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Jack Russell: An artist on the field and off it

Jack Russell's is a tale involving gloves, canvas, teabags, Weetabix, a very, very dilapidated hat.

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Jack Russell and his hat © Getty Images
Jack Russell and his hat © Getty Images

The eccentric Jack Russell was born on August 15, 1963. Abhishek Mukherjee tells a tale involving gloves, canvas, teabags, Weetabix, a very, very dilapidated hat.

To begin with, Robert Charles Russell was a champion wicketkeeper, often standing up to seamers (even fast bowlers), thereby cutting down opportunities for the fleet-footed batsman — to the extent that Angus Fraser wrote that Russell “was the best England wicketkeeper since Bob Taylor”: he was extremely agile, could move either way in a fluid motion that never seemed forced, and along with being an excellent catcher he was one of the best stumpers the world has produced.

Despite having limited opportunities against spin (only 23 of his 165 victims came against spinners) he took stumpings to another level over the years, his amazing reflex and agility coming into play even against seamers. Seldom has a wicketkeeper stumped batsmen so efficiently against seamers on such a consistent basis.

To go with that he was an extremely dogged batsman, often playing out of his skin to bail his team out of trouble. He wasn’t the most talented with the bat (which was the reason that he lost out to Alec Stewart in a battle for the wicketkeeper’s slot), but was certainly one of the most determined, making the most of his limited talents, batting with as much pride for both Gloucestershire and England as he had for his trademark moustache.

After retirement, Russell has taken to full-time painting and has probably earned more fame out of his second career than his first; given his strive for perfection it will not be surprising if he would emerge as one of the leaders in the profession. He was one of the most singular men to have embraced the sport.

Let us, however, concentrate on the cricketer first. In 54 Tests, Russell had scored 1,897 runs at 27.10 with two hundreds; his strike rate of 35.86 is probably an accurate reflection of his style of batting. He had also pouched 153 catches and had effected 12 stumpings in the 96 innings he had kept wickets in: with 1.718 dismissals per innings, Russell heads the list of English wicketkeepers with over 150 victims.

Other than Mark Boucher, Russell is the only wicketkeeper to have pouched 6 or more victims in an innings twice — against Australia at MCG in 1990-91 and against South Africa at New Wanderers in 1995-96 (all catches). In the second match he set a new world record for most victims in a match (11) — all catches — a feat that has been equalled by AB de Villiers as late as earlier this year. He also had 41 catches and six stumpings from 40 ODIs — played over a span of 11 years.

In First-Class cricket, Russell had 1,192 catches and 128 stumpings from 465 matches. Additionally he had 16,861 runs at 30.93 with 11 hundreds. Playing mostly in an era where the number of First-Class matches had started to dry out Russell still ranks fifth in terms of dismissals in the history of First-Class cricket. For his beloved Gloucestershire, he still holds the record for most catches (950) and most victims (1,054).

Playing against Surrey at The Oval, he caught Alec Stewart off the last ball of an over from Courtney Walsh, followed by Alan Butcher and Monte Lynch off the first two balls of David Lawrence’s next over, thereby being the fourth to pull off a wicketkeeper’s hat-trick (and the first one to do it across bowling ends).

Keeping wickets against Northamptonshire at Bristol in 2002 he did not concede a single bye in the tourists’ innings of 746 for 9 declared, setting a new world record for the highest innings without a bye (this has been later surpassed by Chris Hartley, who did not concede a bye in Victoria’s 806 for 8 declared at MCG in 2008-09).

On field he was a spectacle to watch. As Fraser wrote aptly in The Independent, “Behind the stumps Jack acted like the catcher in baseball. He was the playmaker and, through hand-signals, he would tell his bowlers what delivery to bowl. These tactics, and Russell’s general behaviour, made him a pain in the backside to opponents. This was something he relished and, looking straight ahead, with his eyes hidden by sunglasses, he would regularly make caustic remarks to you as the bowler made his way back to his mark.”

There are speculations that Russell was named ‘Jack’ after Reverend John (Jack) Russell — the 19th century parson who had earned a reputation for being the man to have bred the Jack Russell terrier. Charles Albert George Russell, the Essex and England batsman (who scored five hundreds in 10 Tests, averaged 56.87, and remains the only batsman), was perhaps also nicknamed Jack for the same reason.

Early days

By his own admission Russell’s inspiration to become a wicketkeeper came from watching Alan Knott catching Rick McCosker off Tony Greig on television in 1977. He described the catch as “low down, one-handed, across first slip. Brilliant. I thought then that I would like to be able to do that. That’s where it started, that was the inspiration.”

Russell had taken up a course in accountancy at Bristol Technical College, but dropped out to pursue a career in cricket. He made his First-Class debut at Bristol against the visiting Sri Lankans. He did not get a chance to bat but finished the match with 7 catches and a stumping.

He started playing full seasons from 1983, and despite not having outstanding performances with the bat he kept wickets soundly, which was enough to earn him a permanent slot in the Gloucestershire side. He eventually won his County cap in 1985.

Test debut

His limited batting abilities, however, denied him a position in the England Test side despite his superlative wicketkeeping skills. It wasn’t until Sri Lanka visited England in 1988 that England decided to try out some new faces, and Russell made his Test debut alongside Lawrence, Phil Newport, and Kim Barnett  (though he had made his ODI debut last year in the disputed tour of Pakistan).

Forty minutes into the Test, Russell had his first two Test victims, catching Amal Silva and Athula Samarasekera off Neil Foster. After Sri Lanka were bowled out for 194, Russell was sent in as night-watchman at the end of Day One. He went on to add 131 with Graham Gooch, and eventually fell agonisingly short of a hundred on debut, top-scoring with 94 in 202 balls with 11 fours. Had he not chased a wide one off Graeme Labrooy and holed out to Samarasekera at cover he would also have got his maiden First-Class hundred. His time would come, though.

Ashes 1989

This was the season where the Australian Ashes juggernaut took off: they gave England a 4-0 thrashing in the six Test series, and it would take England 16 years to reclaim the much-coveted urn. He had a quiet Ashes debut at Headingley (though he had four catches) as England surrendered meekly. It was clear that the Australian fast bowlers had spotted his weakness against bounce.

Russell arrived very early for the second Test at Lord’s. A group of MCC groundstaff boys had been hurling plastic balls at Knott from a 15-yard distance. Russell did not play a single stroke — not even tried to fend — for the first 20 minutes: he simply swayed and ducked. Thus prepared, he entered the sacred arena of cricket for the first time in Test cricket.

Russell came out to bat at 185 for 6 — below John Emburey — and lost Robin Smith on 191. Not only did the trio of Terry Alderman, Geoff Lawson, and Merv Hughes intimidate him with bouncers, the entire side dished out their entire array of verbal dosage to him.

Russell was more than eager to give them back an earful. Wisden wrote that Russell had “decided that the best response to the verbal bouncers he was getting from the Australian close-fielders while he batted was to answer back in good, old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon. Jack, 5ft 8in and 9st 8lb with his boots on, gave the startled Aussies an earful as well as his best shots.”

Russell went on to score a gutsy 64 not out in 115 balls with nine fours. He later said: “That day I played the most important innings of my career, I crossed a mental bridge. They tried the short-pitched bowling and I coped, they tried all the verbals and I had a go back. You know, they didn’t say another word to me out in the middle all series.” He also took three catches and scored a 65-ball 29 in the second innings, but it all went in vain.

Once again he succeeded with the bat, scoring 42 in the drawn Test at Edgbaston. With England 187 runs in arrears at Old Trafford Russell walked out at 38 for five and lost David Gower on 59. Wisden described Russell’s batting in that innings as “one of the gutsiest innings you are likely to see.”

Russell eventually scored his maiden First-Class hundred — a 293-ball 128 not out with 14 fours. He added 142 with John Emburey, but his heroics were not enough to nullify the failure of his colleagues as Australia clinched the Ashes in that Test. It would remain his highest Test score. Russell finished the series with 314 runs at 39.25, 14 catches, and four stumpings.

For a wicketkeeper whose Test debut was delayed because of limited batting skills, Russell finished third in terms of runs for England (after Smith and Gower) and averaged more than Gower’s 34.81. Other than Gower he was the only Englishman to play all 6 Tests that Ashes.

Russell eventually finished the season with 586 runs at 26.63, 51 catches, and seven stumpings. He was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year. The almanac wrote of him: “At the beginning of 1989, Jack Russell had played only one Test for England and was not considered a good enough batsman to merit a place in the one-day squad to face the Australians. By the end of the year he was the only Englishman who could justifiably expect a place in anyone’s World XI.”

Contest with Stewart

Things changed with Stewart’s arrival on the scenario: a better batsman by a mile, Stewart was often preferred to Russell in England for Tests, especially since their batting line-up proved to be fragile against the bowling attacks of the likes of Australia, South Africa, and West Indies.

Even then Russell made the most of his wicketkeeping abilities and kept coming back to the national side: on one hand Stewart kept on contributing with the bat, emerging as one of the leading batsmen for England in their dark days of 1990s, doubling up as a wicketkeeper, allowing England to play an extra batsman or a bowler (given that none of the “next Ian Botham”s appeared during Russell’s international career); on the other hand Russell made his cause by being not only the best wicketkeeper in England, but also being one of the best in the world.

He grabbed with both hands whatever chance came his way: in fact, so good was his wicketkeeping that England were forced to play him alongside Stewart (who was, on the other hand, too good a batsman to be left out of the XI) in 36 Tests — which accounted for two-thirds of Russell’s entire Test career. Even in ODIs, where the specialist wicketkeeper plays a much limited role, the count was as high as 26 out of 40 matches, almost an equal proportion.

He played a full series in the Wisden Trophy in West Indies in 1989-90, but it wasn’t until the Wisden Trophy 1993-94 that he got to play a full five-Test series. By then his batting had been on the wane already, with his last fifty coming four years back at Kensington Oval.

Earlier that year was the India tour, where both Gower and Russell were mysteriously dropped. England were blown away by a 0-3 margin, and Russell’s replacement Richard Blakey — supposedly the better batsman — returned home with 7 runs and 2 catches from 2 Tests.

Now, here, once again he failed with the bat, but was dropped despite his sound wicketkeeping. He scored a crucial 38 in England’s first innings at Kensington Oval as they pulled off a 208-run victory, but was completely overshadowed by Stewart’s 118 and 143. In the last Test at St John’s, too, he scored a gritty six-hour 55 — but it was hardly good enough.

The comeback

Following his benefit season for Gloucestershire in 1994, he came back in the Test side in 1995 for three Tests in the Wisden Trophy. For once Russell batted well: his gutsy 37 was instrumental in extending England’s lead to 221 at Old Trafford. Then, he found himself promoted to six with the West Indian fast bowlers wreaking havoc in the fourth innings: chasing only 94 England were reduced to 48 for 3, and Ian Bishop had smashed Smith’s cheekbone to send him to the hospital.

Walking out against menacing pace Russell turned things around with an uncharacteristic counterattack: he scored a 31-ball 39 with five fours while John Crawley held fort at the other end, and England levelled the series 2-2. In the last Test of the series at The Oval he scored a 221-ball 91 with 15 fours that eventually turned out to be a match-saving as England finished the Test with 6 wickets down and the innings defeat still not saved.

Michael Atherton (left) and Jack Russell celebrate after helping England gain an epic draw in the 1995 Wanderers Test © Getty Images
Michael Atherton (left) and Jack Russell celebrate after helping England gain an epic draw in the 1995 Wanderers Test © Getty Images

Russell’s best

The sudden turnaround with the bat got Russell a spot in the 1995-96 series of South Africa. England achieved in the first Test at Centurion what every schoolboy dreams of doing — batting for a day and a half till rain came in and they didn’t have to field. Russell scored an unbeaten 50.

Then came the Test at New Wanderers. South Africa scored 332 as Russell pouched six catches for the second time in his career (he became the first wicketkeeper to do so). The South Africans then bowled out England for 200. Hansie Cronje had probably delayed the declaration a bit to allow Brian McMillan to reach his hundred, as Russell took 5 catches (a record 11 in the Test) as they declared on 346 with nine wickets down.

England had to bat out about 11 hours to save the Test. They finished Day Four at 167 for 4, and lost Smith with close to five hours to bat on the last day, with Mike Atherton — the only specialised batsman — batting out of his skin to save the Test. Russell walked out, and greeted Atherton with the words “don’t give it away now” and “it’s not over yet, remember Barbados”, referring to his six-hour vigil from six years back.

Atherton later said, “I knew Russell demanded nothing from me; he was the one who was constantly niggling, snarling through his moustache, and snapping at my heels.” He added: “It was wise to let him carry on, and when he had finished ranting, he had to superstitiously touch my pads with his bat before the start of the next over.”

Eventually the two batted out 274 minutes against Allan Donald, Meyrick Pringle, Shaun Pollock, and McMillan to draw the Test. Atherton stole the show with a 643-minute magnum opus of 185 not out, but Russell’s 274-minute vigil of 29 cannot be forgotten. The partnership is definitely one of the greatest rearguard actions in the history of the sport.

He eventually took 25 catches and two stumpings in the five-Test series, falling one short of Rodney Marsh’s 28 catches in the 1982-83 Ashes. Ian Healy subsequently levelled Russell’s 27 catches in the 1997 Ashes, but it was a six-Test series.

Final years

Russell carried his good form to the home series, top-scoring with 124 in the home Test against India at Lord’s, lifting them to 344 after the Indian seamers had reduced them to 107 for 5, and then, with England in trouble at 168 for 6 with less than 100 in lead, Russell batted out 198 minutes to save the Test. He followed it with 41 not out against Pakistan — once again at Lord’s.

Jack Russell on his way to a century during the second Test match against India at Lord's in 1996 © Getty Images
Jack Russell on his way to a century during the second Test match against India at Lord’s in 1996 © Getty Images

He would eventually finish with 502 runs at 55.77 at Lord’s (compared to 1,395 runs at 22.87 runs at other venues). Of all wicketkeepers with over 500 runs only Les Ames (542 runs at 67.75) averages more at Lord’s. He was then left out for a year and a half despite the fact that he crossed a thousand First-Class runs for the only time in his career in 1997 (1,049 runs at 45.60).

After a recall a year and a half later Russell had a torrid time with the bat in West Indies in 1997-98 scoring 90 runs at 11.25 from five Tests. Though he had 12 catches and a stumping from five Tests his time was running out at 35. The death-knell came when Stewart was appointed captain of England in the 1998 home series against England, preferring to keep wickets himself; within six months Russell was sidelined, and Warren Hegg was named as the reserve wicketkeeper.

He had won the Whyte Mackay Wicketkeeper Batsman of the Year in the three previous seasons — in 1995, 1996, and 1997. Russell retired from international cricket, returning to the lower rung. Godfrey Evans lamented on his exit: “There was a terrible irony. We were the worst team in the world and our one player of undeniable world class couldn’t get in the side.”

Russell did not complain while retiring. Talking to The Independent he said, “I’ve been lucky enough to play in 54 Test matches and, for a grubby- haired little schoolboy from a council house in Stroud, I can’t complain.” David Graveney, Russell’s first Gloucestershire captain, mentioned, “You never notice the best wicketkeepers and you could say that about Jack.”

The biggest compliment possibly came from the man who had kept him out of the international cricket. Stewart said of him: “He is someone I have always looked up to and learned from, but it’s good that he’s finished at the top. We are very close friends and if I was not keeping wicket he would probably still be playing. He’s been brilliant and helped me a lot.” He added: “I’ve always said that he is the world’s best and has certainly been England’s best in recent times.”

Captain of Gloucestershire

Russell had been named the captain of Gloucestershire in 1995. Once he was out of contention for the national side he turned to his county duties with more fierceness than ever. Ironically, the major performances of Gloucestershire came in the one-day matches, a format where Russell was often an ordinary player mainly for his slow and ineffective batting.

Russell led Gloucestershire to 6 one-day tournament finals — all at Lord’s — winning 5 of them: the National Westminster Bank Trophy against Somerset in 1999 and against Warwickshire in 2000; the Benson and Hedges Cup against Yorkshire in 1999 and against Glamorgan in 2000; and the Cheltenham and Gloucester Trophy against Worcestershire in 2003, losing only the Benson and Hedges Cup Final in 2001 against Surrey.

Eventually, he was forced to hang up his gloves mid-season in 2004 due to a persistent back injury. Gloucestershire gave him a Testimonial Year that season.

Coaching career

Russell started his coaching career in football — for Forest Green Rovers in the National Conference. He also went on to coach and mentor Gloucestershire in 2008, and became a one-on-one mentor for Geraint Jones the way Knott had been for him for some time.

Jack Russell indulges in his favourite pastime at Guyana during England's tour to the West Indies in 1988 © Getty Images
Jack Russell indulges in his favourite pastime at Guyana during England’s tour to the West Indies in 1988 © Getty Images

The full-time painter

Russell was an enthusiastic painter from his very early days. He began his career as a painter with Man Reading His Newspaper — a moment captured when rain had stopped play during a match between Gloucestershire and Warwickshire.

Even on the controversial Pakistan tour of 1987-88 Russell, unlike his colleagues, did not confine himself to hotel rooms: instead, he went around markets and alleys of Karachi and Lahore and Peshawar, finding out subjects, often sitting down with paint and brushes for an occasional sketch or two.

It helped that he was a reserve wicketkeeper to Bruce French, and ended up playing just one ODI. He had asked himself “If Rembrandt can do it, why can’t I?” On his return to England he held an exhibition of 40 paintings — all of which sold out in a remarkable two days.

His first book of paintings, Caught on Canvas: The Art of Jack Russell, included the famous Moment of Victory — which had Wayne Larkins hitting the winning run at Sabina Park in 1990 as the subject. The original painting was eventually sold for £25,000 in 1998. A second book, The Art of Jack Russell: New Horizons, came out in 2008, followed by a third: The Art of Jack Russell: A Personal Journey Through Eighteen Counties.

He currently runs a gallery in Chipping Sodbury (12 miles south of Bristol where he bought a 1560 building and converted it to a gallery) and also holds exhibitions in London. His works are on display at the Imperial War Museum and the Tower of London. A painting of the Bradman Oval at Bowral has found its place in the Sir Don Bradman Museum.

In 2009 Russell was commissioned by Sky Sports to paint five Sky + HD boxes to commemorate the first Ashes to be telecast live on high-definition. His work typically sells for £25,000 or more.

The man

There have been better wicketkeepers; there have been fiercer competitors; there have also been cricketers successful in dual professions as well. However, one will probably have to ransack the almanacs to find a quirkier character than Jack Russell in the history of the sport — even if we ignore the fact that his own website mentions his height as something as accurate as 5’8¼”.

To begin with, Russell protects his privacy so fiercely that almost nobody knows where he lives. The occasional visitor is blindfolded and taken to his place, and has to leave the same way. This even held true for the builders when they had been commissioned to build his house.

Russell loved tea, which is not unusual. He drank 20-plus cups (Robert Philip mentioned “upwards of 30 cups” in The Telegraph) of tea during a day’s play, which was also not that unusual. The unusual bit was that he used the same teabag throughout a Test, which accounted to one teabag being used for about a hundred cups of tea. He dipped the teabag once in the tea (which involved a lot of milk), and hung the teabag from a peg throughout the Test.

Russell used to have milk and Weetabix for lunch every day during matches. The Weetabix needed to be soaked in milk for exactly eight minutes before Russell left the field so that it reached the desired balance between not-too-dry and not-too-soggy. Fraser wrote that Russell “could tell when they had been in for only five minutes and on these occasions the 12th man was in for a rollocking.”

On the 1994-95 tour of Australia Russell went to the same Chinese restaurant every day, ordering the same item — chicken without skin and with cashews. If you think that’s extraordinary, he requested the cashews be taken off before the dish was served.

Russell was also more obsessed than usual about his gear: his “coffin” invariably contained small plastic boxes of “sewing equipment and pimpled rubber” in case an emergency repair of equipment was required. It also contained a diary of his performances, describing vividly every drop or miss. Once he had locked himself up in a hotel room for two full days after having dropped a catch.

Another quirky feature of Russell’s was the fact that he never trusted the hotel laundry service. “There were jockstraps, underpants and vests constantly hanging from lights and televisions” as a result of this, complained Fraser.

The hat: or rather, THE HAT

The most interesting tales, however, revolve around his hat, a piece of equipment that Atherton had described in The Telegraph as a “dirty, smelly, grubby, patched-up, stitched-up, upside-down-flowerpot-of-a-thing that perched atop his straggly hair throughout his career.” He added that the hat had caused him “more grief as England captain than any Brian Lara hundred or Shane Warne hat-trick.”

In West Indies in 1993-94, Russell had finally realised that the cap needed a wash. Russell, Fraser, and Devon Malcolm had been sharing an apartment when that historic decision took place. The washing went fine, but he put it in an oven to dry it. Unfortunately the hat had completely passed his mind and ran back screaming to the kitchen.

Fraser described the aftermath: “With Devon and me wondering what all the commotion was about, Jack pulled his hat out on a baking tray. It looked burnt and when he touched the top it collapsed as though it was puff-pastry. To correct the disaster he considered flying out his wife.”

Russell took things to a different plane altogether in the South Africa tour a couple of years later. Russell was selected for the ODIs, and Dr Ali Bacher insisted the players of both countries wear caps of their national colours throughout the tournament. This hurt Russell’s sentiments.

A helpless Atherton sent the tour manager John Barclay to settle things with Bacher. Barclay fought for Russell’s “cause”, and told Bacher that Russell “lined up the ball with the specially cut back rim of his hat and it would be an injustice to deprive him of such an essential tool of his trade.” The fact that Bacher, a successful Test captain who was fully aware of the nuances of the sport as much as anyone else, could be convinced was incredible.

The next hurdle came in the 1997-98 tour of West Indies. Ian Maclaurin, Chairman of ECB, insisted England cricketers wear the traditional blue England cap. Once again Russell’s most precious possession was under threat. Atherton recalled: “I really couldn’t have cared less if Jack wanted to wear a dustbin on his head so long as he caught the ball, but not for the first time in my career I found myself out of synch with the authorities.”

Thus triggered management meetings — one followed by another — making the hat probably the most famous one in the history of the sport. Atherton wrote in his diary about the conversation that followed — one that made him feel “more like being in charge of a kindergarten than a cricket team.”

Atherton: Jack, will you wear an England cap?
Russell: No.
Atherton: Is there any way we can find a compromise solution?
Russell: No.
Stewart: Well, if Jack’s going to wear his hat, I’m going to wear my white, not blue, helmet.
Nasser Hussain: If the Gaffer’s going to wear his white helmet I’d like to wear my favourite baseball cap to field in.

Eventually Russell agreed to a compromise. Obviously he did not agree to wear the cap, but he finally allowed the England logo to be stitched on to his hat. Atherton was right about the inseparable hat, after all. “I will not miss his hat,” he wrote. He even left a Rest-in-Peace note for the hat when Russell retired.

The English logo was stitched on Jack Russell's hat © Getty Images
The English logo was stitched on Jack Russell’s hat © Getty Images

The last wish

Jack Russell wishes his hands to be amputated after his death and preserved in formaldehyde. Enough said.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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