With seven trophies in six years, including a clean sweep of all three limited-overs competitions in 2000, Gloucestershire achieved unprecedented success in English domestic one-day cricket on a modest budget and with no recognised star names. Their captain Mark Alleyne and sergeant major Jack Russell were at the very heart of those triumphs. Here, the pair look back at their Gloucester glory days, in an interview with Jo Harman.
Jack, you’d been in the Gloucester first team for five years when Mark broke through. What were your first impressions of him?
JR: I can still see Mark walking from his car with his buckskin pads under his arm for his debut at Winget Sports Ground. I remember thinking, ‘Who’s this young lad who’s come to play for us?’ I don’t remember even having nets with him.
MA: I’d played my youth cricket at Middlesex and because I was fast-tracked into the Gloucester 1st XI I didn’t know any of the players prior to arriving at the ground that morning. Those first few days were a real eye-opener. Jack wasn’t intimidating at all, well his ‘tache might have been, but he made me curious more than anything. What stood out were his little idiosyncrasies: his baked beans, his Weetabix needing to be soaked for 15 minutes before the interval, those kinds of things. There were a lot of things I wasn’t accustomed to!
JR: Boo Boo was a quiet lad at that stage but he was a great addition to the team even at such a young age. He had so much flair and over a period of time you began to realise what an intelligent cricketer he was. He’s easily the most intelligent bowler I ever kept to, no question about that. I don’t think anyone else even saw what a clever bowler he was but from behind the stumps I could see him putting an over together, lining the batsman up, setting up a dismissal. He wasn’t one of your big swingers of the ball but he could move it off the seam and he’d do just enough to cause problems. Over the years we began to get a bit of telepathy going, like I did with Ian Harvey, and I’d understand what he was going to do next.
Mark took over the captaincy from Courtney Walsh in 1997. As one of the club’s most experienced players, was Jack in the running for the role?
JR: I did it for a year when Walshy was touring England [with the West Indies] and I was prepared to carry on but at the time you had a chairman of cricket and the cricket committee that you had to report to and I said I wasn’t going to do it that way. I said that if I couldn’t run the thing properly myself then I wouldn’t be doing it. So they turned to Mark and I remember him visiting me at my art gallery just to check that I didn’t have any ambitions to be captain and that I was going to support him. I said, ‘You do it, mate – I’m with you’.
MA: I wanted to make sure I had Jack’s support because I needed it. Not just from him, but all the senior members of the side.
Were the two of you friends off the pitch?
MA: Jack didn’t like the stress of having friends, to be honest. That makes him sound miserable but he wasn’t a miserable bloke. I loved Jack because I knew how reliable he was as a personality and as a cricketer. Even though his England career was coming to an end he still had the same high standards on the pitch and he led by example. As a friend, I think everyone appreciated that he liked his own space away from cricket and we accepted that.
JR: We didn’t go out for dinner together or know each other’s families well but there was a mutual respect of each other’s abilities. We’re chalk and cheese, really. Mark’s more laid-back and I’m more of a driver. We don’t necessarily see life in the same way but that doesn’t mean we don’t get on.
Gloucestershire hadn’t won a trophy since 1977 and then the floodgates opened. What was the turning point?
JR: We had a meeting shortly after Mark became captain and it was the most important meeting I’ve ever been to. Our new coach John Bracewell was there and we all decided we wanted to be the Manchester United of cricket; we wanted to leave a legacy and we spent the next two hours working out how we were going to do that. We put a list up, things like commitment, honesty, discipline, and that developed over a year or two into some things that were more complicated. But that was the important meeting.
MA: Cricket is a fairly unique team sport, and most of the stats are individual, but without doubt what was untouched at Gloucestershire was the other advantages you can get from helping each other out, in terms of saving runs in the field and the other unquantifiable gains that can make a massive difference. That’s what we really focused on.
Bracewell described you two as absolutely key to the success that was to follow, with Jack as “the intimidator” and Mark as a “natural, calm leader… paternal and extremely tolerant”. Fair assessment?
JR: I was just trying to be a bully on the field. Mentally, I was beating the batsmen up. I couldn’t physically punch them but I made sure they knew that metaphorically I had my gloves round their throat. If I was allowed to punch them I would have done. I didn’t just stand behind the stumps; I actually got in the batsman’s space physically, in the crease with him. I’d catch the ball very close to their face in such a way that it would make a lot of noise, like clapping in their face. I was the closest to the batsman so the intimidation had to come from me. Boo Boo would be calm. He’s got a ruthless edge to him, mind. He’s no pussycat. There’s a nasty streak that you don’t want to get on the wrong side of but he very rarely lost his rag.
MA: As good as Jack was prior to John’s arrival, I think he definitely gave his career some longevity in that Jack really responded to the constant challenges from John. He led the fielding in an aggressive way, which was how we wanted to field, and Jack really took hold of that and ran with it! He probably did more than we would ever have expected in terms of leading out on the field, almost as a fielding marshal.
Your first trophy was the 1999 Benson & Hedges Super Cup win against Yorkshire, with Mark scoring a brilliant century. What are your memories of that match?
JR: You’re never 100 per cent sure you can do it as a team until you actually win something; it’s a bridge that has to be crossed. But we’d built up such a group by then that nobody wanted to let anybody else down. Boo Boo played the innings of his life and then we just went out and strangled them in the field. I’d been there as a little kid in ’77 when we won our last trophy and this win broke the ice. We were sat in the dressing room only 10 minutes after the win saying ‘We’ve got to get back to Lord’s in a month and do this again in the NatWest Trophy’. Then we just got on a roll for the next four of five years.
MA: It was a cracking day, really nice and warm, and yeah, I played well and had a great partnership with Rob Cuncliffe, which set the total up and then we defended it like we knew we could. Yorkshire never had a sniff.
JR: Sure enough, we came back to Lord’s a month later for a West Country NatWest final against Somerset. I remember thinking during that game that there was no way we could go back down the M4 if we didn’t win that game. Thankfully we did.
In 2000 you claimed a historic treble, winning the Benson & Hedges Cup, NatWest Trophy and the 45-over league. Was that your peak as a side?
MA: I never really thought of it as a peak, as that would suggest we got to a place where we accepted that was it. I think the whole point was we never accepted that was it; we were determined to keep trying to achieve excellence. It was our best year but it didn’t feel like a peak – it felt like the start of something.
Gloucestershire went on to win the Cheltenham & Gloucester Trophy in 2003 and 2004, the year after Jack retired, to make it seven trophies in six years. Why do you think you were able to dominate one-day cricket in a way that we haven’t seen before or since?
MA: I think one of the key things was that we had a squad of about 14 or 15 who were all equally capable of making significant contributions. We weren’t reliant on one or two guys and I think we were hard to play against for that reason, because they couldn’t just ‘man-mark’ our best players and go from there. Everyone had the ability to make it a special day.
You never had the opportunity to play for England together, with Mark making his ODI debut a year after Jack’s last match. Any regrets that you didn’t get the chance to take your partnership on to the international stage?
JR: There was no reason he couldn’t have played with me, because he was good enough. I remember we had a bit of a chip on our shoulder. We thought we were the best one-day side in the world, and that’s no exaggeration, but there was a bit of, ‘Who are these West Country bumpkin upstarts who think they can be the best team in the country?’ We were getting those vibes. ‘Who are you lot, little Gloucester down in Bristol, to come and take over our domestic game?’ Because that’s what we did. Whether it was a clever bit of psychology from Bracewell or not I’m not sure, but he told us that we actually offered England a game – because they were playing warm-up matches against counties – and they turned us down. We certainly thought we could beat them at Bristol in our conditions, absolutely no problem.
MA: I was a little bit frustrated because statistically my best years were the six years prior to being selected for England. I didn’t play until I was 31 and while I was still playing well and glad to play, I really thought my chance came a little bit late. Someone told me that I was the leading allrounder in the country for five consecutive years, and I still didn’t get a chance. The honest truth is that my bowling wasn’t Test match level but I certainly think I should have played a lot more one-day cricket in those early years and hopefully been someone like Collingwood who then had the opportunity to progress his game within the Test arena.
The period of success for Gloucestershire wasn’t a good one for England in one-day cricket. Could they have benefited from having Mark as captain?
JR: He certainly would have brought more than just batting, bowling and fielding; he’d have brought experience and smartness, just as Adam Hollioake did when he became England’s one-day captain. With the right type of coach alongside him, Mark could have done that job, no problem. He would have fitted in perfectly – absolutely no question whatsoever. England missed out there.