Phil Tufnell: A curious mix


Phil Tufnell, born April 29, 1966, was an eccentric yet efficient left-arm spinner. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at one of the real characters of the game.

They don’t make them like Phil Tufnell any more.

There have been better cricketers. Why, even England had produced left-arm spinners of far better calibre — several of them. To add to that, Tufnell couldn’t bat (he averaged 5.10 in Tests, and himself believe “when I batted, I was permanently confronting lost causes”) or field to save his life. What, then, made him stand out?

Let us make a list, then:

– He got expelled from a private school
– He was a punk rock rebel in his teens, often adorning multiple earrings
– He consumed marijuana in a toilet cubicle and got caught
– He was penalised for trashing a hotel room
– He was disciplined for ‘a five-in-a-bed extravaganza with four strawberry blondes’
– He missed a match to shop for a refrigerator
– He could sleep whenever he felt like, and was nicknamed ‘The Cat’ as a result
– He was fined when he refused to bat in the nets on an Ashes tour (“it was difficult to see how a regular net would ever get me to a Test match hundred)
– He had a row with umpire Peter McConnell on his Test debut regarding how many balls were left in the over
– He slapped his wife once, and his father-in-law hit him on his face with a brick in return: both were fined
– He quit cricket just before a fresh season (in 2003) to participate in a television reality show (I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here); he ended up winning it: the contest included consuming five live insects
– He also participated in three other television shows on completely different subjects: Would I Lie To You? (a comedy panel game show — where he confessed of having recurrent dreams of being a potato chased by a pitchfork), They Think It’s All Over (a sports quiz show), and Strictly Come Dancing (a dance show, where he was partnered by Katya Virshilas) — along with a soap opera called Family Affairs

– He was given an honorary Doctorate by Middlesex University
– He often entertained everyone with his fielding…

– … and batting…

– … and the occasional lapse in bowling.


Let’s move on to more serious aspects now. Tufnell played 42 Tests for England, picking up 121 wickets at a rather ordinary 37.68. Had he been a more disciplined person, his average would probably have been better by several notches. Playing for Middlesex, he picked up 1,057 First-Class wickets at 29.35 (and even scored a fifty) — despite his role as a replacement for Phil Edmonds (and as a partner to John Emburey) never came off.

His Test economy rate, though, was a fantastic 2.42 — which made him the third-best in the 1990s with anyone over a hundred Test wickets — behind just Curtly Ambrose and Shaun Pollock, and ahead of the likes of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, and Anil Kumble.

Tufnell was more accurate than many bowlers of his era (which makes one wonder why he was not picked for more than 20 Tests), and often talked of having his ball ‘on a string’. Despite his accuracy, he was a master of the art of flight, and preferred deceiving the batsman in air to beating him with his turn.

He began his Test career with a wicketless Test at Melbourne, but took five for 61 in the next Test at Sydney, bowling out the Australians for 205. Later that year he turned up against the West Indians at The Oval – and single-handedly wrecked them with 6 for 25, and single-handedly inflicted a rare defeat on the indomitables.

The amazing form continued. He took 5 for 94 against Sri Lanka at Lord’s later that season, and in the next season, he routed New Zealand by an innings — virtually alone — by picking up 4 for 100 and a career-best 7 for 47 (from 46.1 overs).

It all went horribly wrong from there. After the next Test at Auckland Tufnell’s figures read 35 wickets from 8 Tests at 24.14 — with 4 five-fors and a ten-for. He found himself in and out of the side due to indifferent form (though he was doing a fine containing job to support the seamers), and did not manage to take a single five-for for over five years.

A poor relationship with the management did not help his cause, either. Additionally, he was often asked to go on the defence, having to bowl over-the-wicket to the right-handers (especially in the Ashes of 1994-95 and on the West Indies tour in 1997-98) — something that left-arm spinners typically detest.

Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, he was summoned for the dead Ashes Test of 1997 at The Oval. After a bruised, battered, psychologically deflated England were bowled out for a paltry 180 (Tufnell got to bat above Devon Malcolm), Australia blazed off to 49 without loss.

Enter Tufnell. He began with a ripper that pitched outside off, turned viciously, and crashed into Matthew Elliott’s stumps with his fourth ball; Mark Taylor was caught at forward short-leg, and Mark Waugh at silly mid-off; Alec Stewart caught Greg Blewett magnificently; Ian Healy and Shaun Young were caught behind as well; and a venomous turn resulted in Ricky Ponting edging one to slip. Tufnell ended up picking 7 for 66 on his comeback innings.

Australia were bowled out for 220, but Michael Kasprowicz ran through the English batting line-up, routing them for 163. Asked to chase 104 for a win, Australia ran into Tufnell once again, though this time he was assisted by Andy Caddick. The pair bowled unchanged — Tufnell picking up 4 for 27 while Caddick took 5 for 42. Tufnell finished with match figures of 11 for 93 — his best in Test cricket. ‘The Cat’ was back, and how!

That was all, though. Let alone five — he took four wickets in an innings only once more — 4 for 124 against South Africa at Port Elizabeth in 1999. He once again got a recall in the Ashes of 2001 at The Oval — where he had pulled off two of his greatest performances — but he failed. It turned out to be his last Test.

Later years

After quitting cricket, Tufnell made the occasional appearance in the Test Match Special commentary team, and hosted The Phil Tufnell Show on BBC Radio 5. He is also a team captain of the BBC panel show A Question of Sport. He also co-presents The Flowerpot Gang.

Tufnell is the President of Cricket for Change (a sports charity) and the Vice-President of The Children’s Trust, Tadsworth. Along with his wife Dawn, Tufnell won the first prize worth £30,000 for the ITV show All-Star Mr & Mrs for their charity. Three years later, he appeared on The Chase, a game show, and won £20,000 — once again for charity.