April 30, 2016

Andre Russell, MVP

A look at what lies behind the rise of the West Indian allrounder who just might be the world's hottest T20 property at the moment

"You have to be fearless, maan" © BCCI

On November 13 last year, West Indies allrounder Andre Russell was playing his first match of the Ram Slam T20 Challenge. In the fourth over, South Africa and Titans batsman Quinton de Kock flicked Knights fast bowler Malusi Siboto high over mid-on, where Russell was fielding.

It was never going to be a catch. Not even in Russell's mind when he saw the ball fly off the bat as he walked in ("briskly," he says) to save the single.

"After the ball went over my head I heard 'Two, two, two,'" Russell recounted when he spoke to ESPNcricinfo this February in Dubai, where he played in the Pakistan Super League for eventual champions Islamabad United.

"They [batsmen] never thought I will get there. As soon as I heard that, I said, 'I am going to the drop-in zone as soon as possible.' So I turn and I sprint. I just muscle down the field, focusing on getting to the ball. I look up, I realise I am close to the ball. I make two or three more power strides, stick my hand out, the ball just fell right on the tips of my fingers. As soon as I feel the ball, I push my hand out and I make sure I have it covered because I know I was going to fall. I did not want the ball to bounce out of my fingers."

Here's a clip of the catch.

As the commentators gushed, Russell quickly stood up and folded his arms in front of his chest, as if to ask himself and the crowd: "Would you believe that?"

Russell has made pulling off stunning feats on the field his trademark. With the bat in hand he has engineered spectacular finishes in T20 leagues around the world, in which he is highly sought after. The IPL, the Big Bash, the PSL, the CPL, Ram Slam, Friends Life T20 - he's a marquee player in all of them. In 2015, his first proper year in the IPL, Russell finished as the Most Valuable Player in the tournament, when he played in every match for his side, Kolkata Knight Riders.

"You have to give credit to the hard work you put in," he says. "I believe now that nothing comes easy. I can achieve a lot more from just working harder and make sure that whenever I cross the ropes, I can do well. I know my job is not easy. I have to bat, bowl and field, run from long-on to long-off. But I am always in the game. So it was good to get the MVP."

Progress has been swift for Russell over the last three years. From a player with potential, he has become a must-have asset. In the IPL, he was largely an unknown in his first two seasons, during which he played just seven matches for Delhi Daredevils. At the 2014 auction, Knight Riders were looking for an allrounder who could eventually take over the role performed by their senior player at the time, Jacques Kallis.

Russell, who had gone unsold in the first round, had a base price of Rs 60 lakh (approximately US$100,000 then), and Venky Mysore, the Knight Riders chief executive, ended up buying him for that sum.

During an interval in the auction, an official from a rival franchise walked up to Mysore and commented on the Russell buy: "Good luck managing him," he said. Mysore, though, has had no cause for regret. "He has been one of the most fantastic guys in the dressing room," he says of Russell. "He is absolutely one of the best allrounders going in this format. We also felt with his batting skills he could move up and down the order."

In his first season at Knight Riders, Russell only played two matches, where he managed one wicket and two runs. A few months later, in the Champions League T20, he was to the fore in the thriller against Chennai Super Kings in Hyderabad. Chasing 158 to win, Knight Riders were sinking at 51 for 5 after eight overs when Russell joined Ryan ten Doeschate, the Essex allrounder, at the crease. The two turned the match on its head with a swift 80-run partnership that included a 22-ball 50 from Russell. His eventual 58 included five sixes and four boundaries, at a strike rate of 232.

"I was always singing to the girls in the classroom, knocking on the desk, making beats among friends. I always liked to do music, but I just didn't trust my voice [enough to] say that it is going to happen and people are going to support me"

Russell had arrived. "He won the game for us from an impossible situation," Mysore says.

He recounts another incident, from the last IPL. "I told him before a game [at the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai], the straight boundaries are shorter but the side boundaries seem quite long. He said, 'No ground is too big for me, maan.'"

"You can't buy experience," Russell says. "You have to earn experience and live it. The first two years I played IPL, I was with Delhi, and I play, like, seven games in two years. It is not like I could not do what I am doing now, but I was not getting a chance. If I was getting a chance with Delhi, I would maybe be a better player now because I would have learned more - how to deal with failure, how to deal with success.

"So at that time, not getting enough chances, I just know that, all right, I am happy to be part of the team. I learn how to be a team man and support the team and make sure that each guy that is in the playing XI is comfortable. I am on the bench, run up with water, whatever.

At Knight Riders, Russell found himself at home, at peace. "I was in the zone that I want to be in. I know, even if I fail, I am going to play the next game. That is the kind of trust - if players get it more often, you will maybe see a lot of spectacular things from the player."

Mysore had no second thoughts about holding on to Russell. "Tell me how many are there who can give you all three with match-winning ability, particularly with the bat?" he asks. "With the bat, Andre Russell is a type of player - I think any opposition will fear that he can turn the game from any stage because it is a matter of a few hits with his power and his capability and his skill."

****

Many gifted athletes are good at more than one sport before they focus on one. Russell was an ace at football, where he started as a forward before switching to defensive midfield. Once, when his team did not have a goalkeeper, he volunteered to stand in.

"We were losing games because easy goals were being scored. I said to the coach, 'I can keep.' He said, 'No, who is going to play in the field? You have to play and score goals.' If you start to keep, we have no one to score, so we are going to draw. I said, 'We must, and can, score at least one goal per game, and I will make sure no one scores against us.' So I started goalkeeping from there."

Russell got a scholarship to play football at Clarendon College. They had a good team and he did not get enough game time. Hungry to play, he approached the coaches, who asked him to bide his time.

One day, after football season, he tagged along with a friend who played cricket for the school's senior team. "Me and two other guys were playing our own little game on the side, with a little, soft ball.

"I was hitting the ball all over the place, bowling fast. The coach was watching me. I didn't know that. He called me and asked me my name. Then he asked why I don't come and play cricket. I said, 'But those guys bowlin' fast and I am scared.'"

Russell was about 13 or 14. He told the coach he would try but he would take it slowly. He played Under-14s for the first year and then moved to the U-16s. By the end of the first year at that level, he was playing for the senior team as a wicketkeeper.

"There was no specialist wicketkeeper in the squad. The first game we played, we had a keeper who let 38-40 byes go, and I remember that as I was bowling! So I tell the coach that I am going to keep. He was fine. I watched [Adam] Gilchrist and few other keepers that I liked, to see how they kept, catch a ball with style and the right technique."

"I know my job is not easy. I have to bat, bowl and field, run from long-on to long-off. But I am always in the game" © BCCI

Kirk Harris, who played U-15 cricket for Jamaica "saved" Russell by relieving him of the gloveman's duties, which allowed him to move his focus back to fast bowling.

Many were surprised he could bowl. "The year before Harris came, I went to a Jamaica U-19 preparation camp and I went as a keeper. The second year, I went as a fast bowler. The trainer was setting up some cones. He knew me as a keeper previously. He said to me, "Russ, go and get your keeping stuff. We are going to stay on this base and catch the ball." I said, no, no, showing him my bowling boots. I told him, 'I am a bowler now.' I surprised everyone."

He focused on running before going to school and for a half hour after school, doing lots of weights, working out in the gym - all to bowl as fast as he could. Eventually he made it into the Jamaica U-19 side. He also continued to be goalkeeper for Bowlers FC.

When he was 17, Russell was asked to attend a Jamaica U-20 camp by the president of the local football federation. Around this time he also received a fax from the Jamaica Cricket Association asking him to play for the U-19s for a second year.

A week later he received a message from the Jamaica Football Federation saying he was in the 30-member squad for the Jamaica U-20s. When it came to making a choice between the sports, he told the school's principal that he wanted to play cricket.

The football officials continued to call, and failing to reach him, they rang his grandmother. "She said, sorry, he wants to play cricket," Russell remembers. "I had to tell them I was already in the Jamaica U-19 camp. I had to tell them something. That was where everything started."

He started cutting everything else out of his life, focusing on cricket - and singing. "I was always singing to the girls in the classroom, knocking on the desk, making beats among friends. I always liked to do music, but I just didn't trust my voice [enough to] say that it is going to happen and people are going to support me."

Having played in front of packed stadiums around the world, that has changed. "It is like nothing for me now to go on the stage and perform," he says.

Coaches who have worked with Russell describe him as fearless in attitude, outlook and play. Vijay Dahiya, assistant coach with Knight Riders till 2015, recollects the away match in Pune against Kings XI Punjab last year where Knight Riders' top order failed.

Russell walked in at 60 for 5 after eight overs. Less then ten overs later, his side had stormed to a domineering victory with 13 deliveries to spare. Russell blasted 66 runs from 36 balls at a strike rate of 183. At the time he called the innings the best one of his life.

"You give him any situation, he is willing to do it - be it with bat, ball or while fielding," Dahiya says. "You give him the support and the confidence and he will take it seriously, he will go out and try and do it every time. He is a positive influence to have around in the change room."

"With the bat, Andre Russell is a type of player - I think any opposition will fear that he can turn the game from any stage because it is a matter of a few hits with his power and his capability and his skill"
Venky Mysore, KKR chief executive

"You have to be fearless, maan," Russell says when told about Dahiya's praise.

He then talks about his hair. "If I am going to do something to my hair, I know it is going to be on TV, it is going to be the centre of attraction. You have to prepare for that. You have to know that if I should put my hair in blond colour, what are they going to say. But you are going to have fans out there that are going to give it to you straight. I don't mind that."

In February, Russell said he would be unveiling a new hairdo at the World T20. And sure enough, he sported one that featured a flame-coloured streak running over the top of his head.

The desire to make a statement extends to his footwear. Russell is often seen wearing mismatched shoes, with Dre Russ inscribed on them. "I know the attention is going to be on them. It is fun, especially when you are doing well. You can have a fancy haircut, you have something about you that is different. If you are not scoring runs, people are going to think you are worse. But if you are taking wickets and you are scoring runs, everyone is going to cut their hair like you or wear different shoes like you."

****

For all the adulation he has received in the world of global T20, Russell has been questioned about his commitment and contributions to West Indies cricket.

"I'm so disappointed with the media, I'm not doing no more interviews. They always put words in your mouth. #imdone."

Russell put out that message on his personal Twitter account in December, reacting to a news report in Australian media that quoted him as saying in an interview: "My household needs wouldn't be fulfilled just by playing in the West Indies team."

Russell, who was playing for Sydney Thunder in the Big Bash while West Indies were losing in the Test series in Australia, said his words were misinterpreted.

"I give them my opinion. I let them know that I feel sorry for the guys [in the national team in Australia], knowing that I can actually see them trying, but Australia is in top form at the moment - they recently beat New Zealand badly.

"But this guy said to me, 'Why are you not playing? You should be playing with your pace, your bowling….' He was like a fan in the stands.

"I said to him, 'Sir, first of all, you can't compare my bowling now in a T20 game to a Test match. A Test match goes on for five days. When I bowl one over now [in T20], I get a break and I come back four or five overs later. I am fresh again. Then I don't bowl till the 15th, 18th, 20th over. After that I just bat. I go back to the hotel, ice up and I'm good.

"A Test match, you are talking about almost 20 overs per day. My knees and my body, whenever I tried playing first-class cricket back home, I can't complete a game without coming off the field, icing somewhere, getting pain, taking injections, pills. I can't play a full game without doing all of those things."

"I have to be selfish to look after myself, and whenever West Indies have T20 and ODI games, I am ready and I can go there and I can do my best" © IDI/Getty Images

Russell said if he was fit he would "surely be bowling 145-plus" for West Indies in Tests.

"What should I do? Stay home? I still want to play cricket. I play with a lot of pain here and there."

Russell says he put a message out on Twitter and Instagram because he wanted to make clear the respect he has for West Indies cricket. "West Indies is who made me the player that I am now. I had to start from somewhere. I started from Jamaica, moved to West Indies and now I am playing everywhere," he says.

His Test career is one match old. He turned 28 yesterday. His knee perpetually gives him trouble. Does he expect to turn out for West Indies in whites again?

"At the moment the hopes of me playing Test cricket is very slim. I have been to the States, India, local guys in Trinidad and Jamaica. I have seen doctors that have worked with basketball players, NFL players. They said that a lot of power athletes come with similar type of knee injuries," he says.

Russell says he puts stress on his knees with his penchant for twisting and turning at high speed while chasing the ball in the field. Unlike other fielders who first turn, build up momentum and then run fast, he "can just turn, boom. So the pressure that my knees undergo by just starting off so briskly is big. I have tendinitis." An operation will not solve the problem permanently, not to mention that it would also rule him out of action for at least six months.

Russell says he let Clive Lloyd, the West Indies chairman of selectors, his panel members and Richard Pybus, the West Indies director of cricket, know all this about a year and a half ago.

In January 2015, while delivering a lecture in Cape Town, Lloyd had this to say about Russell: "I spoke to him only a month ago and said, you can get into our Test side because you are one of the best allrounders in the world. A couple of weeks later he told me he has got a bad knee and could only play one-dayers. It's such a waste that we have a guy who could be a great cricketer, who is now not thinking of playing both formats. We have contracts, probably not as exorbitant as others, but they are getting good money. It doesn't seem playing for our country is paramount where these players are concerned."

Russell says he was deeply hurt when he read Lloyd's comments. "I feel like someone give me a hard slap and run and I can't catch them to hit them back. It is not like I don't want to play for West Indies. A lot of times I get a contract to play cricket wherever and I turn it down to play one-day and T20 cricket for West Indies."

The selectors want Russell to play all three formats, but his reasoning is: the longer he stays fit, the longer he can play for West Indies in the shorter formats. "I have to be selfish to look after myself, and whenever West Indies have T20 and ODI games, I am ready and I can go there and I can do my best," he says.

Like many of his team-mates who are up in arms against the board, Russell too thinks the way WICB has dealt with its players is "not fair".

"You can have a fancy haircut. If you are not scoring runs, people are going to think you are worse. But if you are taking wickets and you are scoring runs, everyone is going to cut their hair like you"

He finds some of decisions made by people who used to play the game "shocking", but does not name anyone in particular. "They know it is a tough sport. Our career is not a long career.

"You can still work when you are 60, 70. You are going to gather more knowledge about how you go about your job as you grow older. But when we are 35, you are looking to say I am going to pack up. You can go to 42 now in cricket. But when you are 44, you are going to play a few Masters [type tournaments]. That's all.

"At the moment I wouldn't give up a WICB contract to go and play elsewhere. I don't have a contract. I did last year. I played most of the games when I was under contract. Still, I did not get a retainer contract. No one say a thing to me."

Russell says he has had to find doctors himself, and spend his own money travelling abroad to get his knee sorted. "So after me getting back fit, you think it's fair to give someone your service that actually didn't care about you when you were down and out?"

He says he is now bowling at full throttle. "I used to bowl 135-137kph, I am bowling 145-150 now. Doing the necessary work, strengthen myself, get fit again, spend a lot of money doing things to make sure I am good to go. But as I said, I won't turn my back on West Indies cricket. I will always be available to play."

Does he think he is the best allrounder going around in limited- overs cricket? "Yeah, of course," Russell says. No arrogance or bluster there, he just believes he is.

Before going into the World T20, he said it was embarrassing his highest score was 24, and said he wanted to play the role of a "game changer" in the tournament. "I want to make sure that when I walk out there I am doing whatever it takes to have my personal best in T20Is. To make sure whenever it is coming, it is a game-winning score."

On March 31, against India in the semi-final, Russell recorded his highest T20I score - 43 not out - to help knock out the hosts.

He has no doubt that allrounders trump specialists when it comes to T20. "You need to have specialists, but if you can have a guy like myself, Bravo, Pollard, Jadeja, Mitch Marsh, Watson, that can bowl, field, and come and change the game for you with the bat, not necessarily hit big sixes but bat properly and get the job done, I think you can actually win any tournament once you have men like that."

Paddy Upton, coach at Sydney Thunder during their BBL title-winning campaign earlier this season, thinks Russell is the "most complete athlete" he has come across. "He demands huge output from his body. He gives 100% effort in batting, bowling and fielding, with an attitude of total commitment," Upton says. "One of his challenges will be to maintain his body to be able to meet the demands he places on it, and that the various tournaments around the world will ask of him.

"As he further develops his understanding of how to bat on different surfaces, and against different bowlers, so he will become even of an all-round match-winner. And more of a menace to his opponents."

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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