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Russell has become the perfectionist who does not worry

Christopher Martin-Jenkins

4 February 1998

WHEN Jack Russell, exhausted after a night of vomiting and diarrhoea, was deprived of his 50th Test cap in Jamaica last Thursday, the personal calamity was rapidly subsumed by the greater one of a Test match being abandoned after 56 minutes, writes Christopher Martin-Jenkins.

Now the series can start again and so can England's wicketkeeper, certain to be restored to his position in Trinidad tomorrow after 13 games in the wilderness.

Because of the continuing presence in the side of Alec Stewart, the pressure on Russell to justify his position each time he plays is enormous.

The temptation for the selectors to leave him out and play an extra bowler is always there, but Russell's form with the bat and his generally polished work behind the stumps in awkward conditions has not allowed them to do more than think about it.

If England as a team could discover Russell's ability to play above himself when he most needs to do so, they might finally find the habit of winning tight matches and close series.

How, I wondered, does this singular individual, who has made a good additional living from his skill as a painter, approach a major match?

Russell: I like the big occasions. They give you an extra buzz. Although it's a big game, you try not to think it is, because the game itself will lift you. You can be over-hyped so the most important thing is to relax.

Steve Davis said you have to play the most important shot of your life as if it means nothing. In my early years I was probably too uptight; I put myself under a lot of pressure, worrying about possible missed chances or being scared of getting out. That stifles your play. You have to find a balance.

You can't hide in a corner. When I came back in to the side against the West Indies at Old Trafford in 1995, I decided that from then on if I played for England, I would play each game as if it were my last.

Before every big game I ask myself what I need to do to prepare. In this case I need a bit of a rest first. I will do specific things for 'keeping practice. I don't think I'll have a net; probably just practise playing against bouncers with a tennis ball.

CMJ: Is that because you are in good form or would you restrict your net practice every time?

Russell: The last two or three years I haven't netted a lot. I've probably netted as well as I ever have. I know what I've got to do when I go out there.

To prepare myself I might spend 10 or 15 minutes visualising what it was like facing Walsh last time. Or Benjamin, Ambrose, Bishop. I'll look at a tape of the Oval where I got 90 odd and at tapes of playing here last time. Just reminding myself I can do it - both batting and keeping. I'm at the stage now where I practise for shorter periods.

I practise psychologically. It's when I get out there that I want to do it. Actually I get excited if I have a bad net. I know then I've got to get my backside into gear. I've learned to relax. On the morning of the game there's that air of expectancy. Are you batting or bowling? I don't worry now. Whatever we are doing I will do it.

If we are batting, I may go out to an empty pitch with my bat and my gloves, even my helmet, especially if it's an unfamiliar ground. Stand at each end. Try to familiarise myself with the surroundings. It's a hard enough job against this lot as it is.

I can't sit in the dressing room and think just about the game once its started. I do some painting instead.

CMJ: Has the success of your painting made you more secure and therefore more relaxed?

Russell: I think it's got everything to do with it. The success of my business has put me in a position where I can walk away from the game whenever I want to. So I'm playing because I really want to do so. Because of the challenge. I've still got fight inside me, but I'm not frightened of failure any more.

CMJ: Is there an element of showmanship in your eccentric stance; the way you leave the ball?

Russell: The cockiness and the strange shot are a part of my buzz. It's a way of disjointing the opposition. I want them to know I'm not worried about them. I get the ball to areas I want.

Even if I'm not scoring, I'm still in control. You are going to get a difficult ball or get out sometimes, but I don't worry what people say. What matters is the right hand column. It's not how, it's how many.

I want to bat higher for Gloucestershire next year. I see myself as a batsman now.

CMJ: What about the difficulty of keeping wicket here?

Russell: It's the hardest job on the planet sometimes. I'm making myself be more aggressive. Like Ian Healy. You have to attack the ball here. If you stay down and let it come as you do in England, it can pop right past you. I find I almost have to stay up.

On Monday one ball from Robert Croft pitched outside off-stump and turned so much that I actually dived for it outside leg-stump. It still went for three byes, but I don't let that bother me any more. I still mind, of course.

CMJ: Do you think you'd ever be bored with cricket if you didn't have painting to stop you from getting obsessed?

Russell: I don't know. All I know is that the painting and having four children under 10 has put everything into perspective. Aileen looks after home life; my business partner looks after the studio. If I've got a cricket problem I talk to Alan Knott.

I'm still obsessed by perfection, but it's a question of balance. I need periods on my own to recharge. Otherwise I couldn't do my job of being bubbly and helping other players.

There's nothing I'd like to do better than to win this Test series.

CMJ : Do you think you will win?

Russell: If we can play to the best of our ability we will. The attitude is good. The captain is the toughest cricketer I've played with, but there are other strong characters.We need a good start. You need to get in front against the West Indies.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 19:32