As part of Felix White’s remarkable series of interviews exploring the new lives of former cricketers, Jack Russell discusses his career – and how he coped with giving the game up.
I am led tidily to Bristol and Jack Russell’s gallery/ studio space. Robert ‘Jack’ Russell is one of the most iconic English cricketers and certainly amongst the most well-loved. Famed as a man of truly eccentric habits, such as wearing the same hat, and near-on the same kit, for every day of his 20-year playing career, he was, more notably, the most gifted keeper of a generation. He played 54 Test matches, 40 ODIs and 465 first-class games. Having moved seemingly flawlessly into a career as a painter, I meet Jack at his gallery space, located just off ‘Russell Mews’. When the council offered him a retirement send-off he preferred to have something permanent – “You’ll learn that about me, I like permanence”. He begins with, ‘First things first, tea?’ and at one point during our hour sat talking about life beyond cricket, he stands up and gives me a brief shadow wicketkeeping masterclass. As I leave, with both his books and a beautiful hand drawing of the Oval, he says: ‘Don’t forget, the kettle’s always on here’.
I started in quite an amateur-ish era, ’82 turned pro. I was on the dole in the first winter. I used to play pool for money, hustle for money. I’d take my giro cheque and go to the pub and hustle. I used to play like a Test match, so slowly they’d get bored and then I’d clean them up. I took a £25 giro cheque and I’d still be there at midnight, everyone wanted to go home and I was still going. They’d say ‘OK, Jack’s the winner, he can take the pot’. Fifty quid. That’s a day’s work. My brother-in-law was a carpet fitter, so I did carpet fitting for two years. He only paid me dole money, but I said that’s fine, it’s just learning a trade. The painting started after that.
I’ve always had a fascination for the creative. If we were playing away somewhere I’d normally go to an art gallery, look at things closely and go, ‘How have they done that?’ We were playing a three-day game at Worcester, the ground was flooded, I’d got fed-up in the pavilion, lost all my money at cards. It was a serious card school, there’d be £1,000-plus in the pot and they’d still be going. There are players who would ring up the office and say, ‘Can I have my next month’s wages?’ It was all going on the cards.
I wasn’t one of the heavy bettors, but I just thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to get out of here’. I felt like I was wasting my life away when it was raining, you’re sitting inside all day and I’m thinking, ‘What have I achieved today?’ I can’t stand being non-productive. When you’re playing at least you’re achieving something, at least it goes down in Wisden, at least there’s a record of it. So, I stormed out shouting something like, ‘Sod this, I’m going to learn to paint’.
I’d heard people saying at the time, you have to learn how to draw before you can paint. So I went up and down the river at Worcester, there was no play before lunch, and I did this one [presents drawing] and that was my first ever sketch. If anyone came past I’d hide it, I was shy. It was two inches by two. I’ve kept very little but that one is special to me. The only other one I’ve kept is me and Athers in Johannesburg; that’s never for sale, though every man does have his price.
I started drawing at all the grounds. At the end of the summer I took the sketches into a gallery in Bristol, I’d just been picked for my first England trip in ’87 to Pakistan and the owner recognised me. I only played two-and-a-half days cricket in eight weeks, so I drew. The guy in Bristol had said, go away, go on the tour, and we’ll put together an exhibition, so we did an exhibition of 40 sketches at the start of the ’88 season by the County Ground and they sold within two days. That’s where it all started.
I did loads of commissions of drawings for a year or two. I drew Gloucester Cathedral brick by brick. Then I began to use colour, we did another exhibition at the gallery, 30 original paintings. They sold out as well. So, I knew there was something building. I started my own publishing, my own prints. I was playing cricket all day, fielding all day, going home, eating my tea, packing prints, doing invoices, sending the pictures out, so the business was starting at the same time. I was thinking, ‘God, I can’t cope with this’. I’m playing all the time. I met this guy Jim who eventually took over the business, and that allowed me to concentrate on the cricket. We came here in 1994 and never looked back since. I hung up my carpet-fitting knife. I’ve still got it somewhere.
You don’t know till you try, do you? That’s how I’ve learnt how to paint, by not being frightened to make a mistake. You don’t dive in front of second slip if you’re frightened about making a mistake.
There’s an edge to it, a danger to it. When I do portraits, like Eric Clapton’s, it’s the only time I get a feeling like I’m going to the ground, that kind of adrenaline, because I know I’ve only got two hours with him. I’ve waited two years for it and this is my only chance. There’s no going back. So when I do portraits, I get an adrenaline rush, it’s the closest I come to playing.
It’s funny because being a keeper and being in the middle, you’re never on the boundary so you miss all this banter. It was only when I started painting and being on the boundary that I realised that it’s like an entertainment all on its own out there. You’ve got the game going on but it’s all happening out there. I remember painting during the 2005 Ashes at Old Trafford and there’s about 8,000 people behind me, all of them showing me how to paint. I had to keep giving them my brush going, ‘Go on then, you do it’. It was all, ‘That’s a different shade of blue that sky, that’s nothing like that, look at that cloud, that’s not there’, I had to say, ‘No, it’s gone now, innit’.
It’s still not the same. Nothing will ever replace it, but you’ve got to come to terms with it. I’ve been so busy doing this, I’ve always had this to go to. It made playing better because, in the early days, I could see people sat in the changing room with nothing else to do, playing but they don’t really want to play, they’re old, got nowhere else to go, they haven’t got another job. I thought, ‘That’s not going to be me’. It makes you bitter. I would have been playing still now if my back hadn’t given up, because the love is still there. You’ve just got to come to terms with it psychologically and say, ‘It’s over there now, it’s back there, it’s gone’. You can’t do anything about it, but you’ve got to think, ‘Well, it was great, wasn’t it?’ Grubby-haired little schoolkid from a council house. Played 50-odd Test matches. People say I should have played more, I played more than Bradman! I can’t complain, can I?
Painting was my escape. When we were on tour, I used to pay the security guard a few quid, get in the car and go off, that was my recharge. On occasion, I’d say to Athers, ‘I don’t need to practise today mate, I’m OK’, and he’d just say, ‘Go!’ He knew it’d be good for me.
I was in the England team in a different era. It was so unprofessional. My first trip? Make sure you’ve got your passport, see you at the airport, we’re going. Just turn up, see you there. I remember trying to get acclimitised in a sauna in Bristol. I put my cricket kit on and went and trained in the sauna, because they said, ‘Oh, Pakistan’s hot’. That was my preparation. That’s a true story. You had to take your own kit. I started washing my own stuff in the end because I didn’t trust the hotels. If you only had two shirts and they mess them up, you’re knackered aren’t you?
There are lots of myths that I’ve let carry on. I actually have blindfolded people to the house, because I didn’t want the pressure of them knowing where I lived. Blindfold them, take them there, put the blindfold back on, drive them back. The hat in the oven is true. The ‘suitcase of baked beans on tour’ stuff is true. I’m not a foreign food eater. I can eat Cajun chicken with a bit of pepper on it, that’s about my limit. I like my home comforts. One trip to the West Indies, I had a deal with one of those big ones, Tescos or Sainsbury’s, we did a promotional thing. They supplied me with Weetabix and Heinz Baked Beans. I had to do an advert for tea bags, I said: ‘I’ll do the advert, but I’m not working with the monkeys’. I said I need a dozen tins of beans in Antigua. Twelve tins. Twelve cases got flown in by helicopter to the West Indies. I said, ‘How the hell am I gonna carry that!’ We left them in a food shelter for the locals. Things like that did happen. In Pakistan I lived on Cuppa Soup. I was the microwave monitor and it was in my room. There was one microwave for the whole team. It was the crown jewels. I was all, ‘I’ll make sure I get it to the airport, I’ll make sure it’s on the plane’. Me and the microwave were like that.
My local football team were Forest Green, who are in the National League. I used to go and watch them a bit when I was a kid. First result I’d want to know when we were the other side of the world would be Forest Green’s. When I finished playing, the manager was living round the corner. He came in and said, ‘Do you fancy doing a bit with our goalkeepers?’ I was there for three or four years diving around in the mud in training. I wasn’t head goalkeeping coach, I was assistant goalkeeping coach. I had to learn to kick the ball straight, volley it and cross it. It was great.
The football thing filled a nice little gap for me. I didn’t get paid or anything. I used to love the kit, the tracksuits, JR on it. Magic. I was getting more involved in Gloucestershire so I rang up eventually and said, ‘I can’t do you a proper job anymore’. I was either going to do a job properly or not at all. I loved it though.
As a wicketkeeper, there’s only one of you, you’re on your own. As captain it changed, suddenly you’re juggling 10 people. I’d been so me, me, me. I was so focused, I missed my grandmother’s funeral. I’m not proud of that. I walked past my wife once. She’s only been three times to the cricket, and twice because I forgot kit, she’s not into it. I always kept the family separate. So, when I was captain, I had to forget about myself. Back then there are no coaches, you’re basically the manager of the team. You’re doing pre-season. I was the first captain at Gloucester to put things in writing. Pre-season back then, starting in March, was quite revolutionary – now it’s all year round. My first pre-season started April 1 and the first week was playing football, second week was nets, then it was the season. My last pre-season started in October before the following summer because I had to do rehab on my back.
I did the odd bit for Sky. I loved doing radio because you don’t have to dress up, I can’t be arsed to dress up anymore. Anyway, I upset Sky so I won’t be going on there much… I think they thought I was a nightmare, you know.
I’m not good at conforming, at being told. I’m not worried if people like the pictures or not. You know that as an artist you are going to get criticised. Lowry said: ‘If you’re frightened of criticism don’t show your work in public’. And he was right. I’m not worried about what people say, but it is lovely when people say, ‘That’s going on my wall’. I get a kick out of that just as much playing cricket. I’m a professional artist. I put professional artist/retired cricketer. That’s what I do. I like things that are permanent. So I’ll do something like a painting, that’ll be there when I’m gone. There’s something permanent about it.
I say to people, I’m just history. But I’m a part of history. Which is great. When I was a kid I used to look at the stones in the graveyard and go ‘who’s Bill Smith, who’s Bill Jones, what did they do’. Right, I’m not passing through this world without leaving some kind of a mark. I didn’t know it was going to be cricket. That’s a driving force for me. If people have found me interesting enough, you know, I might have achieved some of it.