English cricketing eccentrics, No. 3 – Jack Russell

I should nail my colours to the mast at the outset – Jack Russell was one of my cricketing heroes growing up. As a young wicketkeeper, watching him swooping around behind the stumps for Gloucestershire at my home ground at Cheltenham was inspirational. I even hung around to get his autograph at his testimonial game in 2004 and I have one of his wonderful prints on my wall. So the description that is to follow is borne of affection rather than ridicule. Why give this disclaimer, you ask? Because Robert Charles ‘Jack’ Russell is quite an odd fellow.

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Frankly the hat has aged better than the kit.

‘Eccentric’ is almost certainly the best word – he doesn’t like the phrase himself, insisting that all the things he does are “logical and natural”. That may be so, but it bears some of the hallmarks of being obsessive-compulsive. All of Russell’s strange behaviour had sensible roots, but he would take everything to its logical extreme. For instance, he liked his “flowerpot” hat and found it comfortable. Fair enough, but Russell’s logical extreme? He wore it in every match in his career bar his debut, endlessly repairing it with old cricket trousers, leading to a George-Washington’s-axe-type conundrum as to whether it was still the same hat by the end. Such was his dedication to it that he threatened to not play in the 1996 World Cup if he wasn’t allowed to wear it (the ICC were insisting on compliant blue caps). In the end, the authorities conceded defeat and Russell was given dispensation to wear the hat, so long as it had the Three Lions stitched on it. Such an ancient hat needed careful looking after – it was starched, stitched and carefully dried using a biscuit jar and tea cosy to hold the shape. However, away from home, he had to make do with more makeshift arrangements, on one occasion in 1994 putting it in the oven to dry. The hat predictably caught fire and required emergency repairs for it to live to fight another day.

It wasn’t just the hat that had to stand the test of time. Russell wore the same cricket shirt for most of his career, and, to make sure his kit was always warm and dry, he installed a tumble-dryer in the back of his car. Again, there’s some underlying logic in there somewhere, very deep down. You can almost imagine him trundling into the car park in the morning, tumble-dryer at full-spin in the back, the picture of normality and sanity. He would always wash his own clothes when away from home, hanging his undergarments from lampshades and other handy spots in hotel rooms. He only had two pairs of keeping gloves in his entire career, only discarding the old pair when repairs were no longer making much difference, after which he immediately broke the world record for dismissals in a Test. Hmm, go figure.

Another of Jack’s great extremes was his meticulous sniffiness about food. The basis was a combination of distrusting food from unfamiliar sources and knowing exactly what he needed for his body to function on and off a cricket field. However, add these ingredients together and bake for several years and you reach Jack’s odd diet. Twenty cups of milky tea a day was the norm, allegedly all made with the same teabag. For lunch on a match day: Weetabix, soaked for twelve minutes, no more, no less. “It must be twelve minutes. That’s exactly how I like it.” And, the piece-de-resistance? “My preferred meals when possible are mashed potato with milk and butter, mixed in with plain white rice, served up with Heinz baked beans over the mashed potato, topped off with a generous dollop of HP brown sauce.” Yum. When you add in two packets of chocolate biscuits a day, I suppose it’s what you could call a varied diet.

On overseas tours, such luxuries were not always available. Jack, keen not to get Delhi-belly or other such ailments in India in 1989, ate “cremated” steak and chips for 28 consecutive days. Similarly, in 1994-5 in Australia, he would repeatedly order chicken and cashew nuts (without the cashews), from a nearby Chinese restaurant. But for Russell, it worked. He didn’t get ill on tour and got the diet he wanted. Win-win, in his own special way.

Even on the field, Russell was far from a normal cricketer. His stance became increasingly crab-like as his career progressed (the only footage I could find was from 1992, when it was relatively normal) and he almost always wore sunglasses, batting or keeping, if the sun was out. When you look past his idiosyncrasies, though, his keeping was exceptional. Check out this stumping off Gladstone Small from 1990-91. His batting was obdurate but oddly effective. His Test average of 27.10 might have been dismissed as not good enough at the time, leading to his eventual replacement by Alec Stewart, but he comes in at 7th on the list of all-time England wicketkeepers (qual. 10 matches), above people like Geraint Jones who were specifically brought in for his batting. He was involved in one of the greatest partnerships in England history with Mike Atherton in Johannesburg in 1995-96 (there’s some footage of Russell at about 6:15 in this video) and was a Gloucestershire legend, helping them to numerous one-day championships at the turn of the century.

For me, Jack Russell is a prime example that, so long as you can deliver the goods on the field, it doesn’t really matter what you’re like off it, excepting that you can’t be so weird that you don’t fit into the dressing-room culture. Compare him with someone like Ian Botham – they’re chalk-and-cheese, yet both great cricketers. Cricket needs its characters, and that it generates so many is a great attraction of the game. Jack was a bit odd, and it makes for a fun article such as this, but for me, Russell was first-and-foremost one of the greatest wicketkeepers ever to play for England, and, more recently, an incredibly talented artist. I’d love to be able to go to his house, shake him by the hand and tell him this. However, this might be tricky, as very few people know where he lives, owing to his propensity for blindfolding visitors when he picks them up. Even his builders apparently don’t know where his house is!

Bibliography

Jack Russell/Pat Murphy – Jack Russell Unleashed – CollinsWillow, 1997

Angus Fraser – ‘Russell, the great eccentric, draws stumps’ –  The Independent, 23rd June 2004

Gemma Wright – ‘You need to be brave to stand up to the stumps’ –  Spin Magazine (published on Cricinfo, April 2010)

Lawrence Booth – ‘Strange Innovations’ –  The Wisden Cricketer – June 2007

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3 Comments

  1. I always liked Russell as a kid growing up. Excellent glovework, good for the odd 30* while Athers is getting battered down the other end, the last specialist keeper England have had (bar Foster who wasnt given a run). The moustache, the art, the hat.

    Reply
  2. V Russell

     /  January 28, 2015

    What lovely things you said! Very strange that I came across this as I really don’t like cricket but somebody forced me to read it. I shall be sure to show Jack this as he is my dad 🙂

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comments – I’d love to know if he read it! (Sorry for not acknowledging you sooner – I’ve been away from the blog for the past few months).

      Reply

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