From his consulting room at the Racer’s Track Club in central Kingston, Usain Bolt’s sports therapist Everald Edwards could notice Andre Russell’s blank eyes and fidgety fingers weaving patterns on the touchscreen of his mobile phone. A few times, it slipped out of his palms and crashed onto the floor, upon which he called Russell into his room. They had only briefly acquainted, but Edwards knew Russell’s torment — he had just served a one-year-ban for not disclosing doping whereabouts, subsequent to which he endured a savage media trial and upon his reintegration into the game in the Pakistan Super League, had hurt himself badly.
But if Edwards expected a teary, confessional Russell, he was proved wrong. The cricketer, his composure regained, broke into a bit of banter straightaway, “So Eddie, could you make me run as fast as Usain?” Edwards replied: “I would make you run faster than him!” With these words unpeeled Russell’s rediscovery path, from a talented but troubled cricketer to one of the fiercest hitters in the game.
Of course, he could hit the ball with the same ferocity before the ban, but not with the absurd consistency as now. Sample these numbers — post the ban, Russell has struck 130 sixes in 58 games, a six every five balls, scored 1458 runs at a strike rate of 176 and an average of 30. All this coming mostly at No. 6 or below, with an inhuman ability to tee off the moment he comes in. There’s no more gripping validation of his six-hitting prowess than the fact that he struck more sixes this IPL than the self-styled Universe Boss of six-hitting — Chris Gayle (a 52-34 landslide). And striking them as cleanly and brutally as he wants them to, with a quintessentially laconic Caribbean shrug and a low-slung smirk. Maybe, there was a subtle passing of the six-hitting baton, from one Jamaican to another. Add to this his accurate medium pace, and in a market dominated by the shortest format, he becomes the most valuable human asset, earning wages worth 2 million dollars every year. A sum that could only head north after his latest IPL exploits, if he reprises that at the World Cup.
But that afternoon in Edwards’ consulting room, Russell feared for his cricketing future. “He was remarkably fit by normal standards, but his biggest complaint was that his body was not listening to him. He had lost a few yards of pace, and was a touch slow to strike the ball. He felt it all was due to a drop in his fitness. He had bulked up and lost a lot of muscle too.” Edwards remembers.
Not that the Jamaican all-rounder was wallowing in sorrow during the ban-tenure, but more time at his disposal also meant more partying with friends. Russell himself recently described a customary day of down-time thus: “Shower, dinner, rum, party, drunk, sleep.”
“Suddenly, I had nothing much to do in life, so I started partying more and drinking frequently with my friends. Stopping all these at once was difficult, but I had a fire burning inside me,” he once told the BBC doosra podcast.
Edwards saw that fire in his eyes. “He was extremely motivated, probably that came from the criticism he copped during the time out. The media went after him, a lot of friends deserted him, and he felt much of it was his own fault, and he wanted to not only prove them wrong but also win their affection back. And the first step, he thought, was to regain his fitness, which had taken a beating during the ban,” he recollects.
His advice was simple — to build leaner muscles like a sprinter’s than the bulkier silhouette of a heavyweight wrestler. “Strong base, strong shoulders, these are the essentials for a hard-hitting batsman. Since there’s arm-speed involved, he needs more lean muscles. Bulky muscles can slacken the reflexes. So I advised him to keep off the machines and heavy weights. Rather, ground exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, squats and crunches,” Edwards remembers.
Soon after, with a few months left for IPL-11, Russell began to train madly. “Sometimes, he took nearly 400 push-ups a day, two hours of non-stop squatting, he was training as seriously as a sprinter would. I used to tell him to not exert his body as much, but he would often quip back, ‘I want to run as fast as Usain, boss!’. On a serious note, he would tell me he wanted to keep himself injury-free so that he can play the game for a long time,” the doctor says.
His quest for fitness didn’t stop at Edwards’ clinic. A few months later, he was in the NFL side Dallas Texans’ gym, where he studied their radical cross-fit training methods to gain that raw explosive strength. The footballers, Russell realised, were quite fast despite their large frames and clumsy equipment. “After watching them, I understood the importance of repetitions. So instead of lifting heavier weights for a short time, I began lifting lighter weights but with more reps. I hardly lift more than 70kg, but I make sure I repeat it 70 times!” he explains in the BBC podcast. Some of the ingenious methods, like the rear-footed elevated split squats he has religiously posted on Instagram.
Six months after their first meeting, Russell called Edwards over to his mansion. He complained: “I’m not anywhere near Usain, boss.” Edwards laughed and told him: “But the ball you hit to the roofs can beat Bolt. Isn’t that all you want?” Russell, or the cricketing world, couldn’t have disagreed.
The first time former Jamaica coach Junior Bennett saw Russell at the nets, his jaws dropped. Here the youngster was bristling in with his Hercules-like musculature, his landing dishevelling the soil beneath and the red ball leaping off the surface beastly like a Rafael Nadal cross-court forehand and shrieking past the batsman’s helmet like a round bullet. “Wow, I thought we had just seen the next big fast bowler from Jamaica! He could become really famous.”
This is the loftiest compliment any young, impressionable Jamaican cricketer could dream of, what with their storied stock of fast-bowling lineage, the Holdings and Pattersons and the Walshes. Russell’s father, who has shifted to the Cayman Islands, is convinced he had inherited some of the genes of Courtney Walsh, as Russell senior’s mother had a Walsh surname. “I’m sure we can trace our relationship to him,” he once told a Jamaican newspaper.
Russell did have the height, pace, build and aggression that befitted the archetypal Jamaican tearaway. Only that he didn’t have the required temperament — that elusive gift of sustained hostility — to blossom into a fine first-class bowler. “Occasionally, he bowled terrific spells, but he was often inconsistent. He worked incredibly hard, but couldn’t quite get it going,” Bennett says. It’s borne out by the rocky start to his first-class career— he got only seven wickets in his first six matches. All this while, he batted in the lower half of the batting order, occasionally freewheeling to a 20 or 30.
Then came the match that swung his career around — when the touring Irish stopped over for a match against Jamaica. With the match petering out to a draw, then skipper Tamar Lambert promoted him to number 5, where he carted 108 off 65 balls including 10 sixes. “We knew he could score, that match he was just hitting everything out of the park. The ball was changed perhaps half a dozen times and we had great fun,” says Lambert.
But Russell was still not entirely confident of his batting. “I remember he was happier getting those three wickets than scoring a hundred. He always believed he was primarily a bowler who bats, though all of us believed he was a better batsman than most of us,” says Lambert. A haul of 11 wickets in three innings against India A — among his scalps were Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane (twice) – he was fast-tracked to the Test squad that toured Sri Lanka. He made his debut straightaway, in Galle, but that was as good as it got for Russell in Tests. He never played another, in fact, featured in just six more first-class games, despite sharpened bowling. “It’s a pity that he has played only one Test, his first-class bowling average is still around 20-21, but then he’s more famous than a Test player in these parts. Maybe he felt his bowling didn’t get the due recognition that he began focusing more on batting,” Bennett says.
Bennett still regrets that his ward’s bowling seldom scaled the heights it was ordained to, but his jaw still drops when he watches his bat spit out those monstrous sixes.
If Chris Gayle wasn’t famous, perhaps Russell, or a spate of hand-for-hire Caribbean cricketers wouldn’t have been famous either. For at a time when West Indies cricket was continuing to map out a parabola of self-immolating decline, Gayle helped them grasp the logic of T20, and how they could eke out a livelihood as craven T20 mercenaries, even as the cricket boards back home were perennially squabbling and letting them down.
The Gayle-mania, paradoxically, struck Russell on his Test debut in Galle when the former walloped a thrill-a-ball 333. “I knew he can be a tremendous hitter. But how can someone sustain that over 10 hours? From then on, I was his biggest fan,” Russell said in an interview a few years ago.
But vitally, he didn’t fall into the familiar fanboy trapping of blind plagiarism. Rather, he picked out from Gayle’s technique only those aspects he could weave into his own game. Like the economy of movement he brings to his snub-nosed power hitting, the stable base powered by his strong legs. “I hardly gave my legs a proper workout until I noticed that he gains most of his strength from the legs. Also, (after watching him), I stopped shuffling around the crease as it was affecting my head position. Thus watching him alone, I improved several aspects of my game,” he says.
The biggest change in his batting was upon the advice of Gayle himself, and it probably came a day before his most influential knock in West Indies colours — the unbeaten 43 in the ICC World T20 semifinal against India. A few days before the match, Gayle sidled him up: “You need to use heavier bats if you want to hit a lot of sixes.” Gayle’s at that time was around 3lbs. Russell’s around 2.2 lbs. The rationale was he relied more on cuts and pulls than vertical bat strokes. “I do cut and pull with a heavier bat and you are way stronger than me,” Gayle told Russell, before he gifted him one of his chunky bats.
Three years later, he wields bats around 3lbs, and has been hitting sixes as handsomely and frequently as him, thus torch-bearing the torch Gayle had lit a decade ago.