Phil Tufnell: A life renewed for the Cat who once walked on the wild side

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In a sporting summer that has already thrown up a fair few heroes, prominent among them Andrew Strauss of Middlesex and England, the achievements of a former Middlesex and England cricketer perhaps merit more of an airing than they have received.

In a sporting summer that has already thrown up a fair few heroes, prominent among them Andrew Strauss of Middlesex and England, the achievements of a former Middlesex and England cricketer perhaps merit more of an airing than they have received.

Philip Tufnell recently reached the end of a 500-mile walk, the headline act of a charity initiative which has so far raised £350,000 for Macmillan Cancer Relief, with the donations still rolling in. When Tufnell was 13, his mother died of leukaemia, which accounts for the walk and may also account for some of his wilder excesses. His mum was a steadying influence on him. With her death came the propensity to go off the rails.

Tufnell did not pioneer the ex-cricketer's charity walk, of course - I T Botham got there first and got there bigger. But I have seen Tufnell's feet at the end of one day's 20-mile slog. The man deserves lots of credit, although he'll gladly settle for cheques.

I catch up with Tufnell at Stocksbridge Cricket Club near Sheffield, in the shadow of a glowering pennine. Each day's walk has terminated at a local cricket club and today is Stocksbridge's turn. There is a junior match going on, and it is interrupted so that England's former slow left-armer can bowl a few from what I imagine must be called the Glowering Pennine End. His run-up, never a vision of athleticism even when he was bowling in a Test match at Lord's, is somewhat hampered by blisters the size of duck eggs. But he manages to bamboozle a chubby 11-year-old, just the same.

We repair to the bar, where he has already spent an hour and where just about everyone has his autograph, on hands, arms, bats, balls, shirts, beer mats, even on scraps of paper. "Y'alreet Phil?" asks the man bringing him a pint of frothing ale. "Lavverly," says Tufnell. There is no north-south divide here, not today.

Later, we go back to his hotel, and chat while he is having his daily massage. He is affable, yet guarded at first. When he left school (he left several schools, not always on a date of his choosing), he went to work at his father's silversmith factory near the Angel, Islington. He had been privately educated and his dad owned a factory; presumably his was an affluent background? "We didn't starve," he says, tersely, in that Voice of Ten Thousand Fags. "We had shoes on our feet."

It is a disingenuous answer and makes me wonder whether he thinks that coming from a well-off family sits uneasily with his geezerishness, whether as Jamie Oliver is (wrongly) supposed to have done, he has deliberately coarsened his vowels? But perhaps it is unfair to attempt to get inside his head at the same time as his feet are being pummelled; attacking him at both ends, so to speak.

It was his father who encouraged him to try to join the ground staff at Lord's, and he was duly taken on, initially as a medium-quick bowler, although someone one day tossed him the ball and invited him to have a go at spinning it. It wasn't quite like the moment someone handed Michelangelo a paintbrush for the first time, but he clearly had an aptitude.

"And I was lucky in that the main coach for the ground staff was Don Wilson, an ex-England left-arm spinner. He and I had a bit of a love-hate relationship, but I think he saw a bit of himself in me." Under Wilson's guidance, Tufnell spent just six months on the ground staff before being selected to play for Middlesex.

"I'll never forget walking into that Middlesex dressing-room," he says, grimacing as the masseuse turns her attention to his aching calves.

"It was the mid-Eighties and there were 11 internationals in there. [Mike] Gatting, [John] Emburey, [Phil] Edmonds, people like that. Edmonds was a bit aloof, but Embers was a big help to me. He didn't just talk about bowling, he talked about field-placings, about how various people liked to play spin. I thought that what I was meant to do was bowl on off-stump on a good length, which nine times out of 10 it was.

"But Embers would come up and say, 'How about pushing extra-cover a bit deeper? Have you noticed how he opens the bat?' - things like that. He was very good in the bar after games. A very good talker. Gatt was the same. And I was willing to listen. With their help I built up a log in my head of batsmen's strengths and weaknesses."

It wasn't long before Tufnell bagged his first five-for, against Kent. In fact he took six wickets and the opposition's Derek Underwood only took five. "I was very chuffed about that. Mind you, he was about 50 at the time.

"He was a fabulous bowler to watch. And Embers and Gatt encouraged me to have little chats with him. Most people in cricket are very willing to give advice. The secret is not to take every bit of advice you're given, otherwise you start listening to some bloke in the crowd."

Is Tufnell pleased, I wonder, that he is at the end of his career rather than the beginning of it? "Too right I am," he says. "I'm bloody glad I'm not a young spinner now, because the wickets are so flat. A young spinner comes on, flat wicket, big heavy bat, and he can get annihilated. Matthew Maynard, Graeme Hick, fellas like that, they don't look at some 17-year-old coming on and think, 'Ah, bless him'."

It is often forgotten - and indeed was often overlooked at the time - that Tufnell was a fine bowler, a master of flight rather than turn. His 121 Test wickets came at a cost of 37 runs each - an indifferent average - but he twice bowled England to victory at The Oval, against the West Indies in 1991 and Australia in 1997. Yet his shambolic private life eclipsed his cricketing achievements when he was playing, and his celebrity - cranked up by the ridiculous I'm a Celebrity - Get Me Out of Here! and the wearisome They Think It's All Over - does so now.

Still, there was nobody, not Brian Lara, not Sachin Tendulkar, who did not fall to him at one time or another. "I got Lara out for nine in Guyana," he recalls. "Kippered him lovely. Saw him coming, stuck it wide, bat-pad, off-side, lovely. Mind you, next knock he got 375. Like all really good players he hits it where the fielders aren't. Viv Richards and [Mohammed] Azharuddin were the same. You can get 'em early because they get cheeky and play across the line, but once they get going ... I never had cricket heroes, I never had a poster of Ian Botham on my wall [this he says scornfully], but if I did, there would be just one bloke: Viv Richards.

"I managed to get him out in his last Test match. He came down the wicket and tried to hit me out of the ground, got an edge and was caught behind. And if he hadn't got the edge I would have had him stumped. That's lovely, that is. I used to love making them scrabble back. They come out there all immaculately dressed and you get them scrabbling on the deck. Of course it's not so satisfying when they're on 250 and you get 'em stumped.

"And you take 'em how they come. A long hop, down long-on's throat. Fine." His kind of bowling, relying on flight and dip, has had its day, he thinks.

"An orthodox spin bowler has to have a trick up his sleeve now. Ashley Giles doesn't have that. He's taken a bit of stick and he might not be the answer, but he's the best one we've got." And good enough, it has to be said, to inflict rather a lot of damage on the West Indian top order yesterday.

"They keep looking for this leg-spinner," Tufnell continues, "who doesn't seem to be out there and they keep talking about this 'mystery ball' [again, there is contempt in Tufnell's voice]. But if you don't get six in the right place to start with, you don't have time to unveil your 'mystery delivery', because you're taken off.

"That's why Shane Warne's such a fabulous bowler, because he hits the spot every time, never mind that he can turn it both ways or push it straight on. I played against him in all my Ashes battles, and it pissed me off a bit, trying to out-bowl probably the best spin bowler the world's ever seen.

"But whoever you are, you can't bowl in Test cricket if you don't have consistency of line and length, not when they're hitting your good balls for four, let alone your bad balls. In county cricket you can bowl 10 overs, 0 for 50, and then 12 overs, 4 for 60, and everyone says 'well bowled'. At Test level you're 10 overs 0 for 50, 12 overs 0 for 70."

None the less, I say, county cricket surely has to play a part in the development of top-class spinners. "Yeah, and I'd like to see captains show a bit more confidence in young spinners. At the moment he gets given the ball, gets smashed, comes off, and on comes a steady little seamer to dry up the runs. I suppose we have to wait until one turns up. It's not as though Australia's blessed with lots of Shane Warnes, or Sri Lanka with [Muttiah] Muralitharans. There's only one of them each."

There was certainly only ever one Phil "The Cat" Tufnell, for which the England management should have given thanks. Notoriously, during the 1994-95 Ashes series, with his private life in more chaos than usual and having recently been smacked in the face with a half-brick by a girlfriend's irate father, he went off the rails so spectacularly in Perth that he was checked into a psychiatric hospital.

"Yeah," he says, thoughtfully, when I refer to that episode. A sudden snort of laughter. "It was quite funny, really. They took me off to this bleeding nuthouse and this bloke comes in and says, 'Tell me about your childhood' and I think, 'What am I doing here?'. So I just legged it out with all these blokes running after me. I got myself back to the hotel, got myself a beer, went into the team room and said, 'Sorry about that, chaps, see you at breakfast tomorrow morning'.

"And then they fined me. That still upsets me, to be honest. I was a bit upset, a bit homesick, I'd had the shit beaten out of me, and I was fined. Because you weren't allowed to get upset on tour. You're playing for your country, stiff upper lip and all that.

"It's changed now. They realise that with 16 blokes off on tour for four months, there will be different characters, and some have to be brought into the fold. You shouldn't isolate them. If Man United had a player who was a bit naughty, they'd try their best to bring him in, make him feel wanted. It wasn't like that then. If I hadn't had a shave, no matter that I was the best spin bowler they had by miles, I was out. They said I was bad for team spirit. But actually, I thought I was a bloody good tourist, on the whole. They picked me for nine tours so I couldn't have been that bad."

Whatever, it is ironic that Tufnell now gets to play to strengths - being a character, a jack-the-lad - that were once perceived as weaknesses.

His career is flying; he co-presents a light entertainment series on ITV called Simply The Best. Meanwhile, equilibrium has returned to his private life, in the attractive form of his fiancée Dawn. "Yeah, it's all going well, mate," he says. "Apart from these fucking blisters!"

To donate money to Macmillan Cancer Relief, phone 020 7840 4642 or go to

Tufnell's parks: The spinner's four favourite cricket venues


It was the place where I turned up to do a job for 18 years, which makes it pretty special. But more than that, the history of the place, the home of cricket and all that... and the location is fantastic, centre of town, just a couple of miles from Piccadilly Circus. Cracking.

My back garden

That's where I learnt to play, and it's the only place I kept scoring hundreds. You can put it at the top of the list if you like. It's the only place I never had any disappointments playing cricket, apart from when I had to go in for my tea.

Sydney Cricket Ground

I love Australia, and I loved the whole Aussie thing, the Ashes thing, fans right on top of you giving you abuse and that. The SCG is where I got my first five-for in Test cricket. I like it much more then the MCG [Melbourne Cricket Ground]. That's just massive and a bit cold. Sydney's big, but it's got that pickety-fence feel to it, you know?

Kensington Oval, Barbados

There's nowhere else quite like Barbados for that calypso and rum punch thing, the chanting, the cheering, the support you get from English fans who come over in their thousands. Fabulous, mate. And our Oval's great as well.

It has the best atmosphere of all the Test grounds in England, and I've always done well there.