The Greatest: Scruffy Cricketer

The Greatest: Scruffy Cricketer

Celebrating a man who was less interested in keeping up appearances than keeping wicket.

If you can’t be a cricketer, you can at last look like one. It’s the best piece of advice I have ever been given. It came from my Dad, actually. Even now, perhaps 40 years after it was dispensed, I use it myself, especially to students. Even if it’s a bad essay I tell them, you can at least make it look like a good one. Pick a nice font, justify the text and leave a gap between paragraphs.

In cricket of course, this advice can only take you so far. You can march to the middle looking like you’ve just come straight from a catalogue photoshoot, but in my case, in less than an over, the opposition knew it was all window dressing. Off I’d slouch after swiping across a slow straight one, ruefully inspecting the chap at the other end (75* following a fiery spell of 6-24 including a hat-trick). He might have a cover-drive like Gower, but he’d surely swap it for creases in his whites as sharp as mine.

No, of course he wouldn’t, but it was all I had. I could look like a duck and quack like a duck, but that’s what I usually scored. It was a real case of all the gear, but no idea. Others paid little attention to their appearance, since they were busy winning us the match. One splendid colleague batted in our top order for 20 years without ever owning a box. He’d cheerily shove the communal protector down the front of his trousers, never giving a thought as to where it had been, and for how long. I could never work it out; normally he was the sort of bloke who would take a glass back to the bar to protest about hardly detectable fingerprints.

The current obsession with looking good now incorporates kaleidoscopic uniforms, cool shades, dayglow boots and garish bat stickers. It was not always so. Take a look for example, at the iconic photo of England’s XI to meet Australia at Edgbaston in 1902 (No.3 here). At least everyone is wearing a cap, but otherwise it is reminiscent of the church hall jumble sale. Nothing matches; at least two of these chunky knits were the work of overzealous mothers or sweethearts (Fry and Ranji), one is at least three sizes too big (JT Tyldesley), and some of those turn-ups have their own postcodes (McLaren and Jessop). As for trouser length, George Hirst might have tried putting jam on his boots and asking his flannels down for tea. They had a fair way to travel.

Boycott's precision styling
Boycott’s precision styling

At least those Golden Agers had the excuse that cricket fashions had barely developed in 1902. But what of more recent players? Not all of them had the precision look of a Boycott, the raffish elegance of a Gower, or the smouldering vestiary style of a Viv Richards. Ian Chappell’s testy, grumpy warriors of the early seventies for example, were all “Bandido moustaches and salty repartee,” reports Gideon Haigh, but this “unshaven, unkempt XI had acquired an anti-authoritarian air that extended beyond the cricket field”.

There are others who spent plenty of time in the middle, but hardly any time in front of the mirror. Derek Pringle for example, bowled immaculately parsimonious medium pace with about three feet of woolly sock poking out of the front of his boot. Chris Rogers is another one. As gritty and durable as heavy-duty asphalt, aesthetics were just not his thing. Armball.net suggest that he has “brought back the pre-war cricket dress code”, adding to his “scruffy appearance” by wearing the arm-guard “that he has had since the under-twelves”. “It is so dirty and frayed,” say Armball, “that it is only the stains that are holding it together”.

Unmistakeable: Ian Chappell's Australians
Unmistakeable: Ian Chappell’s unkempt Australians

For Philip Tufnell, any lack of on field sartorial elegance was the least of his problems. In A Lot of Hard Yakka, Middlesex teammate Simon Hughes refers to a “leopard-print G-string, baggy pants and winkle pickers”, and “unstructured jackets, crumpled trousers, mock-croc shoes” and “tie at half-mast.” God help us all, there was even a ponytail, which Emburey, Gatting et al decided had to go if the “pseudo-Cockney” was to ever play for England, especially when the disciplinarian Graham Gooch was in charge. As Tufnell himself reflected afterwards, “pony tails and scruffy gits with too much lip did not fit into Gooch’s scheme of things”. Or in any sort of style guide, either.

But batsmen can be scruffy too. There was Derek Randall for example, who made just about everyone laugh during a long career, except Dennis Lillee. “Few men manage to remain universally popular throughout whatever career path they choose” writes Martin Chandler, and “for professional sportsmen, given the intense rivalries that come with the territory, it is all but impossible to do so”. Everyone though, loved Randall, who must have scored every one of his 28,456 first-class runs with the bottom strap of his pads just failing to keep his trouser leg under control.

'Scruffnell' had a natural talent for untidiness
‘Scruffnell’ had a natural talent for untidiness

When asked to name the untidiest player he ever roomed with, the always impeccable Alec Stewart nominated Jack Russell. Not a line ball decision either, but “by a long way”. Singer Tom Waits was famously described as having a voice that sounded like it had been “soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” In comparison, Jack Russell had the lived-in look of a man who’d been marinated in marmite, pulled through a hedge backwards, then arrived at the launderette five minutes too late. “He was one of the few people in international cricket that irritated me,” reflected Curtly Ambrose who pointed to “the pads that didn’t fit right”, and a hat that “he must have got from WG Grace”. In the hat and sunglasses, reported Rob Bagchi, Russell resembled “a cross between the Terminator and a scarecrow”.

'Jack, we need to talk. First, the pads...'
‘Jack, we need to talk. First, the pads…’

Yes, that hat. “Neat and tidy as a keeper he may have been”, notes Scott Oliver, “but there was a meticulous scruffiness about everything else”. The reason for the hat, says TestmatchSpecialist, is that Russell “found it comfortable”. “Fair enough,” says the Specialist, “but Russell’s logical extreme” was to wear it “in every match in his career bar his debut, endlessly repairing it with old cricket trousers, leading to a George-Washington’s-axe-type conundrum as to whether it was still the same hat by the end”.

Once, when drying it in the oven, it caught fire and needed emergency surgery to revive it. When on tour in the West Indies, the England hierarchy forbade him to wear it, Russell was having none of it. Emma John writes that it cost Russell a “fortune in phone calls to solicitors” until he finally agreed to wear a new one. However, he cut a deal that he could modify the new headgear, and by the time he’d taken a scissors to it, “it was so scruffy” that skipper Atherton “thought he was wearing the old one”.

Terminator/scarecrow
Terminator/scarecrow

It wasn’t just the hat, writes TestmatchSpecialist, since “Russell wore the same cricket shirt for most of his career, and, to make sure his kit was always warm and dry, he installed a tumble-dryer in the back of his car”. Maybe he did get to the launderette after all. Never judge a book by its cover. As Mike Averis concludes, “Russell was probably the scruffiest and certainly the quirkiest wicketkeeper in the world”, but arguably, was also the best. I bet he still stayed indoors on Guy Fawkes night though, just in case.

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