What's up, Jack?

THE MONDAY INTERVIEW: Jack Russell; Ian Stafford talks to the England wicketkeeper and part-time commercial artist about his book, his outlook and his eccentricity
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The Independent Online
He is mid-way through his second basket of bread, during what he describes as a "protein and carbohydrates dinner", when Jack Russell discovers that I used to keep wicket for my under-19 county side. A barrage of questions follow.

"How old are you?" The same age as you, I reply. "Who did you play for?" Lincolnshire. There is a pause, while the England and Gloucestershire wicketkeeper takes a sip from his extremely milky tea, attacks one of the mountain of boiled potatoes on his plate, and ponders. "We must have played each other, then," he announces, excitedly. "Can't remember you. Did you know Guy Franks?"

I marvel at how he recalled the young man who was the regular Lincolnshire Under-19 wicketkeeper. Does he remember everything about his career? "Oh yes," he replies, looking you straight in the eye. "I still think about a missed stumping off David Graveney's bowling back in 1982 against Northants." The lucky batsman turned out to be Tim Lamb, who now just happens to be the Chief Executive of the Test and County Cricket Board. Smart move that, Jack.

He appreciates the irony with a nod, for Jack Russell, unlikely as it seems when you meet the little man, has caused a right royal rumpus with his autobiography published today. In "Unleashed", the former England wicketkeeper speaks with such frankness that the powers that be looked strongly at the possibility of charging him with bringing the game into disrepute.

"It's a free country, for God's sake," is Russell's verdict on such nonsense. "If the game's going to progress you have to look at all aspects analytically, in a logical, honest and objective view. I believe it's my duty to the game. I know that the truth can sometimes hurt, but my intention was never to upset people."

Maybe not, but he clearly has. The two who appear to have got it in the neck more than others in the book are Ray Illingworth, for the former chairman of selectors, for his lack of man-management during the ill-fated tour of South Africa and the World Cup in 1995-96, and his captain, Mike Atherton, who stands accused of showing weakness in the face of Illingworth.

True to form, Illingworth has hit back in the newspapers. "That didn't surprise me one bit," Russell says. "He's entitled to say what he likes, just as I am. He should know that cricket is all about man-management." He jabs his fork and repeats the phrase. "Man-management. If you are in charge of a team then it is your job to get the best out of them, no matter how you feel about them personally. Look at people like Graeme Hick. He should never be out of the side, but he's been poorly handled and, as a result, he is shackled by the fear of failure. And as for Devon Malcolm. He was the man who destroyed the South Africans. How many bowlers do we have who can win a Test match on his own?"

But what about the captain of England? Russell, a man so patriotic that he insisted on getting his wife to play the Queen's speech down the telephone when he was touring in South Africa, is desperate to play for his country again. Is it therefore wise to highlight what he perceives to see a lack of strength on Mike Atherton`s part?

"It's just the way I read it," he replies. "I looked at it in terms of how I would have approached the situation. Look, the players have a great deal of respect for Athers and, for the sake of the team, he kept his head down and didn't tell Illy to stuff it. I would criticise him for taking such a line, but I can understand why he did.

"I'm afraid I would have been a little more bullish about it. I'm a stubborn little git, and I would have told the management that I would have the team how I wanted it, or they could get someone else. After all, it's the captain's neck on the line if the team loses, isn't it? So why can't he at least have the team he wants?"

Fine, but does he really expect Atherton to be leading the chorus for Russell's return to the international fold? "Well, I'd be disappointed if Athers was upset with me over the book. He's big enough to take it on the chin. I'd hope he'd think: `He's had his say, now let's crack on.' I'd be genuinely taken aback if the book was mentioned at all in any selection meeting. I've also said a couple of things about Graham Gooch, but you're not telling me there will be repercussions there, are you?"

Maybe I'm just too cynical. Russell also has an admission. "Maybe I'm being naive," he suggests. "Maybe that's how I'd like people to be. That's how I am. I'm black and white, with no grey areas. But anyone who knows me will understand that I'm just trying to help English cricket at a time when it clearly needs it. If I thought I had ruined my chances of ever playing for my country again, I'd be mortified."

His chances seem less than hopeful, in any case. Russell, with two Test centuries no mean batsman himself, was nevertheless seen as surplus to requirements by an England team desperate to solve all their all-rounder problems. In doing so, this country is now interested only in batsmen who can keep wicket. Alec Stewart appears to be both an accomplished batsman and wicketkeeper, but it is nevertheless a trend that, to a man who dreamt of keeping wicket for England ever since pulling a wishbone as a 12-year- old, is deeply disturbing.

"We've had the best keepers in the world for as long as you can go back. But we won't any more, not if we insist on focusing on batting. I tell you, the message to the kids and to the long-term future for wicketkeeping is not a good one. I don't have a problem with Alec because he's top drawer, but there's no other top batsman who can keep wicket to a high standard to follow him, is there?

"It's all down to the all-rounder problem we have. Look at the Aussies. They've always had at least one top six batsman, who can bowl. Ian Healy, their keeper, is expected to chip in with a 20 or a 30, but he's dropped if he records a run of low scores, is he? England have not had a quality bowler in their top six batsman for a long, long time. I now know that scoring runs has become more important to someone like me than catching. I can get away with missing a stumping or two if I score a 50, and I think that's very wrong."

For a moment I thought he was intimating that he did not mind missing a stumping so much. "Oh God, no. I hate it," he replies. "It still hurts, but it's no longer the end of the world for me. I've changed a lot in the past 10 years, and I've become a great deal stronger. I've learnt to take pain, you see."

This is a reference to the tragic death of his younger brother, David, back in 1986, when a blood clot formed at the base of his skull after banging his head on a wall. It has taken Russell, a shy, introverted character away from the cricket square, all this time to be able even to talk about it.

"I didn't accept it as part of my life," he admits. "I just wasn't having it. As my career progressed I felt guilty because I was having everything, and he ended up with nothing. It's only now that I can talk about it and, believe me, it's a huge help to do so and to come to terms with it. It's made me realise how you must make the most of every day, and every situation you face. That's why I got cross with a player the other night who was moaning after a day's play of being bored. He had the whole evening to do something with his life and he was bored? He needed a bat round his head!"

Russell has no time to be bored, becoming almost as successful as a commercial artist these days. His love for cricket still wins the day, but his business is rapidly improving and has helped, so he says, to make him harder when dealing with threatening noises from the cricket hierarchy over his book. "I wouldn't have had the guts to have written the book five years ago," he says. "But dealing with lawyers and contracts in business have helped me enormously. Anyway, I think the painting adds to my eccentric tag, don't you?"

Well, as he mentioned it, I was wondering about the various Jack Russell stories. Is it true you once blindfolded someone who came to your house so that they wouldn't know how to get there again? He nods his head. "Yes, because people can't keep secrets, so I don't give them the chance to be ill-disciplined. And before you ask, only three relatives know my home telephone number. Nobody else.

"You know, when I was offered the Gloucestershire captaincy last year, one of the senior players in the team said there was no point in appointing me because I was far too eccentric. Maybe I haven't done myself any favours.

"But I shouldn't be dismissed because I'm eccentric, should I? I've been around and done enough for people to take my views on board. And I'll tell you something else, as well. If I ever get back in the England team, they'll never drop me again. I'll be so good they won't have a chance to."

As dinner ends he switches his attention to the marbled floor. Jack Russell, it turns out, used to do a bit of carpentry in his time and reckoned the dining-room would be improved with a decent carpet. "It wouldn't take me long at all to lay something down," he says, shaking my hand and thanking me for my time.

I don't think I ever played against Jack Russell 14 years ago. Let's face it, if I had I would have undoubtedly remembered him.