From cricket to show business

PHIL TUFNELL, the cheeky Cockney spinner who won a handful of his 42 Tests for England during his 14-year Test career, has retired to join the world of show business, perhaps his natural home.


Phil Tufnell... skilful spinner of his era. — Pic. N. SRIDHARAN-

PHIL TUFNELL, the cheeky Cockney spinner who won a handful of his 42 Tests for England during his 14-year Test career, has retired to join the world of show business, perhaps his natural home.

Tufnell, 37, began his full-time first class career in controversial circumstances when Middlesex sacked their other left-arm Test spinner Phil Edmonds in 1987, continued with a series of incidents around the world — including a hat-kicking scene in Vishakapatnam in 1993 — and finished by springing his retirement on Middlesex who are now left contemplating the prospect of calling their coach John Emburey out of retirement at 48.

He claims that Middlesex have left him in limbo by refusing to offer him a contract after this summer but it may be nearer the truth to suggest that an offer to appear on a television game show called "I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here'' is behind his decision to change careers. The show has been the launch pad for at least two new TV success stories in the last year and if Tufnell can enter the showbiz world as well as making his name in newspaper columns and on radio and television sports show he may join the millionaire ranks already inhabited by Geoff Boycott, Ian Botham, Bob Willis and David Gower.

Tufnell's retirement statement said: "At 37-years and after 18 years with the club I can't be waiting around for them to give me assurances.'' Emburey said: "Phil has made his decision and it's the best decision for Phil Tufnell.'' Vinnie Codrington, Middlesex's chief executive added: "We are disappointed that he has chosen to retire, especially as he has blown a hole in our preparations for the season. There was no reason why he should not have been offered an extension.'' He confirmed that Tufnell, who helped Middlesex gain promotion a year ago, had asked for three weeks leave of absence to take part in the show but that the club had declined the request.

Life in cricket will undoubtedly be different without Tufnell.

Early in his career he bowled out West Indies and today he was claiming that having the great Viv Richards caught behind in Richards' last Test was his greatest moment; but he also won two Tests against New Zealand and the 1997 Oval Test against Australia with his enticing flight, sharp turn and change of pace. His bowling was crafted in the style of Colin Blyth of Kent 100 years ago — Blyth was killed in the First World War — but his lifestyle was pure Tufnell. He was not quite the lad from the streets that he liked to pretend. His father was a wealthy jeweller in north London and he went to a public school although he enjoyed the Cockney slang and cool language so much that he had no trouble hiding his privileged background. There is no question that his success against the West Indies at the Oval in 1991 — when he took six for 25 — was due as much to their panic after Richards was dismissed as to his own clever bowling but in New Zealand in 1991-92 his perseverance and skill virtually won the series.

His outstanding bowling against Australia in 1997 was also against a tired team at the end of a long tour but as 121 Test wickets at 37.69 showed he was much more skilful than any other English spinner in that era.

Unhappily for him only Mike Gatting, the Middlesex captain, had any idea how to control his outbursts on-field or in his leisure moments. In India in 1993 he was clearly thrown by the change of life and demanded in one interview: "I've done the poverty, done the elephants; time to go home.'' I wrote a critical commentary on that story and he went into a temper that lasted throughout the match in Vishakapatnam. When Dick Blakey, the wicket-keeper missed a stumping off his bowling he flew into a rage that even Emburey, captain for the day and his greatest supporter, could not control.

He kicked his cap across the ground at the end of the over and was fined and censured by the team management. His distress afterwards was so great that two Church of England ministers were required to calm him down. He had already been taken by the Australian police to hospital after a breakdown — following a row with his girl friend over the phone — but, as Gatting forecast, turned up two days later, whistling softly to himself and ready to resume his part in the 1994-95 tour Down Under.

Now he is entering a profession in which tantrums are more readily accepted. While the world of cricket will miss him, the world of the temperamental actor will see him as one of their own.