Cricket interview

Jack Russell, former England wicket-keeper

This month we’re delighted to be speaking to arguably one of the finest wicket-keepers to have played the game. A wicket-keeper who was known for his world-class skills behind the stumps, his unorthodox – but extremely effective batting and of course his tea drinking, Weetabix eating and hat wearing eccentricities! It is of course Jack Russell.

We caught up with Jack at his fantastic art gallery in the picturesque town of Chipping Sodbury. The Gallery houses Jack’s amazing art collection, as well as some of his memorabilia from his many cricket tours around the world. We’ll come on to Jack the artist later, but there was only one place to start the interview, tea and Weetabix!

“It’s all true. Don’t soak your Weetabix for less than 13 minutes; it must be soggy. And I’m still drinking tea!”

Now, for those of you who aren’t aware of Jack’s tea drinking. During his playing days, he would often get through 20 cups a day. The tea bag would be dipped in once, plenty of milk added and the tea bag would then be hung on a nail for re-use. Apparently in the final Test of the 1989 Ashes series at the Oval, Derek Pringle counted that he used the same bag for all five days, which roughly equated to 100 cups! “There was logic to everything!”

We’ll come on to the famous hat later. I wanted to get to know Jack the cricketer.

Born in Stroud, Gloucestershire, Jack was part of a sport loving family. In the winter, he loved nothing more than playing football (in goal), in the summer it was cricket and all year round it was playing snooker on the dining room table and watching rugby on the TV. So why cricket?

“I’d seen a catch by Alan Knott. He caught Rick McCosker off Tony Greig, diving to his right-hand side, one handed in front of first slip. It was brilliant. It was at that moment I decided I wanted to be a wicket-keeper. And at 13 or 14 I realised I wasn’t bad at it.”

Interestingly though Jack never got to keep wicket at school. “There was a kid called Pedro Jones, he was the hardest kid in the school, he wanted to wear the gloves. I wasn’t going to mess with him!”

So Jack batted at three and bowled some “medium” pace. “All keepers think they can bowl! We had a good team. We only lost one game in four years. We were lucky that the two sports masters were cricket mad and they gave us a lot of encouragement and opportunity.”

Thankfully for Jack’s wicket-keeping ambitions, he began playing for his local side Stroud Cricket Club and it was there that his wicket-keeping took off.

Such was the promise of Jack’s keeping, one of his sports masters, Ricky Rutter, guided him in the direction of Gloucestershire County Cricket Club. “By the time, I was 15 or 16 I’d played quite a few games for the 2’s. We used to have a team called ‘The Young Cricketers’ where for two weeks in the summer, you’d sleep in the pavilion, a lady would come in, in the morning and cook you breakfast, and you played against other counties during that period. It was basically like an under 17s or under 19s now. It was a great way for us to learn and gain experience.”

But interestingly, if it wasn’t for a rule (that doesn’t exist today), Jack could have made his professional debut for Worcestershire.

“Worcester had been watching me for some time playing club cricket and wanted to sign me, but in those days, you had to speak to the county you were born in to get permission to speak to another county. As soon as Gloucestershire found out all hell broke loose and I was in the secretary’s office the next day with a contract on the table. I grabbed the pen out of his hand as quick as I could and signed it. I didn’t even read it. My boyhood dream had come true.”

Jack made his first-class debut against the touring Sri Lankans, interestingly a few later Jack’s Test debut would be against the same opposition. “It was a debut to remember. I managed to end up with a record seven catches and a stumping – I then had to return to school!”

Balancing cricket and education became a struggle for Jack, but thankfully his undoubted skills with the gloves meant a full-time career in cricket was always on the cards. “I was supposed to go to university but I failed my maths A-level – in fact the whole class failed, which was kind of a bonus! I ended up going to Bristol poly to study accountancy, as I was always quite good at numbers – the problem was the course was all about stuff I didn’t understand so I quit after three months.”

Not that we condone giving up education, but it was undoubtedly the right decision for Jack as it allowed him to “plug” away for Gloucestershire with the aim of getting himself into the England team.

Jack broke into the Gloucestershire first team halfway through his first season, when he took over the wicket-keeping duties from Andy Brassington. “Brassey always gave me one hundred percent support. For a man who had lost his job because of me, I can’t speak highly enough of him. Right throughout my career he was always there for advice.”

Jack’s early performances, in his words, were ‘inconsistent’. “It took me two full seasons before I finally got to grips with my keeping. I am forever thankful to David Graveney, who was my captain, who stuck by me.”

And it was great that he did, because in 1987, Jack received his coveted international call-up. Jack was selected for the 1987 tour to Pakistan - think Shakoor Rana and Mike Gatting’s finger wagging. “It all kicked off on that tour! Maggie Thatcher was involved, the Americans got involved, the squad were threatening to go on strike. I just kept thinking that here I was not having played a game yet and we were having a team meeting about going on strike. My international career was nearly over before it had started! Thankfully John Emburey came up with an idea that writing a letter was perhaps a more sensible approach.”

Finger wagging aside, it was an interesting first international tour for Jack, especially given his need for home comforts. “I was the microwave monitor! I couldn’t eat the local stuff so I guarded the microwave in my room at night and brought it to the dressing rooms on match days. We had food shipped in and my beans and stew was always lovely!”

It was a tour that also laid the foundations for Jack’s career as an artist. “The first thing Mike Gatting said to me on that tour was to welcome me and then to tell me that I wouldn’t be playing a game! So, I started sketching. Prior to going out to Pakistan, the Bristol Gallery had seen some of my stuff and offered me an exhibition the following summer. They asked me if I’d do some sketches on tour so as I had 8 weeks of practising and nothing else, I thought why not. I did 40 sketches and when I got back they all sold in 2 days. That’s how my art started. I was bombarded with commissions after that. That tour was so important to me, when I look back.”

With Jack now on the verge of getting into England’s first eleven, he returned to Gloucester knowing if he continued to develop his game his chance was not far away. The Gloucestershire team in that period had a formidable bowling attack with the likes of Courtney Walsh, Sid Lawrence, Kevin Curran, Phil Bainbridge and David Graveney. Keeping to bowlers of that calibre would only enhance Jack’s chances of selection.

Eventually in the summer of 1988, the call did come. A Lords Test against Sri Lanka. “Micky Stewart phoned me up as I was practising for a Sunday League game the following day, to tell me I was in the team and that he’d see me at lunchtime on Wednesday at Lords. It wasn’t like now where you meet up two or three days before. It was meet up Wednesday lunchtime, a bit of practice, team meal in the evening and play the game the following day. There were four of us making our debuts, myself, Sid Lawrence, Kim Barnett and Phil Newport. It was the summer the West Indies had just smashed us and as well as using 40 odd players, every Test match we’d had a different captain – it was chaos!”

Having bowled the Sri Lankans out for just 194 (Jack taking two catches), England replied with an excellent 429. Batting at three was night-watchman Jack who hit an outstanding 94. “I should have got a hundred. I would have been the first wicket-keeper to ever get a hundred on debut – Matt Prior eventually did it. I should have had patience. The thing was my highest first class score before that was 71, so I’d never been in that position. But do you know what? To run out at Lords with the three lions on the chest, it was magic, it really was.”

And Lords was a ground that when you mention it to Jack his smile gets wider and wider. “It was always a dream to play there. When you run out through the long room, all those stud marks in that floor - that hadn’t been changed in a hundred odd years, all that history. It really was magical. Even when it’s empty its magical, but for a Test match, to run out second behind the captain Graham Gooch, it was a dream.

England went on to win the Test by 7 wickets.

Jack did get his first Test match hundred a year later though in the 4th Test of the 1989 Ashes series at Old Trafford. “It was great to get a hundred, but it was a bittersweet hundred.”

It was during this series that a rebel tour to South Africa was being muted and everything came to a head during the 4th Test. “I got my hundred on the same day we’d lost the Ashes and the day it was announced there was going to be a Rebel tour. I didn’t have an inkling, but apparently talks had been going on for months. Gower was captain and I don’t think he knew either. It made me angry. I just kept thinking we’re trying to beat the Aussies here and everyone was going on about a Rebel tour. After the Test I remember sitting there for about two hours just thinking I can’t believe it. A couple of days later I played an England X1 game at Jesmond, up in the North East – we used to play a couple of games up there each year – and I got a standing ovation as I walked out to the wicket. That made me think my hundred must have been alright. So, I do look back at it with fond memories. To play Australia and score a hundred you can’t buy that.”

Earlier in the series though, Jack had a scored a valuable 64 not out as England were bowled out for just 286 in the first innings of the Second Test and it was this innings that Jack’s credits as one of his most important. “For me it was probably a more important and significant innings in that series because in those days if you had 2 bad Tests you’d been gone and not seen again. We’d lost the first Test at Headingley and I didn’t have a particularly good game. I was out fending one to gully, which looked rubbish. In the papers, Richie Benaud had written that I was frightened of the short ball. But that comment did me a favour at Lords as I knew they were going to try and kill me with the short ball. Alan Knott (who was coaching at the time) and I spent hours in the nets the day before with ground staff bowling bouncers to me from half way down the pitch; we worked out a system for me to play it. That 64 kept my career going. Without it, that hundred would never have happened.”

I asked Jack how difficult was it to play with the fear that one or two bad performances and you would be out of the side? “It’s just the way it was and you worked with it. It made you harder. You had to deliver right now or see you later. How many one Test wonders have there been? It toughened you up.”

That 1989 Australian team under the captaincy of Allan Border were famed for their aggressive approach, they made sledging an art form. And Jack himself was known to say a ‘few words’ so I asked him how much of an edge did it give to his game. “Keepers always get sledged because they can’t bowl fast! All the big fast bowlers wanted to be like bullies to batsmen. Big Merv kept sledging me in that Test match at Lords, but he then realised the more he sledged the better I did and the more it helped me. I decided to give Merv some words back so I told him “why don’t you just f%ck off”, Merv didn’t say a word to me after that. You must pick your moments and players when you sledge; you’d never chirp Graham Thorpe, he loved it. You’d never say a word to Stuart Law - you had to pick your players. My chirping though came later really when playing for Gloucestershire rather than for England. The thing is you can only sledge if you’re bowlers are bowling well. And the team must back it up, it can’t just be the keeper. It was fun though, you could say things ‘legally’ without getting arrested!”

Over the next five or six years Jack was a regular for England but at the same time would also be the player who’d get sacrificed if the team were looking to better balance the side. Thus, he often had to pass the gloves over to Alec Stewart. How frustrating was that?

“People always say I should have played more Test matches, but I played in 54 Tests which is more Tests than Bradman. I was lucky so I don’t knock it. And at the end of the day if I’d have scored 50 runs or more every Test they wouldn’t have dropped me, so in a way I should have done better with the bat. I just had to live with it.”

But it was a Test match performance with the bat, where he didn’t score even a 50 that to this day is still regarded as one of the finest Test match innings and partnerships of all time: The famous 1995 Test match at Johannesburg.

With England trailing by 478 runs heading in to their second innings England had nearly 5 sessions to survive and with the score at 232 for five and over two sessions still to go Jack walked to the crease to greet his captain Mike Atherton. What followed could be summed up in one word, ‘amazing’. Jack batted with his captain for 4 hours and 34 minutes, scored 29 runs (which he kicks himself for) and secured a famous draw.

“People mention that Test match to me more than anything else, other than the hat. Athers did most of it, he batted for two days I just batted the one! There used to be a tunnel with a tin roof that you had to walk down as you went out to bat. The South African fans would whack it and whack it as you walked out. They then used to make noises like dogs to try and intimidate you, but it was stuff like that, that got me going. I walked out and I could see in Athers’ eyes that this guy is not going to get out, someone just had to stay there with him. Donald was trying to kill him for two days and I just thought someone had to pull their finger out and stay at the other end with him. So, all I wanted to do was be nought not out at the end of the day. Not give them a single chance. I still don’t know how I got to 29 but nought not out was the target, just block, block, block. I just took it ball by ball and over by over. It was funny I used to tap his pad in between overs, it became a superstition. I remember after a few hours, I’d forgotten to whack it, so as the bowler was about to bowl I ran down the wicket, touched it and run back! At one point, I hit a four, it was a full toss mind you, but I gave myself the biggest rollicking. I shouldn’t have been scoring runs. The South Africans knew if they’d got me, they were into our bowlers. At one point I was a minute or two away from it being the longest period for a batsman not to have scored a run in a Test match. But that was my job, don’t get out. Such was the zone I was in, when Daryl Harper picked up the bails to mark the end of the game, I nearly had a go at him. I thought what are you doing!”

Jack faced 235 balls for that 29 not out; at the other end Atherton faced 492 in his 643-minute stay at the crease. It was legendary stuff. “When we got back to the dressing room, it was like we had won. People were phoning up, we were receiving faxes from all sorts of well-known people. It hit home that we had done something that was alright. But Athers really did do most of it.”

I asked Jack if there was ever a moment out in the middle that he thought they were going to do this. “No, never. I never wanted to relax. I was ok at lunch, but at tea we felt we COULD do this, but that made me concentrate more, complacency is the root of all evil to me. It was funny though looking back, at lunch-time there was me all pumped up and there was Athers just casually in his corner reading the paper!”

What some people tend to forget about this game is that Jack also broke the world record for the number of catches taken in a Test match. A catch off Clive Eksteen from the bowling of Dominic Cork was his 11th in the match – an unforgettable Test match.

After the close of play Jack bumped into Sir Ian Botham who warned him his life wouldn’t be worth living if he didn’t join him and the team for a celebratory drink. “I’d done so well to avoid Beefy’s legendary nights out that I suppose the law of averages meant that I was to fall into that dangerous net at some point! So, we all rushed back to the team hotel when John Barclay, the team manager, stopped me in the reception area and asked if I could do a quick interview for the radio before going upstairs to my room. ‘No problem’ I said. He then made a phone call from reception to find out where the interviewer was. After a short conversation, he told that the interview was off, and I was free to go to my room. What I didn’t know was that he had been on the phone to my own room. When I got there, I opened the door and was surprised to see the lights on. A little puzzled, I could also see a reflection in the window. Someone was on my bed and it was female!

I was just about to go ballistic with ‘Who the hell are you?’ when the lady jumped up with a camera and took my photo. Blinded by the flash I couldn’t see for a second, it was my wife. I couldn’t believe it! It was the best surprise ever and got me out of the drinks with Beefy!”

The following summer Jack’s form continued with an impressive 124 against India at Lords but the joys of that century at Lords were short-lived as the gloves were once again passed over to Alec Stewart. “I hadn’t had the greatest of series heading into that Lords Test – I got nought in the Test before at Edgbaston. We were 80 odd for 5 when I went into bat with Graham Thorpe. I knew I had to do something as we were in the mire and there was starting to be a bit of build up about Stewie keeping. For some reason, I just knew I was going to get a hundred that day. I never said anything but I was just in that do or die moment. This one was an attacking hundred. I thought if I could counter attack from the situation we were in, Thorpey could take it a bit easier and play his natural game. I took them on, got a hundred and finally got on that honours board! Three Tests later though and I was dropped! They wanted to play another bowler or something to try and win the series, so Stewie kept for the last Test at the Oval.”

It was to be Jack’s last Test match hundred.

By the time, England finally realised that Stewart's best position was opening and not keeping in 1998, Jack was 35. But there was still one more tour in him, the West Indies tour of 1998. A tour where Jack’s famous hat became even more famous!

Now, look at any photo of Jack playing cricket and he’s wearing a sunhat that was given to him at Gloucestershire - he wore the hat his entire first class playing career. Through the years, it had been through many battles; none more so than in the West Indies. In 1994 the hat ended up being burnt in an oven. “The floppy brim on my hat had begun to annoy me during matches, so I decided to starch the hat myself. Once I had sprayed it thick with starch I realised I didn’t have a suitable airing cupboard handy so I decided to put it in the oven. After a few minutes, Graeme Hick shouted and asked if I had anything cooking in the oven and pointed out that the kitchen was full of smoke. I flung the oven door open only to discover a dark mess that looked something like a half-eaten Christmas pudding. Holding back the tears I sat down beside it figuring out what to do. With a Test match, only a few days away I decided the best thing to do was to knock off the charred bits, cut up my spare ‘painting’ hat and rebuild my old faithful one! If you turn it upside down now you can still see inside it some of the Barbados burn marks!”

A much bigger battle was to follow though on the 1998 tour. Lord MacLaurin, the then head of the ECB introduced a ruling that all England players were to wear the same tour issued clothing, which for Jack meant he wasn’t allowed to wear his famous hat that he’d worn throughout his entire career.

“Apparently, he wanted us all to look tidy.”

Jack offered up an ultimatum, unless he could wear his hat, he wouldn’t play. “I spent two days on the phone to solicitors, it cost me a fortune. I was genuinely going to be sent home from the West Indies if I didn’t wear the tour issued hat. In the end, I backed down because in the contract it said they had the right to tell me to wear whatever they wanted. I couldn’t get out of it. Athers and Bumble argued for me and there were honestly team meetings about my hat! But I couldn’t get them into trouble. The thing is it wasn’t superstition, it was vision and comfort. The tour issued hat was uncomfortable as anything. In the end, I got in writing that I could cut the tour hat down so it was comfortable, so I did and it ended up looking scruffier that my hat! People didn’t always realise how important that hat was to me. I’d worn it in every single first class game of cricket I played in. I felt I’d had my soul ripped out. It ended up being the worst tour of my life. Not because I was sulking; I tried hard throughout but it just didn’t go well for me.”

And that was to be Jack’s final tour as a Test cricketer. However, in the ICC Trophy a year later, in what was Jack’s final swansong as an England cricketer he did defy his bosses one last time with the hat! “I didn’t tell anyone but I knew that was going to be my last tournament. You were meant to wear blue hats so I sowed a blue hat on top of my hat and wore it in those last internationals in that tournament. They couldn’t stop me as it was blue on the outside!”

And with that tournament done Jack’s England career came to an end. To many his record of nearly 2,000 Test runs, 153 catches and 12 stumping’s should have been so much more.

I asked Jack, when he reflects on his England journey what was his favourite Test dismissal? “Stumping Dean Jones down the leg side at Sydney, stood up off Gladstone Small.”

You can watch the stumping here on this You Tube video…

Following his England career, Jack went back and enjoyed many years at his beloved Gloucestershire, until he eventually retired from first class cricket in 2004. Jack ended his first-class career with nearly 17,000 runs under his belt an amazing 1,192 catches and 128 stumpings. Add on 6,500 List A runs, 465 catches and 98 stumpings, what a phenomenal player and what a phenomenal record.

I asked Jack who were some of the best bowlers he kept to? “Courtney Walsh was the most prolific, Tuffers was the best spinner, Devon was the quickest, although Craig White was super quick, but overall, Walshy.”

And what about the best captain? “They were all different if I’m honest. David Graveney gave me my chance – he ended the career of one of his mates to allow me to play, I admire him for that; Graham Gooch lead from the front; I always got on well with Athers; but overall? I’d say Athers for me. Even when I wasn’t playing, he would knock on my door and tell me his reasons face to face which you always appreciated.”

I asked Jack about cricket today and how he thinks he would have fared. “I wouldn’t play today, I couldn’t hit enough sixes. Then there is fitness, plus with the England lads playing all year round, they never really get to play for their counties, I used to love that. I’m not sure it would be as enjoyable for me now. I loved playing for my county, at the out grounds, it’s all changed so much. I was so lucky to have played in the era I did, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.”

Jack’s efforts now are all concentrated on his gallery and making a continued success of his art. “I’ve painted for 30 years and I knew it was what I wanted to do when I finished playing. When I look back my artwork kept me sane at times on tours and allowed me to recharge my batteries. It has always been mentally good for me. These days all I can do is paint and sign something, but I absolutely love it!”

And we all love Jack Russell. As England fans, we owe him an incredible debt of gratitude. He brought us so many memories. I urge you all if you get a chance to visit Jack’s gallery in Chipping Sodbury, do it, he’d love to see you. You can check out more of Jack’s art on his website and if you’ve enjoyed reading the above as much as I did writing it, then you can read even more in Jack’s new book: The Art of Jack Russell

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