Bring back Jack Russell

TED CORBETT

DRASTIC problems require drastic measures and at this moment the thinking among the selectors is that they will not recommend any wicket-keeper for one of the 12 contracts this summer. They will probably start with Alec Stewart.... but just suppose the old lad can no longer cut the mustard.

In truth, the country that produced Les Ames, Godfrey Evans, Alan Knott, Bob Taylor, Stewart, and Russell cannot rely on anyone to keep wicket in a Test.

That's why I hope the selectors find Russell and soon. It will not be easy. They may have his phone number; although it will have been given with a secrecy clause that probably involves using a near relative in a ransom deal. I doubt if they have his home address.

Before I knew him well I said that I would ring him. He gave me four numbers: the Gloucestershire club, the dressing room, his studio and his manager. "I like to keep my home number to myself. You never know," he added mysteriously.

To say Jack is a recluse is to underestimate him by about 1,000 per cent. When workmen go to repair his house, he meets them at some predetermined spot, blindfolds them and drives them home and back. I sometimes wonder how long it was before he told his own children where they lived.

Jack, yes mad Jack, the only true genius to have graced the international scene in the last 20 years, is another of my heroes.

Why? Even though there are few as gifted, as devoted and as well rewarded for their efforts. Because he is an individual and in cricket that is a mighty rare find.

I barely touched cricket in my long reporting experience until 22 years ago and when I did I found to my disappointment that they were just another set of team players without an individual thought in their heads.

After snooker, with its rich vein of characters, its diverse individuals and oddball coaches, cricket seemed a grey world, full of team players but, more to the point, full of men unable to take responsibility for their own errors.

If a snooker player - or a boxer, golfer, or a tennis star or a jockey - got things wrong he often said: "I cannot blame anyone else. It is obvious that I am a fool or that I have lost it all."

Cricketers, footballers, rugby players and the like have a plethora of excuses. "Did you see the pass he gave me?" "Why was I batting at No.4 when I am a natural opener?" "The skipper knows I never field in the slips."

So the arrival of Jack Russell, eccentric, driven, different, was exactly what I wanted. Jack was a team player, of course; but in the subtle way that cricket demands. You can play for your team and that is the essence of the game ancient and modern. But you don't need the rest to provide support if you are to shine.

The game fitted Jack Russell like a pair of his own, patched, worn and faded gloves or the hat he boils when it gets too soiled; within a few years those shrewd judges the umpires were spreading the word that a lad still in his teens would be England's 'keeper for years to come.

(They needed to tell the tale loud and clear for at that time Gloucestershire was a cricket wasteland. Chris Broad moved to Nottingham to win a Test place. The club wrote to Peter May, the chairman of selectors, and complained that he had not seen their team during his time in office. He went down and immediately picked Bill Athey, who built a short Test career on the basis of that letter.)

Of course, we had no idea what sort of person Jack might be. I met him on his first trip abroad as deputy to Bruce French, another close friend of mine. "What's the new lad like, Bruce?"

He then produced a sentence I did not understand but one which gave exactly the right answer. "I don't care what anyone says," came the reply. "I think Jack is all right." Not everyone thought so.

None of us knew about the gremlins inside Jack's head. At one time he had drunk too much, he was deeply affected by the death of his brother, and he had this strange desire to keep himself to himself. The painting and the strange diets came later.

All French and I saw was a great wicket-keeper, for whom taking the ball with hands as soft as a sponge, or whipping off bails with the speed of a pickpocket, was so casual it was frightening. Jack made wicket-keeping look easy, just as he made batting appear excruciatingly difficult.

Eventually he by-passed French and took his place behind the stumps for England. His batting was unorthodox but he carved the ball to uncharted parts of the ground; he was unflustered and unsafe but he worked to a plan. Jack was never anything but his own man.

Unforgivably, he was left out of the tour to India in 1992-3 and replaced by Stewart, another fine wicket-keeper and a much better, more consistent batsman and Richard Blakey, who made noughts and errors and was never seen again.

From that point, it was received wisdom in the selection committees that Russell was always disposable while more and more duties could be piled on Stewart: wicket-keeping and batting, opening the innings and captaining the side.

"Do I get paid four wages?" Stewart once asked me. He was giggling his own special giggle at the time but he had a point. No wonder he felt he needed a rest this winter.

After 54 Tests and a roller-coaster ride from the selectors Jack Russell called us all to a stiflingly hot room in a hotel in Dacca one morning and said he had had enough. "Time to quit," he said to me quietly after his formal announcement. "I'll play on for the county for another five years and I've got the painting to keep me going."

It keeps him going to the tune of 12,000 pounds a canvas, perhaps three times a year. The posh art critics sneer at his drawings of battle scenes - another Russell obsession is with things military - his pictures of cricket pavilions and those exciting paintings recording the end of historic matches. Russell laughs all the way to the bank.

Now it is time for the selectors ask him to return. He is only a few months younger than Stewart. Both will be 39 this year. On the evidence of last two summers, when he made Ian Harvey a better bowler by standing up to the stumps to collect his brisk fast medium and was never forced into error, he is still the best 'keeper in sight.

James Foster is not ready yet and Marcus Trescothick has lost his batting since he took over the England gloves. Paul Nixon and Chris Read, both tried in recent years, have made no progress. As for Warren Hegg, taken to New Zealand but ignored when Foster was dropping the ball at his feet regularly, it appears he will have to add conjuring tricks, a dance routine and the ability to perform micro-surgery and pilot a big jet simultaneously to get a place.

So the cry is for Stewart to be brought back after his winter with his two boys, a few trips to watch Chelsea, his favourite footballers, and long nights spent in the television studios trying to make sense of England's mixed fortunes abroad.

If he is still flexible, strong and full of stamina for Test series at home against India and Sri Lanka, a tri-series, a mini World Cup and Ashes series, another tri-series and the World Cup, then Stewart is the man.

If he feels that task is too much, or if the old skills have gone then it is time for the selectors to make their trip to the West Country and try to haul Jack Russell back into the fold.

He will not let anyone down and, particularly in the World Cup, my hero might be a match- winner.