Russell thrives on the method in his madness

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The Independent Online
Wicketkeepers, like goalkeepers, are widely held to fluctuate between the mildly eccentric and a sandwich short of a picnic. And if county cricketers were to be canvassed on which one of their members was considered to be the ultimate five-ball over, England's current custodian would almost certainly top the poll.

So does the man himself regard himself as, so to speak, a barking Jack Russell? "No, not at all. People who don't know me might think I'm...but no, I'm not ... it's just that, well, how can I put it ... er, um, yeah, let's face it, I am. Totally potty."

He also does not admit to being superstitious. "Who me? No, not at all." So why is he still batting in the same shirt, vest, flannels and trousers he wore when scoring his maiden Test (and first-class) century at Old Trafford in 1989? And what about that floppy sun-hat he has worn in every match since joining the staff at Gloucestershire in 1982? "Well, I'm a bit of creature of habit, I suppose. I like the same routine. I once had steak and chips for 28 consecutive nights in India, and I was the only one who wasn't ill. But superstitious? No, well, er, oh all right, I probably am."

Russell's room-mates, on the other hand, do not consider him to be anything other than completely normal. What could be more ordinary than a bloke who exists on mugs of tea, chocolate biscuits ("24 packets a month") bananas, honey, baked beans and breakfast cereal, washes his own kit, and hangs it from the lampshade to dry? "All except for the floppy hat, that is. That only gets washed twice a year, and I fold it over a biscuit jar and a tea cosy before it goes into the airing cupboard. Only way it keeps its shape."

Russell has tried normality, and discovered that it does not work for him. In fact, it was responsible for 14 months of not being required by his country, and 14 Test matches passing him by while England looked to the likes of Alec Stewart and Stephen Rhodes to fulfil the modern concept of wicketkeepers being required to do more than merely keep wicket.

All through that period, Russell was told how unlucky he was, and how he (by common consent the best wicketkeeper in England) should have been in the team. "Load of bollocks" Russell says. "It's a common fact now that a keeper has to score runs. If I had scored 50 every time I went to the crease, I would never have been dropped. And it was my own fault.

"In the past I was so frightened of getting out I wouldn't play a shot. I tried to look like Boycott. So tell me, what the hell was I doing? I was more worried about how I looked than how many runs I was making. So nowadays I'm not scared of getting out, I know how I'm trying to score my runs and, above all, I don't give a toss what it looks like."

What it looks like is, frankly, not pretty. Russell makes John Emburey look like Wally Hammond, and there is more grace about someone shovelling coal into an old steam engine than Russell, hunched and square-eyed, swatting and squirting international bowlers into a state of gibbering incomprehension.

So how does Russell feel about his natural ability to get up a bowler's nose? "I absolutely bloody well love it," he says. "It's all, as Baldrick would say, part of the cunning plan. When I see a bowler getting upset, it gives me a little glow inside. He loses his rag, bowls me a couple of loose ones, and I'm winning, aren't I? Yes, I can honestly say its very rewarding being a pain in the arse."

However, it was pain centred more around the cardiac region which led Russell to reappraise his approach to the game. "I can't tell you how much agony I felt not being in the side. Look at England versus Australia at Lord's. It's the ultimate of ultimates, and when I wasn't there at 11 o'clock on the Thursday morning, I felt totally depressed.

"I had played 36 Tests when I was dropped on the last tour to Australia and I thought maybe that was my lot. The only things that kept me sane - or as sane as I ever will be - were my benefit year, taking on the captaincy of Gloucestershire, and my painting."

It was because Russell recognised his own idiosyncratic nature that he had to be pushed into the captaincy at Gloucestershire by the man he temporarily replaced last summer, Courtney Walsh. "I was always so tied up with my own game, sitting in the corner worrying about what I was going to do, that I frankly didn't think I was up to the job.

"So it came as a pleasant surprise when it made me what I consider to be a much better player. I got a great kick out if captaining the side, and having to cope with other people's individual needs made me far less of an intense person. It's made me a lot wiser than I was, which is what you need when the bones start to ache - as they do - more and more each year.

"For instance, why didn't it occur to me five years ago to be a more positive cricketer? Why the hell didn't I? I suppose its all part of life's learning process, and now I play each game as though it might be my last. For almost the first time I'm playing for the sheer fun of it."

That might be so, but, as Raymond Illingworth has said more than once on this tour: "If there was a more 100 per cent professional than Jack, I never met him." Almost everything Russell does is geared to perfecting his game, including becoming a near teetotaller. "I used to hit the booze too much in my early days, and it took me a while to realise how much it affected my reactions. Alcohol slows you down, so now I only touch the very occasional glass of wine."

Russell's value to England with the bat was once again being demonstrated when, on 50 not out during the first Test in Pretoria, he was ordered - protesting - from the field by the South African umpire Cyril Mitchley. "I've seen what lightning can do in these parts" Mitchley said, eyeing the approaching electrical storm, and I don't want any dead cricketers on my hands."

However, in general terms Russell is just about the last person to complain about bad weather, as it was two washed- out days at Worcester in the summer of 1987 which set him on the road to becoming as accomplished an artist as he is a cricketer.

"I got bored sitting around the dressing-room, so I wandered into town and bought a sketch pad and some pencils. I honestly didn't know that I had any talent for drawing, largely because I never even did art at school.

"Anyway, I sketched away all summer, took them into a local gallery in Bristol to have them framed - just to hang on the wall at home as souvenirs - and the bloke there said he'd like me to do some more for an exhibition.

"I went to Pakistan with England that winter, came back with 40 sketches, and they were put on sale for between pounds 50 and pounds 200. No one was more amazed than me when they sold out in two days."

Russell has now turned from sketching to painting, and he recently bought a derelict pub in Chipping Sodbury and turned it into a gallery. On this tour he has been painting old Boer War battle sites, and during the last game in Bloemfontein visited Sannah's Post, where the wiped out British forces were awarded four VC's.

He is also painting the various Test grounds, and - having recaptured the moment of England's Test victory in Barbados on the last tour to the Caribbean - is hoping for something similarly uplifting this winter. "The moment we win the series," he said, "that will be when I'll really want to paint. They tell me Cape Town would make a nice picture."