October 31, 2014

Top dog of the underdogs

Jack Russell brought brazen, cartoonish villainy to the game, and a neatness to the keeper's art that was matched by his meticulous scruffiness in other regards
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Jack Russell: a picker of opposition pockets © Getty Images

Growing up in a minor county, my first in-the-flesh exposure to famous cricketers usually came in those sorely missed David-and-Goliath games of the old NatWest Trophy. Malcolm Marshall, Ezra Moseley, Allan Lamb, Robin Smith and Aravinda de Silva all came to play Staffordshire in Stone, my home town. And before them, in 1984, when I was 11, was Jack Russell, then an unknown member of an unglamorous Gloucestershire side who arrived to dot the i's and cross the t's of an inevitable victory.

I'd love to claim it was love at first sight, but the truth is I barely noticed him - which, conventional wisdom will (erroneously) tell you, is the hallmark of a good wicketkeeper. However, I do remember when the seduction process was complete, and it took a single ball to seal it. It was the moment the pleasantly attractive girl from your physics class turns up to the school disco in pink hot pants.

To this day, I've only seen one leg-side stumping off a quick bowler in Test cricket, probably fewer than the number of switch-hit sixes, if I cared to think about it. Gladstone Small was the bowler, Dean Jones the man overbalancing at the crease, and Jack, with ninja-like celerity, hopping sideways while seeming stillness itself, the magician who whisked off the bails before gambolling like a lamb into the arms of Alec Stewart, later the quietus to his international career. Its unadulterated brilliance could be gauged from the reaction of the grizzled old pros converging upon him to celebrate: Ned Larkins, Eddie Hemmings, David Gower, Graham Gooch, all laughing at the absurd majesty of it all, a heist carried out to perfection. And that's what a leg-side stumping feels like: picking the opposition's pocket.

My dad was a wicketkeeper. I wasn't, although, strangely, I often seemed to find myself walking out in pads and gloves to do it. It was one long trauma. On one occasion, I lost a tooth; on many, I lost the plot. I endured a West Indian Test bowler pounding the ball into hot spots, broke several fingers (hands groping round the batsman's backside for a lost flight path), missed three stumpings in a final off a legspinner who forgot the googly signal, and, worst of all, dropped three catches in a single over off one of Jack Russell's future team-mates, Jeremy Snape, while playing for Staffordshire Under-13s.

I've always thought wicketkeeping - specifically, standing up to seamers - the most difficult of cricket's arts, with the possible exception of legspin, and so felt an exaggerated admiration for anyone who did it well. Jack's silken glovework was, evidently, a marvel - the preternatural ease with which he took the awkwardly bouncing ball as it melted gratefully into those black mitts, body contorting yet hands smooth and slow, like an expert cocktail waiter sweeping through a busy room.

Neat and tidy as a keeper he may have been, but there was a meticulous scruffiness about everything else. The first year he sewed the three lions over the Gloucestershire badge on that trademark bucket hat was 1988, the second Summer of Love. He fidgeted his way to 94 on debut at Lord's, each run an affront to the game's aesthetics, and in the Ashes the following year made a maiden hundred in the city then known as Madchester. Little did my baggy-loving mates realise that my headgear was an homage not to the Stone Roses, but to a certain stumper from Stroud.

Jack's batting was not a thing of beauty. In fact, crouching over his bat as he shovelled, swept, sliced and slapped, it was almost deliberately ugly, a calculated provocation, as was so much of his cricket. Even his leave-alone was in your face, pulling back the curtain rail, like some feral neighbourhood kid, staring straight into your living room to see what he could nick. Or not nick, as was famously the case in his epic rearguard with Mike Atherton in Johannesburg, which he later immortalised in a painting entitled "The Great Escape", aptly for such a staunch flag-waver. Ordinarily I'd have been turned off by such obstinate quirkiness and untempered patriotism (even his keeping technique resisted the Australian fashion, as he saw it, for taking the ball on the inside hip), but his glovework redeemed all.

As the veins popped in batters' heads there was Jack the mosquito, puncturing their flesh for a slurp of claret

Jack was the eccentric's eccentric in a metier given to eccentrics. Insisting your Weetabix are soaked for precisely eight minutes; having the same meal 29 nights consecutively on tour; taking a suitcase full of baked beans along because you didn't trust hotel food; washing your own kit in the hotel room because you didn't trust the staff - none of this suggests a man comfortable with flux and uncertainty. Yet uncertainty is what hung over much of his England career, whenever the runs dried up.

As the insecurities grew, ever more quirks and tics were introduced. He began standing at 45 degrees (and too deep, they said), facing cover-point. The consistency dropped, as were one or two straightforward catches, once prompting Jack to lock himself in his room for two days. There was evident frailty there - a brain scan would doubtless have revealed synapses held together with rubber bands and string - and sympathy duly morphed into empathy.

By the time the decade - and his England career - was done, Adam Gilchrist had transformed perceptions of the keeper's role forever. In Test cricket's futures market, leg-side stumping stock had been ditched for batting pugnacity. Russell was part of a dying breed. Perhaps with a frontline bowler who could have batted at No. 7, he'd have won many more Test caps than the 54 he accrued (and never wore). Instead, Stewart donned the gloves in an attempt to balance the side.

Yet the unmistakable hue of genius never waned, and it was at Gloucestershire, in his final years, before chronic back trouble curtailed his career, that his regal brilliance truly flourished. Prior to this, his coach John Bracewell felt, Jack had been too conservative, too keen not to make mistakes, too keen to go unnoticed - thus giving the lie to the old saw. Now, with the coming of autumn, he stepped forward, right up to the stumps, and gave full rein to his gifts, the ringmaster in an unheralded Gloucestershire team that won six limited-overs trophies in three seasons.

On pitches the colour of gruel, Ian Harvey, Mike Smith et al created the anxiety, the asphyxiation, and as the veins popped in batters' heads there was Jack the mosquito, puncturing their flesh for a slurp of claret. Barking - oh, he was barking - relentlessly at his team-mates, he would habitually walk in front of the stumps to applaud and chivvy, all a pretext for irritating the batsman, getting in his space. It brought new meaning to occupation of the crease - here, in the sense of an invading army. The pickpocket had become a mobster. A bailiff.

I admired his brazen, cartoonish villainy. Face inscrutable behind those sunglasses, that daft hat and his bristles, Jack would narrate the batsman's anxieties for the benefit of his swarming team. He gave this reluctant and increasingly part-time wicketkeeper something to aspire toward. Sure, my Teflon glovework would always be found wanting, but I could always usefully piss the batsman off.

It was not genteel comportment, but then the cricket I played wasn't genteel. The existential stakes were high: glory, ignominy and self-esteem, all were forged by this innings, that shot, a catch, a victory. There was no place to be genteel. My nickname then was Dog (as in Scotty…), and the cricket was dog eat dog. And in that there was no better example, no more terrorising terrier, than Jack Russell, top dog of the underdogs.

Scott Oliver tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Philip on November 1, 2014, 23:33 GMT

    I watched a short montage the other day of Shane Warne's greatest hits (mercifully he was bowling rather than singing). At first there was Ian Healy behind the stumps. Then suddenly Adam Gilchrist appeared. At first, I didn't notice the change. But the second ball I did. There was a clunkiness in Gilchrist's keeping that Healy hadn't showed. Now, don't get me wrong. Gilchrist was a decent keeper, but he was no Jack Russell. Today, I might react to Ian Healy's commentating as I would to Warne potentially singing, but I will always believe that Healy has been the best Australian keeper of the past twenty to thirty years. Why always? Because Nutcutlet is right about keeping today. The art is dying, especially in Australia, England, New Zealand - well, just about everywhere really. It is all about batting. Now, batting is important, but right through the youth levels here the message is clear - bring your bat first & foremost, your keeping gloves are just a back-up. Or is that a back-stop?

  • John on November 1, 2014, 19:49 GMT

    @Nutcutlet,your comment's are totally correct.I wish I had thought of your remark that wicket keeper's these days are glorified long stops as per playing Primary School Cricket.I'm in total agreement with your comment about Chris Reid and James Foster,but in my opinion Chris Reid was and still is the better of the Two.Surely it would have been to the advantage of England to have had Two top class natural wicket keepers.This would then have kept both players on their toes and at the peak of their specialist forms to the betterment of the England Test Team.Alas I think that England are galloping along the path at a rate of knots for the inclusion of glorified long stops as opposed to naturally talented wicket keepers.

  • ian on November 1, 2014, 7:57 GMT

    The days of wicket-keeping being regarded as a vocational craft would appear to be over, at least at international level. Many of the current crop of national keepers are little more than gloved back-stops. This is highly regrettable because when the younger version of me purchased a ticket to watch a day's Test cricket, part of that payment was to see a proper wicket-keeper go about his business: an expert in a unique sporting craft. Jack Russell, Alan Knott, Bob Taylor and John Murray were all masters behind the sticks. When they kept to the turning ball, they so seldom muffed the take. There was great pride in neatness - which looks so easy but is so demanding. They brought pleasure to the discerning spectator, but we have been denied that now. James Foster and Chris Read - both studiously disregarded by the selectors - are perhaps the last of this endangered breed. Great article, Scotty. Thanks.

  • Peter on October 31, 2014, 21:10 GMT

    I was also at the SCG that day. Easily the the best glove man I have seen @ still staggered England didn't select him more.

  • Dummy4 on October 31, 2014, 20:24 GMT

    I have to say I remember the stumping. Just amazing. Have just watched it again - Small was no trundler. A lot of Gloucestershire's one day success was down to Jack standing up and thwarting attacking intent. I wonder if in future a similarly great keeper will impact T20 thinking?

  • John on October 31, 2014, 18:39 GMT

    An excellent article about in my opinion the best wicket keeper England have put in the field since the retirement of Alan Knott.It is my opinion the best 2 natural wicket keepers Jack Russell and Chris Reid were sacrificed by England in the forlorn hope that they could accommodate a batsman with second rate wicket keeping skills to replicate the skills of Adam Gilchrist.This was never going to happen because Adam Gilchrist was a unique cricketer.Over the years we have seen many mishaps behind the stumps of these Batsmen/Wicket Keepers and the runs gained by the opposition have not been made up.Surely if a specialist wicket keeper in the course of a match saves 30 runs and makes 2 difficult dismissals then the team is in a better position to win the game and you do not have to take the time to score these additional runs.In my opinion a natural wicket keeper has to be a better selection than a batsman who keeps wicket.

  • Dummy4 on October 31, 2014, 16:33 GMT

    Just reliving that moment now via YouTube. Oh Jack, you were a wonder - a subtle blend of Knott and Evans. You cannot go higher!

  • corey on October 31, 2014, 13:15 GMT

    Jack was brilliant ! the last of a dying breed of keepers , fearless to stand up to the quick bowlers . It pains me now to see keepers in helmets when just standing up to a spinner . Enjoyed watching the artist at work .!!!!!

  • Dummy4 on October 31, 2014, 13:04 GMT

    Top dog! The hardest job in the cricket field done well is breath taking, he was a great keeper and the warmth from the article has me smiling just remembering his appearance, never mind his outstanding wicket keeping.

  • Dummy4 on October 31, 2014, 11:57 GMT

    Totally enjoyed your comments. Imagine me,a west indian loving Jack Russel,but i honestly did.

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