Bruce French © Getty Images
Bruce French © Getty Images

Bruce French was born August 13, 1959. He was one of the finest England wicketkeepers who could have played much more than 16 Tests and 13 One-Day Internationals (ODIs) had he been born in a different era. Sarang Bhalerao profiles French’s cricketing career. 

When one looks at the cricketing career of Bruce French, it begins in the year 1985 from the tour of India at Chandigarh and ends after three years in Auckland. He certainly would have played more had the competition not been cut-throat and if he would have born in a different era. He was a top wicketkeeper in his prime who never let anything past him. Colin Bateman described French as “a wicketkeeper of the highest calibre.”

Early days

French’s elder brother Charlie played cricket since his younger days. He made the cut in the Nottinghamshire Under-15 team in 1968 when Bruce was just 9. Charlie eventually progressed as the wicketkeeper for the Notts Second XI. Bruce followed suit and became a wicketkeeper as well. At the tender age of 16 in 1976, he was blooded in the Nottinghamshire first team purely on the merit of his wicketkeeping abilities.

When French joined the club, Pasty Harris was the No 1 choice as the wicketkeeper. Harris’s inclusion in the playing XI meant that French had to sit out for most of the matches during his initial season of 1976. However his wicketkeeping skills were too good and hence it didn’t take long before the club realised his worth in the side. Luckily Harris decided to concentrate on his batting in the 1977 season which paved way for French in the team.

In 1978 French was chosen in the England Under-19 team. The England team during that time had two of the finest wicketkeepers, Bob Taylor and Alan Knott, who were battling for a spot in the Test team. That competition for a place kept French waiting in the wings. But he was widely recognised as a fine ‘keeper in the county circuit.

International cricket

In 1984, Taylor and Knott finally hung up their boots and French saw a realistic possibility of donning England white flannels. He was selected for the 1986 tour of India as the understudy to Paul Downton, who played in the Test matches.

French got the first taste of international cricket in the final ODI at Chandigarh. England pocketed the one-day series in India.

French made his Test debut against India in the second Test at Leeds after England dropped Downton. French played in the remainder of the series and was the No 1 keeper when New Zealand visited England in 1986.

French was part of Mike Gatting’s side that toured Australia in 1986. However he lost out to Jack Richards who was clearly the better batsman of the two. Richards scored a feisty 133 against Australia in the second Test at WACA and played in all 5 Tests. Although he batted reasonably well in Tests, it was his ability with the gloves that came in for a lot of criticism. He eventually lost to French who became England’s first choice keeper in 1987.

French scored his first international fifty, batting at No 5, against Pakistan in a rain-affected draw at Manchester. At Lord’s, French scored 42 and all of a sudden he was contributing with the bat as well.

Accident prone

In 1987, during the Pakistan tour Murphy’s Law struck French. During one of the net sessions, French was hit on the head by a wayward throw from a spectator. While he was being taken to the hospital, a car struck him outside the main entrance. When he had his wound stitched everything seemed fine but as he got to leave a low-hanging light fitting cracked his head.

He later missed a Test match against the West Indies as he contracted chicken-pox from his daughter. He was also bitten by a dog once while on the tour.

In the first month of 1988, French lost his place in the side due to a finger injury. Downton took the keeping responsibilities and it became increasingly difficult for French to make a comeback to the side. Injuries continued to hamper his playing career as he lost the job permanently for England, albeit he was still considered the best wicketkeeper in the country.

Rebel tour

French was part of 1990 rebel tour to South Africa led by Mike Gatting. England wanted a wicketkeeper and French considered his England chances slim after injuries forced him out of the team. In Wisden Cricket Monthly June 2004, French recalled, “They [England XI] wanted a wicketkeeper. I had been out of the game for a year through injury and Jack Russell had come into the England side. It looked difficult to get back. I thought I would earn more from the tour than playing international cricket.”

Bruce French: An accident-prone wicketkeeper who was once England's best behind the wickets

Bruce French (left) famous for saving the Test career of Matt Prior, who was dropped from the national team at the end of 2007 tour of Sri Lanka © Getty Images

Life after retirement

French continued to be part of Nottinghamshire team till the 1995 season. After retirement he took to mountaineering and had a brief stint as a wicketkeeping coach for the English cricket team. He is famous for saving the Test career of Matt Prior, who was dropped from the national team at the end of 2007 tour of Sri Lanka. Prior said in his book The Gloves Are Off: My Life in Cricket that he seriously contemplated giving up the gloves to concentrate on his batting.

French first met Prior in 2008 at the National Cricket Performance Centre in Loughborough when the latter was part of England Lions squad. “I’d never met the lad before and we clicked straight away. Our relationship has got stronger and stronger since then,” said French to The Guardian.

French was certainly born in the wrong era and a spate of injuries prematurely ended his England career. He scored 308 runs in 16 Tests at an average of 18.11 and had 38 catches and 1 stumping to his name. In 13 ODIs, he has 34 runs at a disappointing average of 6.80 with 13 catches and 3 stumpings. His batting never developed as it could have at the highest level. It was one of the reasons why his playing career never extended beyond 29 appearances for England.

(Sarang Bhalerao hails from a family of doctors, but did his engineering. He then dumped a career in IT with Infosys to follow his heart and passion and became a writer with CricketCountry. A voracious reader, Sarang aspires to beat Google with his knowledge of the game! You can follow him on Twitter here)