Russell keeping his mind on the big picture show

Simon O'Hagan meets the player who returned to the Test side with a broader outlook
Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHAT really pleases Jack Russell is when somebody buys one of his pictures without realising that he has another life as a cricketer. Then he knows his work is being judged purely on its own merits.

"I get a big kick out of that," he said last week as he sat in his art gallery in Chipping Sodbury, Gloucestershire, drinking one of the 20 or so cups of tea he has a day, and looking, in his brown-check sports jacket, very different from the sun-hatted wicketkeeper who for so long was integral to the England Test team, then was discarded, and now, to enormous popular approval, is back again.

Cricket is still the subject of many of Russell's pictures, and with a large oil painting of Lord's, for example, going for pounds 12,000, he earns a lot more out of the game that way than he does playing it. But he also paints landscapes and, increasingly, military scenes. "What fascinates me is the situations soldiers find themselves," he said. "I always ask myself, what would it have been like to be at, say, Waterloo? Obviously you can't equate war with cricket, but in a way there are similarities. You've 11 guys, and you've got a mission - to go and win this Test match. So you ask yourselves, how are we going to do it?"

No one understands the pertinence of that question better than Russell, much of whose England career has been blighted by the debate over whether the team should deploy a so-called specialist keeper - someone such as Russell - or a wicketkeeper-batsman, i.e. Alec Stewart, who in theory will score more runs while doing an adequate job behind the stumps. It is one of those arguments that English cricket specialises in, dividing neatly along purist-pragmatist lines, as when David Gower was dropped.

Having understudied Bruce French on the 1987-88 tour of Pakistan - it was then, during his idle hours, that he discovered his gift for art - Russell made his Test debut in 1988. For the next six years, to the end of the 1993-94 series in West Indies, nobody doubted he was the best keeper in the country, but when runs were scarce, that did not stop the selectors sacrificing him.

Then, in 1994, with Ray Illingworth newly installed as chairman of selectors, Russell fell out of favour altogether. Steve Rhodes came in, and when England toured Australia last winter Russell only made it as a replacement midway through. With the arrival of the West Indies here last summer, it was back to Stewart doubling up, and it looked as if Russell's chance might have gone for good.

But events then came together as neatly as a Russell take. In the third Test, further damage to his fingers put Stewart out of the series. Russell, meanwhile, was having a fine season with both bat and gloves, inspired, it seemed, by being made captain of Gloucestershire. The selectors perhaps woke up to the fact that Russell's Test average was actually higher than Stewart's when keeping. Russell was back, and for the moment at any rate, England's wicketkeeper is the man best equipped for the job.

What, though, had that 14-Test hiatus been like? "It was painful," Russell said, "because you want to play every game. If you're not playing for your country then for somebody like me who's still got the desire it was a difficult period. But in the long run I'm sure it will seem like five minutes. It will probably have done me good. I blame myself for not playing better. If I'd scored 50 every time I went to the wicket I'd never have been dropped."

More than ever Russell appreciates the need to score runs. "Specialist keeper doesn't apply any more. You have to cope with that. If there's something wrong with one side of my game I try to work at it, whether it's keeping or batting. To me they're both the same now."

Something else has altered too - an outlook on the game which was in danger of becoming over-obsessive. "You've got to be careful with perfectionism. It can eat away at you and you end up not playing as well as you can." Captaincy of his county ("the best thing I've ever done") had also brought out leadership qualities, Russell said, that he had never needed to show before. And to England's credit, they were quick to try to benefit from them too.

"I spoke to Mike Atherton about what I was required to do," Russell said. "He told me the keeper should help to run the show. It was just a case of doing what I was doing at Gloucester. A captain motivates, but I know that he still needs other players to help with that."

An indication of how far and how quickly Russell was reassimilated into the England team came the day before the fifth Test at Trent Bridge when Atherton's participation was threatened by injury and the man Illingworth approached to be his stand-in was Russell. "From the wilderness to England captain," Russell said, smiling at the irony of it. "It would have been great. But I'm glad Mike played in the end, because we needed him." Would Russell like to be England captain? There was a long pause. "I think everyone would like to be England captain at least once. But it's not something I've set out to do."

It is the fate of Russell's famous ledger that shows most clearly how the man now looking ahead to "a bloody great scrap" in South Africa is indeed different. At the end of every day during his first 36 Tests, Russell filled in his ledger, noting how many balls he had dropped, byes he had let through, and so on. But come his return last summer, the ledger was abandoned. "I didn't feel the need for it," Russell said, a little uncomfortably.

Was it because the ledger had been just about him, and now we were looking at a more outgoing Russell? "Yes, probably. Like I said, my role in the side is not just about catching balls and scoring runs. Other elements come in. Maybe they are more of a priority."

So no ledger in South Africa. There will be a few oils, though, and some canvas.