Hats off to an original master of the wicket

Russell has more idiosyncrasies than any sportsman I have ever met... his Weetabix must be soaked in milk for precisely 12 minutes
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The Independent Online

The pundits have had their say, the selectors have done their thing, and tomorrow in Nottingham the England cricket team will doubtless embark on another damage-limitation exercise, otherwise known as the third Test against Australia.

Robert Charles ("Jack") Russell will not be playing, and yet there are many seasoned observers who think that, though 38 this month, he should still be England's wicketkeeper. The logic goes as follows: one, he has indicated that he might be available for selection again (having retired from international cricket partly because the top brass didn't like his hat, of which more later); two, there is still no better wicketkeeper the length and breadth of England; three, he is an unconventional but free-scoring batsman; four, he would get right up Aussie noses; five, with Russell behind the stumps, Alec Stewart could be picked, or not picked, as a batsman only (and England, judging by the pitiful juggling at Lord's, could sure use Stewart elsewhere in the field).

Anyway, it's probably all hypothetical. Russell's selection would whiff of short-termism, and the selectors don't do short-termism, otherwise Robin Smith might also be back in the fold. So if England rescue the Ashes, starting with heroics at Trent Bridge, the closest Russell will get is by painting the moment of victory. The trouble is, I don't know whether he could do the accompanying flying pigs, although he is very good at sheep.

We meet at the Jack Russell Gallery in Chipping Sodbury, near Bristol. The subjects of his much sought-after paintings – sheep in a Cotswolds field, a blacksmith fashioning a horseshoe, peaceful cricket scenes, a handsome British battleship ploughing through dark water, more sheep in another Cotswolds field – rather suggest that here is a man who is not desperate to join the euro.

He is, indeed, an unashamed traditionalist, who, while on tour in South Africa one Christmas Day, famously called his wife and asked her to play the Queen's Christmas message down the phone. "I never miss the Queen's speech," he tells me, adding coyly that his work is owned by royalty. Which just goes to show that they have too much money by half. Because a big Jack Russell can set you back more than £30,000, although the one I like – entitled simply "Sheep at Slad" – costs a mere £1,750.

Whatever, Russell now earns a good deal more from his art than he does from his cricket. "But it hasn't come about by luck," he says. "In my early years at Gloucestershire I saw players hanging on, with nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. I wasn't going to have that, so I taught myself to fit carpets and had a carpet business for a while. Then the painting came along, and I've really worked at that, too. Rembrandt is one of my main inspirations. His hands come out of the canvas at you." In his enthusiasm, Russell almost spills his tea – one of 14 cups daily (down from 28).

"There's so much more I want to paint," he continues. "I'm dying to paint a Wimbledon final, or the snooker at the Crucible. Now that's Rembrandt-like." I find myself agreeing elatedly, and only later questioning whether "Ronnie O'Sullivan Pots Green with a Little Bit of Stun-Screw" could ever take its place alongside Rembrandt's "Christ Presented in the Temple" and "The Night Watch". But that's the thing about Russell. His vitality is infectious, if slightly overwhelming. "I hate it when people say they're bored," he says.

"I want to say 'give me your hours. I'll find something to do'. Because you've got to make each day count. And when it gets to the evening you've got to think about making tomorrow count." He has certainly made his tomorrows count on the cricket field, and bears much of the credit for Gloucestershire's recent glut of success. But it is the art of wicketkeeping, rather than cricket in general, that I wish to talk to him about. For, in my sprightlier days I was a wicketkeeper, too, albeit not a very good one. I once appealed for a simple caught behind before actually catching the ball, which hit me somewhere in the midriff while my arms were raised in triumph. And I could only dive one way. So it is a pleasure to meet the man who not only can dive both ways, but once stood up to his county team-mate Courtney Walsh.

"Yes, at Headingley for a few balls and once at Glamorgan. The number 11 was running down the pitch to Courtney so I said 'I'll stand up, he'll miss the ball, and then we've got him'. But Courtney bowled a fast yorker which broke the stump in half. It went spinning past my head, in fact I can still feel it brushing past my hat. It can be a dangerous business at times. Paul Downton had to quit the game because he got a bail in the eye."

The sight of Russell standing directly behind the stumps, whether to spin, medium-pace or the quickest of quick bowling, has become a familiar one in Gloucestershire's five successive one-day finals. "It's such a positive, offensive thing," he says. "It makes the batter feel isolated, and although the team knows that I will miss the odd ball, they also know that we get nicks we wouldn't get if I was stood back. What I like is me up with a slip, because it stops the batter getting out of jail by running it past me."

Does he give the batsman verbal abuse while standing directly behind him? "Not really. I might not say anything. Anyway, some of these characters, the Stewarts, the Thorpes, are tough. They're used to sledging. So it's not what you say, it's your presence. I call myself a space invader. I invade his space. I make sure he can see me, can almost smell me. I scrape the ground, I shout to our guys, I come round in front of him to catch the ball... and I don't take it softly, I make as loud a noise as I can right next to his ear. Sometimes I whip the bails off when he's well in his ground. It's as if I have my hands round his throat without actually touching him."

In short, he makes himself a right pain in the backside, and although it is hard to imagine such gamesmanship worrying the Australian batsmen, it would be nice to see Russell having a go. Moreover, he has a fine Ashes pedigree, and was England's man of the series in 1989. At Old Trafford he stood up to Ian Botham, thrillingly catching Geoff Marsh down the leg side. Botham was another huge inspiration, he says. "When you walked out with Both you believed anything was possible."

Yet the hero at Old Trafford was R C Russell, not I T Botham. He also scored 128 not out. "And while I was out there, trying to save the game, some of the guys were at the back of the changing-room talking about joining the rebel tour to South Africa. In my naïvety I didn't know what was going on. I found it very disappointing. Because in my book, to play in the Ashes against Australia was the best you could get."

He can date the moment he decided to become a wicketkeeper to another Ashes Test, in 1977. When Alan Knott caught Rick McCosker off the bowling of Tony Greig, 13-year-old Russell, promising batsman and seam bowler, was hooked.

The seam bowling fell by the wayside. And in due course, Knott became his mentor.

"I get other county keepers phoning me now for advice, and I'm always willing to help because Knotty was so helpful to me. I used to look at the fixture list. 'When are we playing Kent? Brilliant, I can see Knotty twice.

"And in the Sunday League. That's three times. Oh, and we're playing Kent in the B&H, that's four times.' I used to love asking him about his thought processes. Because he could pick Derek Underwood before he bowled a ball.

"There were no signals, but Knotty knew from the way Underwood walked back, turned round, ran in, what he was going to bowl."

Russell is saddened by the diminishing respect for wicketkeeping in this country. "We've had the best keepers since the game started. Godfrey Evans, Alan Knott, Bob Taylor... and I worry that counties are giving guys like John Crawley and Matthew Maynard the gloves. It sends out the wrong message to kids, that specialist keepers are not so important. England don't even have a wicketkeeping coach. Imagine that. Would the England football team not have a goalkeeping coach? Of course not.

"I find that frustrating. Because at Gloucester we've tried to make the keeper the key man. In one-day cricket he runs the show on the field. And the key to our success is our fielding. I think England could take something from that. And I think they have to decide which way they want to go. Do they choose an older keeper, and bring a younger one through, or throw a youngster in? That's what they did with Chris Read but where's Chris Read now? I'd like to see them tour with two keepers, like England used to do, instead of one and another who just puts the gloves on. They try to get 12 men into an 11-man side sometimes, and I think it backfires."

Russell played in 54 Tests, but frequently fell victim himself to the selectors' policy of playing a batsman-wicketkeeper (usually Stewart) ahead of a wicketkeeper- batsman. He last played for England in the West Indies two years ago, where disaster befell the hat he had worn since 1982.

"It was getting too floppy so I starched it," he recalls. "And instead of leaving it to dry in the Barbados sun, I decided to shove it in the oven in this apartment I was sharing with Graeme Hick. I started stitching holes in my gloves, and suddenly Hicky shouts 'have you got something cooking?' There was smoke coming out the oven, and the top of my hat had baked right away.

"I'm trying to get the remnants out, and Hicky is crying with laughter. I'm almost crying with despair. I'm not thinking rationally. I'm thinking, 'I'll phone Aileen [his wife] and get her to bring out some material on the next flight'. In the end I cut bits out of my painting hat and stitched them in."

Russell is smiling, but the story has a serious postscript. "The ECB forced me to wear another hat. They wouldn't let me be myself, which is one of the reasons I gave up international cricket."

It is true that a hat that Worzel Gummidge might have rejected did not exactly fit in with England's smart image as conceived by Lord MacLaurin. On the other hand, every team needs idiosyncratic characters, and Russell has more idiosyncrasies than any sportsman I have ever met. For example, his Weetabix must be soaked in milk for precisely 12 minutes before he tucks in.

And he is so obsessive about his privacy that only two of his teammates know where he lives. Hell, he has sometimes blindfolded builders before driving them to his house. "I do sometimes go round a roundabout three times in case someone is following me home," he says, adding beguilingly: "I don't see these things as eccentricities, I see them as necessities. I have a few acres which is my private space, and I think I'm entitled to that."

Absolutely, I say. And I mean it. He is a delightful man, and as long as it's not me who has to soak his Weetabix, should be fully indulged. We shake hands. And as I walk out through the gallery, I glimpse a print of another of his paintings, entitled "The Great Escape – the epic stand between Michael Atherton and Jack Russell, Second Test against South Africa, The Wanderers, Johannesburg 1995". Atherton's 185 that day is justly celebrated, but Russell scored a vital 29 not out, from 235 balls in 277 minutes. He also took 11 catches in the match, a world record. So here's my message to the England selectors: let the guy wear a Frank Spencer beret if he wants to, and let him get up Aussie noses one last time.