Jack Russell retires June 22, 2004

Tenacious in his pursuit of perfection

Andrew Miller on Jack Russell, who has announced his retirement from first-class cricket
  shares



Jumping Jack Russell © Getty Images

The eccentric's eccentric has finally hung up his gloves. As mad as the tatty white sunhat that became his trademark, Jack Russell was the proud possessor of a list of foibles that would have had lesser men sectioned. Incapable of making it through the day without 30 cups of tea, Jack would survive entire England tours on a diet of baked beans, and considered the humble Weetabix to be inedible unless it had been "soaked in the milk for precisely and exactly 12 minutes". Moreover, he remains so obsessive about his privacy that visitors to his house in "Soddin' Chipbury" are required to arrive blindfolded.

So far, so peculiar. But beneath the fidgeting and the fussing lurked the fiercest of competitors, whose every waking moment was given to the pursuit of perfection. If he ultimately fell short of greatness, it was not for want of effort, and as England's dismal run of results trundled on through the 1990s, Russell's molten glovework was a source of rare inspiration. At Sydney in 1990-91, for example, as England's Ashes prospects were once again crumbling to dust, Russell dismissed Dean Jones with a stunning leg-side stumping while standing up to the none-too-sluggish Gladstone Small. It was a fleeting moment of brilliance on an all-too-depressing tour.

But, for all his undoubted genius behind the stumps, it was Russell's tenacity with the bat that ultimately earned him the love and respect of a nation. His limitations may have been plain for all to see, but more importantly, so too was his commitment to the cause. That was never more obvious than at Johannesburg in December 1995, when he produced the greatest allround performance of his career. And yet the fact that he took a world-record 11 dismissals in that match has long since been banished as a footnote - the abiding memory is of Russell's four-and-a-half-hour 29, in partnership with Mike Atherton, as England salvaged one of the most improbable draws of all time.



Russell's fastidious nature has already served him well in his second career © Getty Images

Russell's quirkiness was on full parade that day. Everything about his demeanour - from the wraparound sun-glasses that complemented that timeless moustache, to the curtain-rail leave-alone stroke that drove Brian McMillan to distraction - everything exuded the single message: "None shall pass!" What is more, Russell was motivated above all else by the memory of his previous great rearguard - a five-hour 55 against a rampant Curtly Ambrose, six years earlier in Barbados. On that occasion, however, his defiance had been ended by an unplayable shooter, and an exhausted England were rolled over in a matter of overs. Russell was damned if he was going to allow that to happen again.

And he was damned if he was going to allow his batting to be considered a weakness. But sadly, for all his personal drive, that very issue was one that would vex Russell throughout his career. He did his utmost to disprove the doubters - after being held back from facing the might of the West Indians, he managed 94 on debut against Sri Lanka in 1988, and trumped that with a brilliant rearguard century (his first in first-class cricket) to salvage England's pride against Australia at Old Trafford the following summer.

But Alec Stewart's functional allure would ultimately win out. The first sign of Russell's vulnerability came in Australia in 1990-91 when, with the series slipping away, Stewart was handed the wicketkeeping duties to enable England to play five bowlers at Adelaide and Perth. The pattern was repeated, with instant success, against West Indies at The Oval the following summer, and thereafter Russell was often looked upon as a luxury item - when, in fact, he was merely a high-profile victim of his team-mates' shortcomings.

Russell never lost the faith of his fans, however, and the outcry that occurred in 1992-93, when he and David Gower were both omitted from England's tour to India, took the selectors completely by surprise. Russell's replacement for that tour was Yorkshire's Richard Blakey - another man whose batting credentials supposedly outweighed his ability with the gloves. But by the time he had been bamboozled by India's spinners to the tune of seven runs in four innings, it was clear just how undervalued Russell's abilities were.



'Remember Bridgetown!' Russell keeps Atherton on his toes during their marathon stand at Johannesburg © Getty Images

Those abilities improved with age. Long after England had ceased to come calling, Russell's trademark bark of "Like it!" could be still heard ringing out around the county circuit, as he joined forces with Mark Alleyne and Ian Harvey to transform Gloucestershire into the most formidable one-day side in the country. At the behest of the coach, John Bracewell, who believed his keeping had become too defensive, Russell began standing up to the medium-pacers - to devastating effect. As he snapped at the opposition's heels, Gloucestershire won the C&G Trophy (formerly NatWest Trophy) three times in four years, and in 2000, they completed an unprecedented one-day treble.

There is a certain poignancy about the timing of Russell's retirement. Just as he lost out to Stewart's batting skills in the 1990s, and Bob Taylor to Alan Knott a generation earlier, so too has Chris Read - a gloveman of silky ability - been ousted from the England team to make way for the big-hitting Geraint Jones. Not since Russell's England days has public sympathy for an evicted player been so heartfelt. History, it seems, is set to repeat itself once again.

Russell's perfectionist nature served him proud throughout his first career, and now, with his cricket days behind him, it will do so in his second career as well. As a painter specialising in cricket scenes, wildlife, landscapes and military history, Russell's works can command anything up to £20,000 each, and are displayed at such diverse locations as the Imperial War Museum and the Tower of London.

"People may get sick of my fastidiousness," he once said, "but I want everything to be right. I don't understand people who are content to settle for second-best. Getting it right sometimes means going through pain, it means effort." After a 23-year career, comprising nearly 17,000 runs and more than 1300 dismissals, as well as 54 Tests, Jack Russell's retirement leaves no-one in doubt whatsoever that he gave it his all.