"Jos Buttler breaks the stumps for England to win the Cricket World Cup by “the barest of margins.” Having made a few run outs myself over the years I know the thin line between completing the job safely or rushing it and messing things up entirely! My heart still misses a beat everytime I think about it."
At the end of a one-hour interview that lasted two hours, I ask Jack Russell whether he would blindfold me if we were at his house. Among the many tales of Russell’s individualism, one is that visitors have their sight disabled to ensure his privacy. Alas, we are at his art studio in Chipping Sodbury, and we will never find out.
Russell, 59, takes to his deckchair, leaving the big, comfortable seat for guests, and over two rounds of decaffeinated tea — “Mash that how you want it” — we discuss the two arts of the former Gloucestershire and England wicketkeeper’s life.
Wicketkeeper discourse is everywhere in this summer’s Ashes: Jonny Bairstow and Ben Foakes have continued the great tradition of Roundhead-Cavalier keeping enigmas, with the former dropping catches and short on runs; for Australia, Alex Carey stumped Bairstow in a manner that turned Lord’s puce with revulsion.
Russell is in hot demand, sought by journalists from both sides of the contest to give his tuppence. “I’ve said right from the start I’m not going to rock the boat and say this should be done or that should be done, but judge it at the end,” he says.
They are barking up the right tree. Russell, one of the finest glovemen, is always swept up by the Ashes, watching every tic in his metaphorical wicketkeeping hat (the real hat, locked away from view, is famously tatty, a Gen Z bucket before its time). Each ball of the Ashes is critical, “the brain being buffeted by the occasion and the importance of it”. “It can quickly swamp you,” he says. “It’s like a runaway train and you can’t get back on track.”
Russell enjoys the mental freedom afforded to England’s players by Bazball, but the sloppiness of dropped catches and sky-high extras affronts him. This is a man who once conceded no byes as Northamptonshire racked up 746. England have given away 148 extras to Australia’s 99 in three Tests, 44 of them no-balls. Catching in the cordon could decide the series, and Russell cites it as the main difference between England being 2-1 down and 3-0 up.
“Don’t even bring me into the conversation,” he says, recoiling at the concept of yielding free runs. “Don’t even go there. Because that’s how sloppy we’ve been.
“When I first started playing Test cricket, I kept a daily log of how many balls I dropped. I was that intense with it, I didn’t want anybody saying I dropped a ball even. That was a bit self-destructive, being a bit too harsh on myself, bit like self-torture.”
In the corner of Russell’s studio lies a stump from the Old Trafford Test of the 1995 series against West Indies. England won by six wickets, Russell helping them over the line with 31 not out. Russell took one of the stumps off the field with him but thought he had lost it after the match. Twenty-four years later a supporter contacted him to return it, admitting that he had taken it from under his armpit. As a thank you, Russell sent him a sketch of the Old Trafford pavilion.
It is a typical Russell story — peculiar, affectionate, hoarding — but there is much more to him than cricket. Having started sketching out of boredom during a rain delay at Worcester, with Rembrandt as muse, Russell is an artist of repute. Many works are at the Chris Beetles Gallery in London until the end of the month, 60 pictures for 60 years, but still around his studio are depictions of the first ball from every Test of the 2019 Ashes, and portraits of Johnny Johnson, the “Last Dambuster”, and Bill Pertwee, with Dad’s Army warden paraphernalia. Russell’s love of military history means he is working on portraits of veterans of the Korean War.
That martial streak informed his approach to cricket. Russell was there “trying to fight everybody”. He would scrape his spikes over stump-mic cables, restoring carte blanche to pressurise batsmen. His personal spirit of cricket was invoked by Steve James and Mike Atherton after the stumping of Bairstow: when Russell was behind the wicket, the batsman was never allowed to touch the ball.
“Hate that,” Russell says. “We were playing Glamorgan actually in a cup final and Mike Powell picked it up, he played a sweep shot, against one of our spinners, and it just dropped there. He picked it up, I went, ‘Put it down . . . put it down. Put it down!’ The whole game stopped for about three minutes. ‘That’s our ball, put it down’. Eventually he just dropped it because he had to.
“It was part of making the batsman sure he knew he was in the wrong place. ‘You really don’t want to be here, do you?’ That was it, really. I don’t want to say it got out of hand but we did push it to the limits. Legally.”
It was drummed into Russell as a junior not to leave his crease without checking behind, a mantra he followed throughout his career from 1981 to 2004. “My first thought was: ‘Jonny, you’re not concentrating,’ ” he says of Carey’s stumping in the second Ashes Test at Lord’s. “They’re all enemy. You have to have that intensity.
“Pat Cummins was within his rights not to take the appeal back. He felt it was fine, that’s how they play it, that’s up to them, isn’t it? It’s definitely not cheating. And the Spirit of Cricket is so vague. How long’s a piece of string? So I don’t even go there. It’s war out there.”
Despite Russell’s belligerence, he dislikes the Mankad dismissal — running out the non-striker in the bowler’s run-up — and he never did what may become known as “the Carey” (he says his aim was never good enough). He recalls one instance when his keeping riled opposition fans.
“I got a death threat from a Yorkshire supporter when we were playing a semi-final at Headingley,” he says, referring to his run-out of Darren Lehmann in the Benson & Hedges Cup in 2001. “He’s hit a ball to mid-on or mid-off, it went to Chris Taylor and he winged the ball in — we used to wing the ball in all the time, throw it near the batsman, and I used to have soft hands but if it was near a batter’s face, I’ll go in there [he makes a hard, slap sound].”
Lehmann had looked for a run before attempting to return to his crease, but didn’t realise he was short of the line as Russell whipped off the bails. Afterwards, Russell was walking through a concourse. “This bloke sticks his head round these stewards,” he says. “ ‘You’re dead, Russell, you’re dead!’ ‘Shit, they’re not happy, are they?’ ” One of Russell’s car wheels had a puncture from the morning drive. Alex Gidman and Mark Hardinges fixed it, hiding Russell from mortal danger before they went back to Bristol. “That’s good teamwork, isn’t it? Proper team-mates. They weren’t going to get strangled or anything, but I was.”
Russell is impressed by Carey, who has taken to English conditions faster than any other Australia keeper he has seen. When he finally relents and takes a break from painting, Russell watches the glovemen closely. He has spotted one flaw with Carey, but such is his partisanship that he will not reveal it so they can’t fix it. “In Australia you can — I can’t say keep wicket with your eyes shut — but it’s heaven,” he says. “ ‘This is lovely, nice bounce.’ Here, you’ve got lots of variables, you’re never in the right place sometimes.”
He compliments Carey’s focus, and the feel he showed to catch a ball resting against his lips at Headingley, but stops short of calling him a natural keeper. “John Simpson and Foakes I’ve seen quite a bit of, they’re the most natural [in England],” Russell says. “Others are what I call mechanical. Matt Prior was quite mechanical, he got looser in the end. Later on, he was the best in the world, batting and keeping.”
Russell reels off the greats he has seen: James Foster “went to different levels”; Colin Metson, Bob Taylor, Alan Knott. The best — an “absolute out-and-out natural catcher of a ball” — was Keith Piper, Warwickshire’s man between 1989 and 2005. And yet, typical of the great keeping culture war, Piper never played for England. Foster played the last Test of his seven Test aged 22.
One of the echoes of the 2005 Ashes is England’s Bairstow-Foakes debate, following Geraint Jones and Chris Read 18 years ago. There is more nuance to the 2023 edition, with neither regarded as a liability in either discipline, but Bairstow — favoured for his more destructive batting — has had a poor series with the gloves, offset by only one fifty.
“Jonny needs to get back on track a little bit,” Russell says. “Good thing about Jonny is he’s quite a robust character. Not saying it’s easy to come back and get on track, but he likes a fight. He’s strong enough to do it. If he plays the next couple, he might have the two most brilliant games you’ve ever seen. He’s that type of player.”
Throughout Test history, England have chewed over picking the better batsman or gloveman. For every Bairstow, Jones, Les Ames, Jim Parks, Knott and Alec Stewart, there is Foakes, Read, George Duckworth, John Murray, Taylor and Russell.
“You’ve always got to pick your best keeper, haven’t you?” he says. “I always go for the keeper first. But I would, wouldn’t I, being biased? Only on the grounds that actually, that’s where games are won and lost. It gets a bit overlooked because they’re looking for other shortcuts or benefits. But it was happening in the Fifties and Sixties, Parks and JT Murray.”
Russell started out at No 9 in the order for Gloucestershire. His best summer as a keeper, he says, was 1985, when he missed only two chances. It was also his worst with the bat, averaging 13.31 in first-class cricket. A Test debut finally came in 1988, and he was a rare ever-present in the following year’s Ashes, in which England fielded 29 players.
By then, Russell’s batting had improved. He made 94 as nightwatchman on his debut, against Sri Lanka at Lord’s, and scored a century at Old Trafford against the Australians in 1989. Over ten years as a Test cricketer, he played in 54 of England’s 96 Tests, averaging 27.10 with the bat but often giving way to Stewart, a top-order batsman.
It was Russell’s Johannesburg rearguard with Atherton in 1995 that fans recall most often (as well as his famous hat). Russell survived 235 balls, scoring 29 runs, for a famous draw. “I was so annoyed I got 29 because my target when I walked to the wicket was nought not out,” he says. “Later on I hit a boundary for four, full toss it was from someone, and I actually gave myself the biggest rollicking. ‘What are you doing? You’re supposed to be blocking it, nought not out.’ ”
A close third behind hat and Johannesburg is Russell’s stumping of Dean Jones off the bowling of Gladstone Small in the 1990-91 Ashes. Standing up to pace — Russell even did it to the Gloucestershire and West Indies great Courtney Walsh, never wearing a helmet — is when a keeper can really show off, operating on instinct, not even seeing ball into hand.
If Russell’s 29 at the Wanderers is a light-hearted regret, the only real dismay comes from failing to convert his first Test innings into a century, certainly not his international career on the whole. His life now, he says, would be the same if he had played 154 Tests.
“I played two more than Bradman,” Russell says. “And for a grubby-haired little kid from a council house in Stroud who wanted to be a goalkeeper but never grew tall enough, there’s actually no regrets at all.” Again he turns to military history, the photo he tweeted on July 1 of a young soldier who fought at the Somme. “Lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky boy, me. Two jobs I loved doing, both pay the bills.”
You never know where the conversation will go with Russell, given his unshuttable painter’s eye and broad hinterland. You cannot imagine him following the path of the modern cricketer, who exists to play golf and be in Dubai. Over the course of two hours, with conversational support from our photographer Peter Tarry, topics include Russell’s love of violin music, his desire to depict the Battle of Goose Green from the Falklands War, and the Enfield poltergeist of the 1970s. “I don’t like wasting time,” he says. “It’s like cricket, you never crack it.” Derek Pringle once told Russell he was obsessive compulsive, and he peppers our time together with the phrase: “Pringle, you’re right.”
You can even have a conversation with him about Weetabix. As method preparation, I allowed my pair of wheat biscuits to soak in milk for 15 minutes, per Russell’s famous foible, rather than the usual 15 seconds. My two bastions of fibrous integrity were reduced to mush.
“It’s soggier, isn’t it?” he says. “I could take 12 minutes but anything below, the 12th man used to get a [telling-off]. Trial and error, when is it soggy enough to eat quickly? I didn’t like it crunchy, that’s basically what it is.” They still tasted all right, but having morphed into one mass of slushy cereal, we will never know which Weetabix bats better, and which is a natural with the gloves.