Tuffers retiring but never shy

Phil Tufnell arrived at the home of cricket wearing a leopard-skin G-string, baggy pants and winkle-pickers. He left, after 18 years, suddenly and no less surprisingly. During that time he smoked and drank himself through 42 Tests, 1,057 first-class wickets and brushes with authority that must number somewhere in between. The reality TV show Survivor, the rigours of which Tufnell has now chosen instead of pre-season training, doesn’t know what it has let itself in for.

Neither did I when I toured with Tufnell for the first time in Australia in 1990-91. At the start of the tour, Graham Gooch, the captain, asked me if I minded people smoking. Nonplussed, naive and eager to please, I said I did not. As a result, I roomed with Tufnell and Wayne Larkins throughout the whole smoke-filled trip. What a pair! Larkins, who did his tour fee before Christmas in phone calls home, and Tufnell, whose socialising hours didn’t quite mesh with my own.

Even then, the neuroses that afflicted Tufnell throughout his career were in ample evidence. At the end of a day’s play, whether he had taken five wickets or none, he would need constant reassurance: ‘How’s it comin’ out, Ath?’, ‘I am spinnin’ it, aren’t I?’ In those days, of course, before the years of plenty had taken their toll, the ball always came out well and he really did give it a tweak.

And, after he had batted (briefly) against some fearsome Aussie quick, who spat and snarled but really only needed to say ‘boo!’, Tufnell would have to ask the inevitable – even though he knew the answer: ‘I didn’t back away too much, did I?’ Or: ‘It didn’t look that bad, did it?’ Of course, he always backed away and it always looked terrible, but he simply had no control over his right foot sliding away to square-leg as the bowler bore down upon him.

I knew what to expect, then, when I was appointed England captain in 1993 and I decided that Tufnell was too good to leave out of my first touring party to the West Indies later that year. I gave a lot of thought to how to handle him. With fresh memories of him kicking his cap all around the outfield at Vishikhapatnam, I felt a change from Gooch’s disciplinarian approach was necessary. I went to the other extreme, offering him more latitude than any other England player I can recall. The result was much the same; Tufnell kept up his record of being fined on every tour he’d been on.

Having played with Tufnell and having captained him and having seen countless others captain him, I now think that trying to ‘manage’ him was pointless all along. I asked Stephen Fleming during the World Cup how he went about captaining Tufnell at Middlesex. He rolled his eyes and shook his head: ‘Couldn’t do it, mate. Gave up trying.’ It didn’t matter, actually, who captained him and what the approach was because the end product, how he actually performed, was always the same.

No matter whether he had just emerged from a psychiatric unit (as he did in Perth in 1995), whether he was in the middle of a messy divorce (which he was at various times down the years), whether he was being pursued by angry in-laws (at least once), whether he was hungover (often) or whether everything was on an even keel (rarely), he was always able to bowl a length. I think he felt that with the ball in his hand, he was, at least for a short time, in control. It was best just to let him bowl and judge him on that.

So how do we judge him? Certainly, at his best and in favourable conditions, he was very good. Two match-winning performances at The Oval, against the West Indies in 1991 and Australia in 1997, stand out. Viv Richards, Ricky Ponting and Mark Waugh were all, in turn, deceived by his flight and sharp turn. Against Australia the dusty pitch, and therefore the expectation upon him, made him irritable and tense but nevertheless his performance that day was a near-perfect display of finger-spin bowling.

His final analysis of 121 Test wickets at 37.68 apiece suggests that those performances were a long way from the norm, which, in truth, they were. Two things, both out of his control, conspired against him.

The pitches in England in the nineties became ever more seamer-friendly and, when they did start dry, they tended to crack rather than crumble and were more suited to wrist rather than orthodox spin. In a different era, Tufnell would have played far more than the 11 Tests he played at home.

The second thing was the emergence of Shane Warne. All of a sudden it wasn’t trendy to bowl a nice line and length, to not get cut too often, and occasionally to get one past the outside edge. Now, you had to rip it alarmingly from leg to off, with a bit of drift as well, if you please. Every time Warne spun one yards, you could see Tufnell cringe. ‘This bloke’s making me look crap,’ he would complain. ‘He’s ruining my career!’

But Philip Tufnell’s career is not really about comparisons. Or statistics. The scorer’s ink will dry and fade and the laughter remains. I’m thinking now about my final moments as an England player: the retirement had been announced and I had taken the good wishes of the coach and my team-mates. Then, Tufnell sauntered over with a fag in his mouth and a sad look on his face. I took his limp, outstretched hand and awaited his eulogy.

‘Jesus, Athers,’ he said, ‘I bowled OK, didn’t I? I’ve just gone for 170 on a “bunsen” but I bowled well, didn’t I?’ I roared with laughter, but Tuffers turned away, shaking his head and muttering, too self-absorbed to notice. Sunday Telegraph, 13 April 2003