West Indies allrounder Andre Russell has asserted that playing for West Indies "comes first" to him, clearing the air on his absence from the T20 series in New Zealand recently while featuring in the ongoing Lanka Premier League.
Russell also revealed that having initially turned down the offer to tour New Zealand he had tried to reverse his decision, but was told by the chief selector Roger Harper that was "too late" since the squad had already been picked. However, Russell captured headlines on the eve of the T20I series after Phil Simmons, the West Indies head coach, said it was "news" to him that Russell was playing for the Colombo Kings in the LPL.
In a chat this week with Jamaica-based TV network SportsMax, Russell reasoned expansively for the first time his absence from the New Zealand tour. "Playing for West Indies comes first for me," Russell said responding to a query from Wayne Lewis, the secretary of West Indies Players Association, who doubles up as an expert on SportsMax. "And the energy and effort that I put out playing for West Indies, I wouldn't do it playing anywhere else. Sometimes people don't understand what a player like myself goes through with niggles and all of those things. But they're just going to judge, and it's easy for them to judge," he said.
'Nothing was going my way. The pressure was real'
Russell acknowledged that when Harper contacted him in October - while he was playing the IPL for the Kolkata Knight Riders - he had told both the chief selector as well as West Indies white-ball captain Kieron Pollard he was not in the right "headspace" coping with living in the bubble. Both players had moved between bubbles from the CPL into the IPL between August and early November.
"The chairman reached out to me while I was playing IPL, but before that, I was talking to Pollard," he said. "And Pollard asked me and said: "Russ, I'm not forcing you, I'm just asking you: "Are you coming to New Zealand?" I said, "yeah, man, I would want to come, but right now, Polly, my headspace is messed up. I'm struggling, I'm not getting no runs, all of this."
"I don't want anyone to say that next time Andre Russell puts on the West Indies colours, he's going to get injured. I've got smart up in terms of how to manage my body."
"As a player to another player, he will understand what I'm going through. Coming from a bubble in Trinidad [for CPL], come straight into Abu Dhabi [in IPL], days on days, you can only go to practise, and come back to the hotel and your room. You can close your eyes and go to the bathroom, but there is nowhere else to go."
Eventually Russell said a combination of severe restrictions on movements in the bubble along with the hamstring injury during the IPL took its toll on his mindset and hurt his form. "When he [Harper] reached out to me, I told the chairman that my headspace is not clear. I changed my stance, I changed my technique, I changed my trigger movement, all these things I changed just to score runs in IPL and nothing was going my way. The pressure was real. I'm a tough player, and I didn't know I could actually feel what happened during this year's IPL. And I just wanted everything to go quickly behind me."
Harper, in fact, granted Russell some more time to make up his mind. "He [Harper] reached out to me a couple of days after, when I'd played two games after that. We won one of them, we lost one, I struggled in both games. At the end of the day, you can see the eyes in the team, you can feel energy. And as a big player, with the team depending on you and all of that, it's pressure. So I was saying no, I can't go to New Zealand like this - I need to at least take a break from cricket, get out the bubble after IPL, go [to] Dubai, go out, just loosen myself a bit and clear my head."
However after a chat with his national team-mates Shimron Hetmeyer and Keemo Paul, who told him that there were far fewer restrictions in New Zealand, Russell decided to reverse his decision.
"I reached out to him and said: 'Sir, I know that a week or two weeks ago I said that I'm not available, [but] I'm available. I want to go around my Caribbean guys. I know I would maybe be better off in that space. They speak my language, I don't have to be worried about whatever, and if I fail, they're going to know that Andre Russell was trying his best'.The chairman reached out to me and said: "sorry Andre, we already went ahead, we made a decision." And he said best wishes or something for the rest of the IPL. I said okay, I understand."
Luckily Harper's decision turned out to blessing considering Russell was hampered by the hamstring injury, which Russell had described at the time during the IPL as "ugly".
'Felt like coming out of prison'
While admitting he was not "irreplaceable", Russell pointed out that living in the bio-secure bubbles was akin to being "in a prison".
"I get out of the bubble. I go to Dubai, have a good time, drink, party, loosen myself. I feel alive. When you feel like you're coming out of prison, it's like.. I've never been to prison, but this lockdown actually felt 'oh my god, I can't do whatever I want to do'.
At that point, Sri Lanka allrounder Angelo Mathews reached out with LPL offer. It was the second time Russell had got the offer, after he had rejected it first time during the IPL.
"While in Dubai, I got an offer, but before I get this offer, I turned down the offer to come here [Sri Lanka] because I said I can't come because I got injured. "While I was in Dubai, playing the UKC [Ultimate Kricket Challenge], then, Angelo Mathews messaged me. He said: 'Bro, we need you to play, even as a batsman.'
Russell decided then to travel to Sri Lanka, having worked hard on his rehab with help from his personal physio and the Knight Riders' trainer and management to regain fitness.
'Playing for country, you want to make sure body is 100%'
Russell has played just twice in T20Is for West Indies since 2018. He is aware the Harper's panel will want to have a good look at him if he is in contention for 2021 T20 World Cup.
"I'm 32 years old now, I've been injury-prone for the last couple of years, struggling with knee injury, and having hamstring injuries and stuff like that. I don't want anyone to say that next time Andre Russell puts on the West Indies colours, he's going to get injured. No one walks out on the field and say "I'm going to get injured today". No player.
"Now, I've got smart up in terms of how to manage my body. I will allow a ball to go for four and try to make it up with the bat, but when you're playing for your country, you want to make sure that the body is 100%."
Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo