Hurray for 'Dre: Andre Russell at Barnards Green CC in 2010
Hurray for 'Dre: Andre Russell at Barnards Green CC in 2010
Before he became Dre Russ, the Jamaican spent a season in Worcestershire that the locals still talk about
Late March 2010, and as spring settled over the picturesque Worcestershire spa town of Malvern and the summer approached fast, the cricket committee at Barnards Green CC were fretting.
Their initial choice as overseas pro, Sydney Grade seamer Charles Matthews, recommended by Geoff Lawson, had suffered a stress fracture of the back and the club were now scrambling to line up a replacement who could help bootstrap them into the Birmingham and District League, not only the world's oldest cricket competition but also one of the strongest in England. It was the promised land, and Barnards Green, having just finished second in the Worcestershire County League (WCL), had never been there before.
Most clubs are acutely aware that the fate of their season can be determined before it even gets going, hinging on the choice of pro. It's a stressful business, a dance through the patter of agents, an anxious attempt to peer through stats at potential, a feverish whirl of doomsday- and best-case scenarios. You look for a match-winner, ideally someone whose 60 average would take the 140, 20, 20 route rather than a glut of Steady Eddie 70-odds. Someone who would achieve his three-wickets per game with an unlucky one-for, an off-colour one-for, and a blitzkrieg seven-for, everyone in the bar by four o'clock.
So, with the clock ticking, Barnards Green captain Tim Williams went back to Steven Hirst, the agent, who told him about a 21-year-old Jamaican allrounder with seven first-class appearances and one List A game to his name. "He's a bit of a risk," said Hirst, "but he could also be a gun..."
"One night Andre carved his name into the patio table. Kev should have sold it on eBay after the T20 World Cup!"
Were a top-secret human-cloning lab somewhere in the New Mexico desert to attempt to Frankenstein cricket's ultimate impact player, the result might look something like the quick-bowling, livewire-fielding, monster-hitting Andre Russell.
This, presumably, is the reason Kolkata Knight Riders have been paying him $930,000 per IPL season. Barnards Green managed to land him for a tick under that. Williams, interest duly piqued, discussed matters with the former West Indies captain Jimmy Adams, then technical director of Jamaica Cricket. "Jimmy was looking after Andre's interests at the time," says Williams, "and he was very keen to find the right club and not just a big pay packet."
Which was just as well, since the club had never before paid an overseas player, offering instead a mix of cricket experience, help finding casual work, and free accommodation, even to the likes of future New Zealand Test batter Daniel Flynn, who had worked on a building site between matches. Russell's visa category meant he couldn't be paid, Williams says. "So Jimmy and Steven asked that we provide him with some pocket money and accommodation. But I still think what sealed the deal was the lure of the free kit package Duncan Fearnley Cricket always offered our overseas players. Andre loves his 'gears'!"
The meat's in the middle: Barnards Green CC featuring Andre Russell
© Ken Williams
The meat's in the middle: Barnards Green CC featuring Andre Russell © Ken Williams
In the end, the total cost to Barnards Green was around £4000, which has to be considered something of a bargain. Three weeks out from their final pre-season friendly, however, they still couldn't be sure it wasn't going to turn out to be four grand badly spent. So when news filtered through to Malvern that Russell had slammed a maiden first-class ton, for Jamaica against Ireland - from just 62 balls, with seven fours and nine sixes, following a spell of 4 for 41 - the sense of excited anticipation started to build. Even more so when he followed up with 5 for 42 in a one-off one-dayer.
With his arrival delayed by the volcanic ash cloud from Iceland, Russell eventually flew into the chill of Birmingham International Airport, rolled out 4-4-0-0 in that pre-season friendly, along with a sedate 30-odd, and settled into the first of his digs.
"Initially," says batter Jez Clarke, "he stayed with Chris Grubb, a young postie in Malvern who was a social member of the club but not a cricketer. I don't think they got on, or got each other on any level. Andre would cook at all hours and just leave things how he left them. So that didn't last long.
"He also stayed with Smeds' mum [previous captain, Chris Smedley] for a bit. Then he lived with Kev Golder, our top-order batter, who'd just bought a new-build house in Malvern with some pretty decent patio furniture included. Kev's very particular about his possessions and careful with the things he owns, but one night Andre had gone outside and carved his name into the patio table. Kev should have sold it on eBay after the T20 World Cup!"
Barnards Green captain Tim Williams went back to the agent who told him about a 21-year-old Jamaican allrounder. "He's a bit of a risk," said Hirst, "but he could also be a gun..."
Having celebrated his 22nd birthday two days before the WCL campaign got underway, Russell was ready to roll for the season opener at Astwood Bank. It didn't go well. Barnards Green were restricted to 173 for 9 from their 50 overs, the home team knocking it off for three with 15 overs spare. Russell's contribution was an underwhelming 29 and 1 for 45.
"It was very clear that he liked to play his shots and that he was quick," says Williams of his first impressions. "It wasn't clear if this was going to translate to runs and wickets at a prolific rate. We'd had some rapid bowlers before, but they hadn't worked out.
"Andre was in my car on the way home and he was absolutely gutted we'd lost and gutted that he had underperformed. He said it wasn't good enough and he wanted to do much better, although I do remember being woken at around 6:30am on that first Sunday and the voice on the phone saying, 'I just need some drugs.' Turns out he had a stiff back and wanted some painkillers!"
Although Russell wasn't yet the bulked up, gym-honed beefcake he later became, he was still unlikely to be unduly taxed in clearing the boundaries at Barnards Green's compact, leafy ground, which had houses on three sides. It was a 50-metre hit, pitch included, toward the road that ran along its southern flank. By the time he got into his stride on his home debut, he may even have fancied launching one into the Malvern Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a mile or so to the west.
Russell made nearly 800 runs at a strike of over 160 for Barnards Green in 2010
© Ken Williams
Russell made nearly 800 runs at a strike of over 160 for Barnards Green in 2010 © Ken Williams
The game was reduced to 34 overs each, and title rivals Worcester Nomads scratched out 152 for 9. Russell took 4 for 45, then came in at 56 for 1 and walked off around an hour later having slammed six sixes and six fours in his unbeaten 77, giving his team-mates the first taste of his outstanding natural ability to hit a stratospheric cricket ball.
"Not that we needed it," says Adam Binks, the wicketkeeper. "I knew he was a tasty cricketer from the first game's warm-up. He picked up this ball one-handed, off balance, about 30 metres away, undulating outfield, and rocketed it into me. It frickin' stung my hands. There was just a different level of athleticism in everything he did."
Russell's familiar method of muscular mid-pitch chin music soon adapted to the slow-and-low conditions at North End Lane. He went full and straight the following week against Bewdley to bag 7 for 38, with five bowled and one lbw. Chasing 140, Russell entered at 64 for 2 and promptly fell without scoring to Jack Mills' left-arm spin. "He'd got me out for a fourth-ball duck, so I was returning the favour," recalls Mills. "He had hit the first three balls to point, cover and extra cover, the hardest I'd ever seen a ball hit. Then I bowled him an arm ball and got him through the gate."
Barnards Green folded to 107 all out to make it two defeats in three. "While there was concern in the wider club," says Williams, "there was none in the first team. We were calm."
"Andre hit James Wagstaff two-thirds of the way up the barracks. Waggy says, 'Bet you can't do that again'. The next ball sailed clean over the building"
This calmness may have begun to ebb slightly a week later when they found themselves 10 for 3 chasing Bromyard's 47 all out. Russell had taken 6 for 22, and two handy first-class bowlers, Lundi Mbane of Border and Zahid Saeed of Sialkot, were nipping it about at a decent lick. It's the type of game in which you crawl agonisingly toward the finishing line, inching home with thick inside edges and scruffy leg-byes. Or, if you have Andre Russell batting at four, it's a game he wins in around 20 minutes, launching five sixes and one four in a 13-ball 35 not out that left Saeed with the somewhat unusual figures of 3.2-2-21-2.
These, then, were the foothills of Russell's transformation into the T20 circuit-bestriding megastar Dre Russ, a Marvel superhero origin story being moulded in Malvern. Binks remembers someone with bulletproof confidence who was "1000% committed to winning" while turning out in semi-competitive Sunday games, midweek knockabouts, anything for a game of cricket. "When he was here, he was all in," Clarke says.
That competitive edge was on full display in the following weekend's league double-header, which began with an 89-run stroll against Colwall in which Russell smote 105 in quick time. Then, on a hot bank holiday Monday at Droitwich Spa, came the paciest pitch of the summer. Russell contributed 70 to a workmanlike total of 202 for 8. Apparently upset (and mightily revved up) by some ill-advised verbals while batting, he tore in after tea, with Binks and what became a six-man cordon pushed back toward the 30-yard circle, finishing with 8 for 21 in 12 overs of shock and awe that included a burst of five wickets in six balls, with his chief irritant's stumps demolished first ball. Point made.
With captain Tim Williams, whose first impression of Russell was that "it was very clear that he liked to play his shots and that he was quick"
© Ken Williams
With captain Tim Williams, whose first impression of Russell was that "it was very clear that he liked to play his shots and that he was quick" © Ken Williams
Besides the heavy tremors he was sending through WCL circles, drawing curious new cricket folk through the Barnards Green gates, Russell was fast becoming a recognisable figure around a town not exactly renowned as an ethnic melting pot, often spotted pursuing team-mates' dubious barber recommendations or doing his grocery shopping in the Caribbean style. "He would drive around in this silver automatic Mondeo," says Clarke, "which our sponsors used to give the overseas players. It wasn't stickered up, but everyone knew it was the cricket club's car. One day a bloke I work with told me he'd been down to Morrisons [supermarket] the day before and seen it outside the main door, not in a parking space, with the window down, radio on, and engine still running. He hadn't even bothered taking the keys out!"
Next in the Russell firing line were derby rivals Malvern, who had certainly become well aware of the Jamaican's presence around town, off pitch and on - and if any of them hadn't, friends in the Barnards Green team had helped paint a picture for them. The chatter in the build-up seemed to have inadvertently pushed Russell's competitive instincts up to 11, and after being furious with himself for falling on 98, he steamed in and peppered the opposition, hitting three of them on the helmet (two of whom switched to Barnards Green the following season) in a fiery spell of 4 for 44. The 122-run victory consolidated the team's momentum. Russell's contribution at that stage was a reasonably handy 414 runs at 82.8 and 32 wickets at 7.56.
At which point Barnards Green lost him for two months, initially to the West Indies A tour of England: two first-class games against India A (a five-for in each), two 50-over warm-ups against Ireland, and a triangular series against India A and England Lions (119 runs at 39.66 from 64 balls).
Losing their star man for so long might easily have derailed things, but a team of gnarly, streetwise veterans had banked a lot of confidence from their two recent promotions, while some younger players were starting to make their mark. Among them was 16-year-old George Rhodes, now of Leicestershire, the son of former England wicketkeeper and Worcestershire coach Steve Rhodes, a frequent spectator at Barnards Green that year. "Bumpy" invited Russell up for regular training at New Road and later signed him for the Rapids' 2013 T20 campaign.
"The done thing with pros is to give away all your spare kit at the end of the year. Absolutely not with Andre. Everything he was given was definitely going back to Jamaica, excess baggage or not!"
Immediately after the triangular series, Russell flew back across the Atlantic for the inaugural Caribbean T20 competition, another unforeseen interruption to his Barnards Green duties. "A lot of people thought we'd seen the last of him when he went back to the West Indies," recalls Williams, "but I always had faith he'd come back." Still, the club couldn't afford another air fare, so were thankful that Russell sorted it out at his end, determined to return to Worcestershire to complete his unfinished business. He had missed eight games, only one of which had been lost, with three wins and three winning draws pushing Barnards Green up from third when he left to pole position. "We rubbed that into him a lot," says Clarke, "that we'd actually improved since he'd been away!"
Even so, Russell just about squeaked into the XI for the first game of the home stretch, away at Colwall, surviving a drop on 30-odd - after which the fielder burst into tears - to slam 18 fours and seven sixes in a 103-ball 161, setting up a crushing 183-run win. The next two games, against Droitwich Spa and Malvern, were lost to inclement August weather, which may not entirely have disappointed their opponents given their bruising earlier encounters with the Jamaican.
All of which left Barnards Green in the box seat heading into the final four games, just needing to hold their nerve over the bank holiday double-header to get one hand on the trophy, one foot in the promised land. They took care of the first part, strolling to victory over Redditch, Russell taking 4 for 43 as the Pakistani spot-fixing scandal engulfed Lord's.
By now Russell was on his fourth Malvern abode, lodging with another social member, club sponsor Julian Hall. "We found him the right home eventually," says Binks. "Julian was a kindred spirit, if only because of his love of rum, although Andre wasn't a massive drinker." Be that as it may, the pro had to withdraw from the Monday game at Romsley and Hunnington after mysteriously injuring himself falling down the stairs at home in the aftermath of a long, hot and pretty relaxed Sunday six-a-side tournament.
Sixteen-year-old George Rhodes got to rub shoulders with the soon-to-be global superstar
© Tim Williams
Sixteen-year-old George Rhodes got to rub shoulders with the soon-to-be global superstar © Tim Williams
No matter, though. His colleagues bagged 16 points from a winning draw, and the following week sealed the deal with a seven-wicket win in their final home game, against Stourbridge. Russell bludgeoned 98 not out in that match, including a six that cleared the houses on the other side of North End Lane, the only time anyone can remember it being done. "To be fair," says Binks, "I don't remember him plinking many over the boundary. They'd have been sixes anywhere."
When a call came through that Worcester Nomads had failed to win, the celebrations could begin. "We had 'Champions' t-shirts ordered by 11pm that night," jokes Binks.
However, before the end-of-season send-off - a Caribbean-themed party with jerk chicken, rice and peas, rum punch and, um, a bucking bronco - there was their final-day victory parade at Worcester to take care of, complete with trophy presentation. Dre being Dre, he wasn't in the mood for a demob-happy hit and giggle, declining the offer to open the batting and insisting on his usual chair at four, from which he raised himself to biff a 60-ball 110 with 11 fours and nine sixes of typical magnitude.
"The boundary's big enough there as it is," says Clarke, "then there's a bit of a road, and then the barracks, which are four storeys high. Andre hit James Wagstaff two-thirds of the way up the barracks. Waggy says, 'Bet you can't do that again.' The next ball sailed clean over the building."
"One of my best memories was walking to the top of the Beacon with him. It was a blustery old day and Andre stood on top of the plinth and shouted, 'I'm on top of the world!'"
The September rains swept in to end Worcester's forlorn chase of 310, and Barnards Green repaired to HQ for the party. Yards of ale were quaffed, songs were sung, farewells were said, with Russell again to be found in his usual spot. "Notoriously, if we have a do," says Clarke, "they'll put a disco on in the back room and no one will go in there. Not Andre. He'd always be in there dancing, absolutely loving the music. He wasn't a big drinker but he never sloped off early. He was always about somewhere."
Re-signing him for 2011 was never an option, for Russell was on a fast track to superstardom via a Test debut in November, an ODI debut in March 2011 at the World Cup, and after that the IPL, CPL, BBL, BPL, PSL and many others besides.
He took some Malvern mementos with him on the journey, though, including a pair of framed photos presented by Williams' father that were later spotted on his bedroom wall in a Facebook post, but mainly in the form of his beloved "gears".
"The done thing with pros is to give away all your spare kit at the end of the year," says Binks. "Absolutely not with Andre. Everything he was given was definitely going back to Jamaica, excess baggage or not!" He even persuaded a third teamer to give him his bat after taking a fancy to it.
Victory dance: Russell enjoys the party after Barnards Greens won the title
© Tim Williams
Victory dance: Russell enjoys the party after Barnards Greens won the title © Tim Williams
For all the mementos he took, there were many indelible memories he left behind - memories of brutal hitting, thermonuclear bowling, and the all-in, switched-on professionalism that shaped an unforgettable season in which his 799 WCL runs at 99.9 (strike rate over 160) and 37 wickets at 9.2 helped squeeze Barnards Green through the narrow Birmingham League doorway, a vital helping hand on a wider journey that saw the club win back-to-back promotions over the next two years, establishing themselves near the top of the local pyramid.
Russell popped in for a visit during that 2013 T20 stint at New Road, although he had to ask several people how to get to "the Greens" from Worcester. Whenever he appears on the TV in the bar, whether playing for West Indies, KKR or Jamaica Tallawahs, he always brings a smile to members' faces, especially those lucky to have shared a dressing room with him.
"For all the amazing on-field stuff he did, though, one of my best memories was walking to the top of the Beacon with him," says Clarke. "Just before he went back, I'd asked him if he'd been up the Malvern Hills. He said, 'No, I don't know how to get up there.' So I told him we'd have a walk up, and the chairman was waiting up there with a slab of Guinness, a tray of 24 cans. It was a blustery old day and we stood up there chatting and getting stuck into these cans, Andre as well. Then he stood on top of the plinth up there and shouted, 'I'm on top of the world! I'm on top of the world!'"
Well, not quite. Not yet. But it wouldn't be long, as Steven Hirst's glass-half-full hunch proved bang on. He did indeed turn out to be a bit of a gun.
Scott Oliver tweets @reverse_sweeper
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