Cricket needs its characters

It was as though he had a premonition, some sixth sense. Minutes before Sourav Ganguly got out, this is what Phil Tufnell said about Monty Panesar. "I don't think he's going to be a Jonty Rhodes. But some of us just can't be. As simple as that. [Yet] he's making himself into a reliable and competent fielder." Maybe the cold winds carried Tufnell's message from the stands across the Rose Bowl and whispered it to Panesar because for the first time in his international, and probably entire, career he effected a run-out - and, boy, was it a big fish?

Ever a character, even a few minutes with Tufnell are enough to make one smile. And, on an evening when the gunmetal clouds simply refused to go away, and the cold wind bit into the bone, Tuffers, as Tufnell is popularly known, came as a welcome change. But he can be a difficult character too, as his cricketing history has more than revealed. So, it was with some trepidation that I approached him as he was busy tucking into sandwiches during the lunch break.

Attired in a faded khaki jacket, Tuffnell is reticent to begin with, but immediately opened up as soon as he got the drift of my questions - cricket and its characters. "Obviously you can't run about shouting and screaming at people, smashing umpires. But I think people want to see a little bit of emotions, passion on the field. People come to see such guys. When I played I always played fair but wanted to win."

He is right. Tufnell always played the game without forgetting about the lighter side of life. He had his idiosyncracies, and infuriated not a few, but it mostly made him endearing and close to cricket fans around the globe. Tufnell still believes that a team is composed of 11 different characters. "It takes a whole plethora of people to make a winning side. It's all in the mix." Getting a bit philosophical, he warms up to the subject. "After all it's only a game. We all want to win, we have professional pride, it's just 22 boys running around after a ball. You have to put it in context. But obviously you want to win but need to still be able to put a smile on your face and be happy that you're very lucky to be out there playing sport."

Even as modern cricket gets increasingly robotic, with human emotions always kept in check, the allure of the colourful characters, the ones who defy the norm, paradoxically, increases. Incidentally, the first 'character' Tufnell encountered was none other than Ian Botham. "It's just a belief in your own ability which is a character. Just someone who keeps on going, keeps on smiling and wants to win." Such players may occasionally cross the limits but they also enliven the spirit of the game with their passion. "There are still characters in the game. Guys like Flintoff and Sreesanth, they bring a lot to the game," Tufnell says.

Pressed on about Sreesanth's antics during the recently concluded Test series, Tufnell felt the fast bowler had not really crossed the limit. "[Sreesanth is a] very competitive cricketer, plays with his heart on his sleeve. Plays for his country and team-mates. He's still a young fellow, so perhaps needs to channel that a little bit into the cricket. But you got to have that desire to play at the top level and sometimes if it spills over I don't think it's the end of the world."

That's where Tufnell, bad boy of English cricket in the decade preceding the millennium, and who played 42 Tests, feels the captains should come into play. "That is part and parcel of being a captain (to handle characters). You got to get the best out of these people. Sometimes these people need winding up and sometimes you've to leave them."

Asked about his personal 'characters XI', Tufnell starts with "Botham, Lamb, Merv Hughes, Siddhu ..hmmm...just fill the names mate and I'll endorse them," he smiles as he begins to rush back to his radio commentary booth. But, a final question: so, does Panesar make his list? "He's still learning but he's a part of the set-up now. Fantastic performances. Lot more to offer, willing learner. Good work ethic."

Well, Tufnell is spot on there, just as unerring as Monty's throw was from mid-off. Not something that Tufnell himself can claim for he never ever executed a run-out in his international career.