Jack Russell

'You need to be brave to stand up to the stumps'

The former England keeper on his reputation as an eccentric, England's bright young keeping talent, painting, and his plans for a military funeral

Interview by Gemma Wright  |  

The Great Escape: Russell's painting of this moment is not for sale

The Great Escape: Russell's painting of this moment is not for sale © Getty Images

I always wanted to be a soldier when I was a kid. I slept under a bush one October night when I was 12. It was freezing. I frightened the life out of everyone. My Dad was out all night looking for me and I got a clip round the ear. I'm that type: "I'm going to be a soldier: this is how you do it." I don't regret that I never became a soldier. It's a dangerous business. I don't have to shoot anyone or be shot at.

Military heroism inspired me when I was playing cricket. The day before a Test at The Oval I would visit the Imperial War Museum. I would be there all afternoon in the trench experience and looking at the VCs (Victoria Cross).

I can pinpoint the exact moment that I decided to become a cricketer. It was 1977. Alan Knott dived across first slip and took an amazing catch to dismiss Rick McCosker off Tony Greig at Headingley. I thought, "I want to do that". That's when I decided I was going to play for England and Gloucester. That was the inspiration.

Knott was a huge influence. I used to knock on the Kent dressing-room door to talk to him. Mr Knott was the world's slowest changer; he'd be in there until 10pm, which was great because it gave me hours to talk to him! I used to pick his brains, as I did with Bob Taylor and many others. That was the way we learned then. We didn't have many coaches around, so you had to find out for yourself. You always talked to the great players if you could.

We stay in touch. Knotty would ring to say, "Well played", or tell me if he'd noticed something. It was great to have someone who understood the little things that only wicketkeepers understand. We are in our own little nutty world. Knotty was unique; Taylor had the technique to copy really.

The highlight of my career? Running out for England for the first time with the three lions on my chest (in 1987). It was a lifetime's ambition realised. I remember thinking, "If this is my only game, that's it, I've done it." I never ran out first; the captain should be first on the field. As soon as he put his foot over the rope I was there!

Another highlight? My hundred against the Aussies (at Old Trafford, July 1989). You can't beat that, can you! Before that I had scored 64 not out at Lord's in the second Test. They were going to drop me because I didn't score many runs in the first Test, so that was a do-or-die innings for me.

I used to love batting. I wasn't as gifted as most. I had to do it on attitude and sheer bloody-mindedness; in a nutshell just being stubborn. The problem with wicketkeepers is, you have to score runs as well. I tell keepers now to be the best batsman you can be, because that's going to determine whether you get in the team or not. That's just the nature of the business now.

James Foster is the best keeper in the world. He's doing things that very few other keepers have ever done. He's gone to a level that is unbelievable, stood up to the stumps to the quick bowlers. He's taken balls that mentally you have to be in a different zone to take. And he can bat. Matt Prior is probably a stronger batsman at the moment and that's what's keeping him in. Matt is keeping well now. He went through a dodgy patch but Bruce French is working with him and Matt's working it out.

On one tour I had buffalo steak burnt and chips every night for 29 nights because I didn't want to get ill. Alec Stewart used to have chicken and chips, but I didn't trust the chicken. I can cook. I'm a good cook. I can do soup out of a can. I can do baked beans. I can do hats in ovens

It annoys me that Foster, Prior and Tim Ambrose all got chucked in, played a few games and then were gone. You can see from Prior that you need to go through that dodgy period and come out the other side. You need support. We've chopped and changed so much in the last four or five years that we just go round in circles. Nobody really develops. Not everyone is brilliant at the start; everyone goes through a dodgy patch. You need to work your way through that. If Foster had been given more time, he'd have dealt with it. He is a great keeper. Ambrose is another one who has been short-changed. They should stick with Prior now. He's got a few people breathing down his neck, like Foster, which keeps him on his toes.

Craig Kieswetter and Steve Davies are talented young men. They are very strong batsmen, which fits the bill at the moment as England are thinking batting first, keeping second. As a keeper Kieswetter is still in nappies. Like Stewy (Alec Stewart), he's not a natural so he has to work at it. He came to spy me out a couple of times last year and we had a chat about a few things. As long as he doesn't get over-complicated he'll be fine. But his keeping will get better. He and Davies will both develop and they should become very good cricketers.

Being from the old school I think it's more important to be skilled with the gloves and develop your batting. Games are won and lost behind the stumps. In a Test, you can't afford to drop the likes of Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar or Viv Richards. It can cost you 200 runs. Sometimes we've lost sight of that.

It's even more important in limited-overs cricket. If the keeper can get up to the stumps, then he has a massive role to play. When Foster played for England last year in the World Twenty20 he took a couple of brilliant stumpings that changed games. Only certain keepers are brave enough to stand up to the stumps. A lot of it is down to bravery and speed.

I don't watch England play much now. If I go to the games it's generally to paint or coach. I was painting at The Oval on the final day of the Ashes in 2005. The atmosphere was incredible. By the time Pietersen was out there was a sense of relief because we knew he'd saved it. I was really pleased that we had finally won back the Ashes, because I was part of the team that lost them in 1989. I had been waiting 16 years for us to regain them. It was a real monkey off my back.

Cricket is like chess, it's so intricate. No two games are the same. I never stop learning, especially now that I'm coaching. It's a game that finds you out and exposes you. I know it's a team game but a lot is individual. Maybe in football you can hide. There's no hiding place in cricket.

I've got two pictures that are not for sale. One of them is the first sketch I ever did. I went out during a rain break when I was playing: that's when I decided I would be an artist. The original of "The Great Escape" (a picture depicting Russell and Atherton in conversation in the middle during their match-saving partnership in Johannesburg in 1995) is also not for sale. That is such a magical one. I sold the original of Freddie and Brett Lee (the one of the iconic moment after the end of the Edgbaston Test of 2005) entitled "Spirit of the Game" last year, for quite a lot. I didn't really want to sell it. I didn't sell it to Freddie, although he has bought one before.

I nearly packed it in a few times. If you think you've cracked it there's no point painting anymore, I'm always trying to paint the perfect picture and I never get there.

Art has been a great balance, mentally. It's given me an escape. You can only play for a certain period of your life. Then your body tells you to stop. But I've been painting for 25 years now. My kids used to come out with me when they were little; they would bring a sketch pad. I never took them to the cricket. My wife only came to the cricket three times, and twice was because I'd forgotten my kit.

It's hard to paint yourself. When I painted my self portrait my daughter said, "Dad you look like you've got a madness in your eyes". I thought it was such a compliment. That's what I tried to get because I was so excited about my new career. It's a hard thing to do, look at your eyes, look at how ugly you are. And then try not to make yourself look so ugly.

"Art gives me an escape" © Getty Images

I don't see myself as eccentric. Everything I've done is relevant. I like tea. No superstition in that. My wife says I have OCD. I think she's probably right because there are things I do that have no logic to them, but in terms of cricket it's all logical stuff. The hat that I wore my entire county career was comfortable. I've got to be there six hours a day; it's got to work with me not against me. It's been rebuilt a couple of times over the years and I did stick it in the oven in Barbados and burn it by accident, but that was just stupidity. I had two pairs of gloves for 20-odd years. They were comfortable and did the job. What's eccentric about that?

Weetabix? Look, there wasn't time to get all my gear off and sit down for lunch. I had to have something quick, with energy and carbs. I used to have Weetabix with honey. I don't like Weetabix crunchy, so I would ask the 12th man to put the milk in a quarter of an hour before lunch. That's why the 12th men were so relieved when I retired! I don't see that as eccentric, that was logical. I will never touch Weetabix again. I haven't had it for seven years.

Back then I was fuelling myself up. I can't dive around on potatoes and meat and Shepherd's Pie. I think I was the first person to have a banana on the field during the drinks break when I needed a bit of fuel. Why are these things eccentric? They are logical to me. On one tour I had buffalo steak burnt and chips every night for 29 nights because I didn't want to get ill. Alec Stewart used to have chicken and chips, but I didn't trust the chicken. I can cook. I'm a good cook. I can do soup out of a can. I can do baked beans. I can do hats in ovens.

When I die I wouldn't mind a military-style funeral. Maybe with a tank or gun carriage. I want a bugler playing the "Last Post", although I'm not sure I deserve it. And I'd like the Match of the Day and BBC cricket themes played. I would also like one of my hands chopped off and preserved in formaldehyde. I'm not sure it's legal; I will have to put special instructions in my will. My initial idea was to cut them off, take all the skin off and have the bones in a case in my gallery like that (indicates catching position with hands). My wife just looks at me and says, 'You are not leaving me to do that'! You can imagine her with the saw. Someone's got to do it!

This interview was first published (in longer form) in Spin magazine