Russell emerges from his dark ages

David Llewellyn talks to Gloucestershire's captain who will be back behind the stumps for England in Thursday's fourth Test
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It has been, on his own admission, a painful 18 months for Jack Russell. Rejected by England and, after an acrimonious finish to the match against the touring South Africans last July, by his home crowd, the Gloucestershire wicketkeeper had every reason to feel isolated still further from a world which already regarded him as a loner; an insular eccentric behind the stumps.

"It's painful," Russell said of his international exile. "It is a very frustrating experience not being in the side when you desperately want to be. The news this weekend is great. It ends my personal dark ages.

"I don't feel bitter about my time out of the England set-up. Anyway, I now know what it is like when you have to pick a side. It's not an easy job. But I do feel disappointed that I did not do better. My aim is never to make a mistake behind the stumps and always to score 50."

He laughed, before becoming serious again. "If there is any anger at being left out it has to be directed at myself and I have to turn it into hard work and pride. If you want excuses you have to look in a mirror. And there are times in everyone's career when you don't get it right. Even the great players didn't get it right all the time."

The spectators watching the goings-on at Bristol last July, two weeks before the first Test, when the touring South Africans dropped in, would probably agree with that. "That episode against the South Africans was something of a low point," Russell said. "Unfortunately the spectators lost out. But I just wasn't prepared to give the South Africans extra batting practice [it was two weeks before the first Test] and to make a point I batted 29 overs for six runs.

"When I was given out lbw there was a rather loud cheer around the ground and I walked off to total silence. It was something I had never experienced before and I will never forget it. It did shake me a bit. I found it rather disturbing."

If that was a black spot in a summer of discontent, 12 months later his selection for the fourth Test, against the West Indies at Old Trafford later this week, is the culmination of a rehabilitation programme that began with his appointment as caretaker captain of Gloucestershire at the end of last season - a post he will relinquish when Courtney Walsh returns to the County Ground next summer. "I am a naturally shy person," he said. "And wicketkeeping is such a solitary job that you can get caught up with yourself and end up in your own little corner, concentrating on what you have to do without giving a thought to the other guys."

It is not surprising that Russell's alternative to cricket is art. Oil on canvas these days, after his pencil sketches were received with such acclaim. He has a gallery in the Cotswold village of Chipping Sodbury, not far from his home, and spends as much time there as he can. His two latest cricket works are a pair of limited edition prints recording a moment in each of England's Test victories in Barbados in 1994 and Adelaide a year later. There is also his family, wife Aileen and four children between the ages of four and 15 to take his mind off things when the going gets tough.

But a position of power has done him a power of good. "I think the captaincy has helped me. It has changed my outlook. I have had to come out of my shell because I have 10 other guys to think about, worry about, communicate with. And being a senior player, now I have to help out the other players. It is good for me."

It has not been too bad for Gloucestershire, either. Apart from batting them out of crises such as that at Cheltenham against Lancashire, he has kept them in the top 10 of the County Championship and guided them into the semi-finals of the Benson and Hedges Cup and the last eight of the NatWest Trophy.

Russell began his year in office - he will now be coming up against Walsh, who is over here with the West Indies - by writing a letter to every player on the Gloucestershire staff.

"I suppose, in business terms, you could call it a directive," he said. "It just set out what I felt we should be doing and what we could achieve. The guys were made very aware early on - in midwinter - what was expected of them. If they wanted to play first-team cricket they had to have a certain attitude and approach. The key word is belief. At the moment we believe we can beat anyone and the wins against Lancashire this week have borne that out."

Along with the leadership has come the return of Russell's form behind the stumps. "I didn't have a very good second half to the West Indies tour," he explained. "I started to make a few mistakes. Then when I got back it was my benefit year. That is not meant to be an excuse, but a lot of the time I was very tired and I think the combination of a slight loss of confidence, plus being tired and running the benefit was maybe too much."

This year it is all different. Russell is back to doing what comes naturally. "I don't have to worry about myself now I have the captaincy. I can't concentrate on my keeping like I used to because I have to think about bowlers, fielding positions, how the batters are playing and all the other things that go with the job. I have neglected my keeping in as much as I am not worrying about it too much. I am just going out there and backing myself to catch every ball.

"I have missed four chances in all cricket this season. Two of which were difficult, two I would have caught normally if I hadn't been worrying about who was going to bowl next."

His hero, and guru, is the former Kent and England wicketkeeper, Alan Knott. "Knotty is the greatest of all time. I aim for his standards, but he is the No 1. Bob Taylor's keeping was absolutely magnificent, but Knotty had the ability to go out and get a Test hundred. Bob played some useful knocks in tight situations over the years, but Knotty was a genius.

"He has helped me a lot. He gives me ideas although whether I adopt them is up to me. I've worked on my one-handed diving quite a bit lately, but apart from that I just go out and do it."

Apart from the old dog learning new tricks, Russell is also able to appreciate the work and skill of other present-day keepers, including Alec Stewart who, albeit reluctantly, took over his role in the England side.

"His left-handed catch to dismiss Brian Lara was absolutely magnificent," Russell said. "Any keeper would have been proud of that. That was a world- class catch. Absolutely brilliant."

Another facet of Russell's game is his batting. It has become a prerequisite that a wicketkeeper should be able to bat. It is a situation that Russell fully accepts. "I am an all-rounder. In the modern game a keeper has to chip in with a few runs here and there. And I would like to make a big contribution to England, as much as a batsman as a wicketkeeper, to help them win the fourth Test."

Dogged, and not because his nickname is that of a terrier, is an adjective that has frequently been applied to Russell's innings over the years for country and county. "I have had a few chats about it with Knotty and when you are batting at seven, as I generally do, you have to train yourself to cope with cricketing calamity," Russell said. "And 44 for 6 in our first innings against Lancashire a couple of days ago was most certainly a disaster. You have to fight through it and out of it. Subconsciously I enjoy the fight. In fact I tend to warm to challenges and captaining your county is one such challenge." No doubt playing for his country against the West Indies is another.

FACT FILE

Robert Charles 'Jack' Russell.

Born: Stroud, 15.8.1963.

Married to Aileen. Four children.

Gloucestershire debut: 1981.

England debut: 1988.

Tests: 36. Catches: 90. Stumpings: 8.

Highest score: 128no. Average: 26.7.

Limited-overs internationals: 26.

Highest score: 50.

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