 and having waited 17 months so far to reach his milestone is developing an immunity to selectorial whim. "It's still tough to accept when you get left out on tour because I want to play all the time, but I'm getting better at dealing with it now. That's where my painting helps. When I'm painting, I'm in my own little world and I can forget about everything else. Without my painting last winter, I would have gone completely potty." That will be news to his England colleagues, who regard him as mildly barking already. Russell's unorthodox eating habits are the source of legend. His latest Zone Diet, originally adopted by Michelle Smith, involves eating four parts carbohydrate to three parts protein and dropping his intake of tea from 25 cups a day to 10. Well, if it's good enough for a three time Olympic champion... Like all true eccentrics, Russell regards himself as entirely normal. But there is no doubting the confidence his other profession has fostered.

"I don't have to play cricket any more," he says. "I can play because I really enjoy it. Once the commitment has gone, I can go away and paint. I feel mentally tougher and much of that comes from my business. I've learnt how to stand my ground in doing a deal. It's a rat race out there and nice guys come second."

Russell is preparing himself assiduously for a full Test series, for the five-star buffeting traditionally reserved for him by his Gloucestershire team-mate Courtney Walsh. Russell had dinner with the deposed West Indian captain last week and accurately anticipated the Jamaican's commitment to the cause. "He'll play," he said the day before Walsh confirmed the news. "He was a bit down last week and I feel for him because we're good mates. But once we step over the boundary line it's war. He's a hard man, Courtney. I tend to get 10 times more bruises from him than anyone." Except the selectors perhaps.

His notebook is full of professional reminders about the pitfalls of wicket-keeping in the Caribbean where variable bounce confuses judgement and taking the ball around the ankles is an occupational hazard. That morning, he had added another caveat to the list. "West Indian batsmen all tend to get off-side of the ball to whip it away on the leg-side, which means they shield the ball a lot more than most batsmen. That's off-putting because you see less of the ball and you see it later." A day and a half with Lara's bat a foot from your nose would test the concentration of a Buddhist monk.

As long as the England selectors keep their nerve, Russell should reach his milestone in Jamaica. His inclusion would certainly test the new English Cricket Board dress code which claimed Alec Stewart's fading old England cap. The future looks bleak for the trademark Russell gardening hat. "I was waiting for that one," he says. "I can't say much because I promised the Board I wouldn't, but all will be revealed in due course." A Jack Russell "good as new" off-white ECB floppy (free tape provided) perhaps? He laughs at the thought. He is happy in his work, a free spirit in a solid team, strong enough to follow his own course. "As long as it works, I don't really care what it looks like any more," he adds. That's his cricket, not his painting, presumably.