ICC CRICKET WORLD CUP, 2019
A lively spell of fast bowling from Andre Russell provided the template that helped West Indies demolish Pakistan in their opening World Cup game ©Getty
It was only three overs. But those 18 deliveries were enough to remind the world that Andre Russell has special talents. Not only can he hit the ball for six at will, which he did 52 times in the IPL, but this is a man who can bowl gas, too. His three overs here were quick and aggressive, the sort of spell that defines games. And it was also a reminder of the sort of player he could have been for West Indies had his body been able to stand up to the rigours of international sport. There are few with the all-round gifts he possesses.
At 31, there is still time but this World Cup is shaping up to be his stage. Fully fit after a long period of knee issues, or as close to it as he might ever be, he’s in good form with the bat and is finally able to bowl flat out. He’s a central part of Jason Holder’s team, their x-factor player with both bat and ball, relied upon to add a dash of power and elan to West Indies’ side.
“There’s high expectations from the team and the fans,” Russell said. “They’re depending me to bowl fast and take wickets. Everyone wants to see excitement, me scoring lots of runs.”
These are not simple talents. To be a genuine all-rounder, able to whack it miles and bowl at 90mph is not usual. Ben Stokes can do it, so too Russell. Nobody else springs to mind.
But after his six-hitting exploits in the IPL, what Russell can also offer with the ball seems to have been forgotten. Today was a good reminder. “A lot of people have been saying I have been coming in the team as a big hitter but a lot of people don’t remember that I’m a fast bowler. I think they underestimate me. People have me as a medium-pacer,” he said.
“When I see Andre Russell come on the screen and I’m a medium pacer, I think, ‘Who are they talking to?’ At the end of the day, I can bowl 90 and I just think they should put some respect on my name. I’ve been working hard, strengthening the shoulders so me jogging up and bowling 90, I’m not surprised.”
This is the starring role Russell could have been playing for the last nine years for West Indies since his Test debut in 2010. Instead, his international career has been a stop-start affair. He hasn’t played another Test since that first one against Sri Lanka in Galle. This was just his second ODI since November 2015. He has played just 47 of West Indies’ 82 T20Is in the last eight years although he was part of the World T20 winning teams in 2012 and 2016.
The Jamaican has had plenty of good moments, of course, and he has done more in his career than most mere mortals could ever hope for. There have been dominant displays in the IPL and Big Bash, CPL victories, those two world titles, plenty of eye-catching displays. But the frustration, for West Indies and probably for him, is that his talent, his athleticism, his confidence has deserved so much more. How great it would have been to see him have a long Test career, for instance.
The injuries, particularly a chronic knee problem, have taken their toll, ruled him out of so much cricket. Another year was lost to a 12 month ban for failing to file his whereabouts for drugs authorities on three occasions.
He has admitted that suspension was a tough period in his life. The conditions of his ban meant he was unable even to attend cricket grounds, unable to net with other players or have any involvement with the game that has been his life’s work. Harsh? Maybe. He hadn’t failed a drugs test, after all. He used the time to get fit and strong, training like a NFL player, but the period away from the game was difficult and it took him a while to get back up to speed. He looks determined to make up for lost time.
This season’s IPL improved his confidence, proved to him that the World Cup was coming at just the right time. His exploits with the bat were remarkable in India, scoring at more than two runs a ball, the first time a player has ever done that across an entire IPL season. He didn’t bowl much there as he continued to rehabilitate his knee but has gradually stepped up his workload since arriving in England. He hit Australia’s Usman Khawaja in the jaw in a warm-up game with a quick delivery, suggesting he was finding his rhythm. Today, he confirmed it.
His two wickets both came from short deliveries. The first, to Fakhar Zaman, hit the batsman flush on the helmet before deflecting onto the stumps. The second, that of Haris Sohail, was caught behind after Russell had bowled three bouncers which the batsman ducked. The fourth delivery was short again, but slightly wider outside off-stump. Inviting. Sohail fell for it and edged to the keeper. After Pakistan had made a decent start, Russell’s spell of two wickets for four runs changed the course of the game.
“My body was feeling very, very good this morning apart from my knee,” Russell said. “I knew once I put everything behind it, even if I didn’t get any wickets, just to put some doubt in the batter’s mind and other bowlers coming in can actually have a good vibe coming into bowl.”
What Russell can achieve in the rest of his career remains to be seen. He wants to play on for a good few years yet but much will rely on his body playing ball. Given the way it has often let him down, nothing can be taken for granted. You’d think he would be unlikely to play in another World Cup which means this tournament has to be his time. It has to be the stage where he shows the world the player that Andre Russell is and always has been. He’s made an electric start.