Northamptonshire’s Alex Russell, who became a regular member of the Steelbacks side throughout their Royal London Cup campaign, has admitted he began to bowl leg-spin by accident as a youngster.
Trying to emulate his father Kevin, an opening batter and off-spinner, Russell found himself turning the ball the other way and attracting the attentions first of Gloucestershire and more recently Northamptonshire, who have extended his rookie contract until the end of next season.
“It’s a bit of a weird one,” he says. “When I started playing when I was really young I just bowled medium pace. But my dad used to be an opening batter and an off-spin bowler, so I asked him to show me how to bowl off-spin.
“I just tried to copy what my dad bowled and accidentally bowled leg-spin! I remember that had been quite good and instead of trying to bowl proper off-spin, I thought I’d stick with bowling leg-spin. I think my dad and my grandad realised it was quite a unique thing to be able to bowl.”
Russell, 20, who was born in South Wales, moved to Gloucestershire as a small child and got into cricket first playing with his grandad Geoffrey, a former cricketer for North Nibley CC, on the local playing field. Kevin too was heavily involved in club cricket with Stinchcombe Stragglers, having come through the Gloucestershire age groups, a route his son would also follow.
Russell Junior duly progressed into the Gloucestershire Academy, becoming a regular in the Second XI alongside playing Minor Counties cricket for Herefordshire. Hopes of securing a permanent deal at Bristol were dashed when he was released at the end of last season, but a lifeline came from former seamer Chris Liddle, now bowling coach at Wantage Road.
“When I was at Gloucester, I had a good relationship with Chris. He captained me in some of my second team games. I played club cricket with him too, so I knew him really well.
“After I got released, he just sent me a message asking if I wanted to come up and train with the Northants lads at Loughborough and bowl in the nets. I did that and did quite well.”
Clearly impressed, Northamptonshire invited him to play their first second team game of the year away at Bradford. He seized his opportunity, taking a five-wicket haul in Yorkshire’s first innings, and duly received an offer that evening of a two-month contract to cover until the end of the Vitality Blast.
After becoming leading wicket-taker for the seconds, Russell was named in the squad for Northamptonshire’s first Vitality Blast game and made a senior debut in front of a near full house at Old Trafford, picking up England batter Liam Livingstone as his maiden wicket.
“I had been close to playing a few of the games before, so I felt like I had a decent chance of playing, but obviously you’re still not too sure. Then I got told just before the toss which was a little bit nerve-wracking because it was a Friday evening game, and it was virtually sold out. Luckily, we batted first, so I had a little bit of time to figure out what was going on.
“Bowling probably went as well as I could have hoped. Livingstone was a pretty nice first wicket and I just bowled well in general really, which was probably the nicest start I could have wished to have.
My girlfriend came and watched, it was a pretty special day and one I’ll never forget.”
Russell also drew confidence from taking two key wickets against Essex in the Royal London Cup to help set up a Steelbacks victory.
“Northants can be a tough ground to bowl at. The wicket’s very good, boundaries can be quite small, and so to have success there has been really nice. To get Tom Westley out was really good. He’s a fantastic player, so it gave me a lot of a lot of confidence to break that big partnership and then get their overseas player Grant Roelofsen which, looking back, was quite a big moment in the game.
“That was probably where I felt I was starting to find my feet in first-team cricket, the first time I’d felt really settled. I’ve been able to kick on from that performance.”
Northamptonshire recently extended his rookie contract until the end of 2023 with Second XI head coach Graeme White calling him “a really quality leg spinner who gives it a good rip at a good pace”.
Clearly delighted by the news, Russell has valued the backing he has received from Northamptonshire from the first day he arrived.
“This year has been a bit of a turning point in terms of consistency. There are a lot of things I want to work on, but I feel this year everything started to click into place. It’s been the best I’ve bowled so far, which I put down to having good support around me, playing under good captains, good coaches. That’s probably the little five or ten per cent difference that’s helped me really kick on.”
As well as White, another Northamptonshire spinner Simon Kerrigan has been a mentor to Russell who has been eager to draw on all his experience.
“Simon’s been brilliant. He was captain in the first second team game that I played, so I’ve had that relationship with him from the start. Watching him take that five-for at Kent, when I was twelfth man, was nice and being able to chat to him during that game about what he was thinking, what he was doing.”
Russell has been working hard on adding another stock ball to his arsenal and is looking forward to a full winter’s training to perfect that further and develop his batting. He is now targeting a LV= Insurance County Championship debut next month to round off a memorable summer.