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Russell's heirs few and far between

By Scyld Berry

22 March 1998

MORE than once Jack Russell has believed that he was playing his last Test match for England. On this occasion, at the age of 34, he could be right.

``I lost confidence early in the Caribbean Tour and never regained my touch behind the stumps. The wickets out there were up and down.'' This is what he admitted after the 1993-94 tour of the West Indies, when his major mistakes were confined to two missed stumpings.

This time the ball has been eluding his grasp more often still, even at the climax in Trinidad Part One when it shot through his legs and hit the helmet for five humiliating byes. Frequently he has been cradling his chin silently in a rueful right glove, his standard response after a lapse.

A cricketer can bounce back after one bad tour, though not if that tour is to Australia, where the exposure of a player's inadequacies can be so complete as to haunt the man himself.

Russell is a survivor, a repeller of sieges, in his military imagination and in Johannesburg, but the number of critical assailants this time threatens to overwhelm him after two poor tours.

``Jack is down, no doubt about it, I can tell from his body language,'' commented the former England fast bowler David Lawrence, who has played with Russell for 20 years since Stroud schooldays and is out here as a tour guide. ``But he'll be back next summer. He wants to play for Gloucester for another 10 years.''

Back at Bristol, yes. Back in the England side? It is not inconceivable, for two reasons. One is that Alec Stewart may well be the England captain this coming summer, and, versatile though he is, he could not captain, bat in the top three and keep wicket, however much the selectors might want him to do so.

Secondly, these same selectors have omitted to prepare a successor who is ready to take over from Russell.

For the A tour of Sri Lanka this winter they selected the England under-19 wicketkeeper, Chris Read, from David Graveney's county of Gloucestershire, though he has since joined Nottinghamshire; and David Nash, from Mike Gatting's Middlesex, is a long-term prospect for the one-day role of wicketkeeper/batsman.

But the underlying assumption that Russell and Stewart would keep going for another two or three years while Read and Nash learnt the thousand tricks of the wicketkeeper's craft seems to have been erroneous.

Among county wicketkeepers, the two best pairs of hands are agreed to belong to Keith Piper and Robert Rollins, neither of whom could be relied on to bat as high as number seven in a Test match. Steve Rhodes and Richard Blakey have seen their chance come and go, while Steve Marsh, who deserved one, is 37.

The competent keepers who could bat as high as seven in a Test tomorrow are in effect two, albeit Adrian Aymes, of Hampshire, and Derbyshire's eccentric Karl Krikken might not let anyone down.

The first of those two is Robert Turner, of Somerset, who is the reserve wicketkeeper for this tour. He is a late developer as a flourishing batsman who is the only county wicketkeeper to open an innings at all regularly and therefore the most likely replacement if Stewart should be injured out of the 1999 World Cup. The second is Paul Nixon.

As a left-handed batsman Nixon has all the necessary qualifications. In 1994 he became the first Leicestershire wicketkeeper since Tommy Sidwell in 1929 to score 1,000 runs in a first-class season, an achievement which eluded Russell until last summer; and though he is only 27, Nixon has already hit more first-class centuries than the present encumbent.

It is in the nature of Nixon's duties at Grace Road that he spends most of his time either standing back to seam bowlers or else standing up to them. He was therefore exposed on the England A tour of 1994-95 to India, when keeping to spin bowlers.

But if there had been a selectorial will, there would have been a way to strengthen his weakness by sending him on subsequent A tours, which has not been done.

Since his days with MCC Young Cricketers at Lord's, Nixon has been known for being singularly combative and vocal. This son of Cumbrian farming stock is by nature just the sort of in-your-face (and in-your-ears) fellow, one would have thought, to be pitted against Ian Healy in the Ashes series in Australia next winter.

The current selection panel of Graveney, Gatting and Graham Gooch has been a good one so far overall, but they do neglect the Midlands, which suggests that a fourth selector should be appointed to help represent the area.

As it is, if Russell does not keep on keeping for England, someone will have to go in at the deep end against South Africa this coming summer needlessly under-prepared.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 22 Mar1998 - 15:27