Before heading to this year's IPL, Andre Russell said to his family that he wanted the Most Valuable Player award at all costs. He got it. After the IPL, he said to his wife that there would be no time off for him because he wanted to work hard to take the same honour in the World Cup. In an exclusive interview with ESPNcricinfo in Southampton immediately after West Indies' unofficial warm-up against Australia, Russell revealed how the one-year anti-doping ban he served in 2017 pushed him to try to become one of the best players in the world.
You are back in West Indies colours after a while. That must be extra special, before the World Cup?
Yeah, of course. In the last series [at home, against England], I joined the West Indies team. It didn't go well with my knee issues. I couldn't even walk. And then to see the guys gelling together and playing in front of the Caribbean crowd, winning games, doing well and to tie the series - it was something I was eager to be a part of. I went back home, worked extra hard on my rehab and made sure that my knees are in the best form. I'm happy to be back, especially on a big stage like the World Cup.
You have been in good nick after the IPL, where you were destructive. Do you feel people are expecting you to play just like that in the World Cup?
A lot of people expect me to do the same thing that I've been doing in other leagues, especially the IPL. People say to me that they can't wait for the World Cup because I'm going to smash all these...
It's a total different feel, you're talking about 50 overs. When you look at T20 cricket, me going out to bat with 30 balls to go, it's a totally different mindset. I look to back myself. If I face 15 or 16 balls out of the 30, I can get close to 50 runs, and that is good for the team.
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But you have to bat a bit smarter in 50-over cricket. If I go with the same mindset here, it may work. And if it don't work, you will look stupid, getting out with 15 overs to go. My mindset is still clear. Once the ball is in my area, I go with it and then be a bit more patient.
There was a lot of talk about where you should really come in the batting order at Kolkata Knight Riders. There is this feeling that you were coming in too late. But you thrived in the high-pressure moments. Where are you most comfortable coming in to bat for West Indies?
I'm always a flexible guy. Originally [I'm] supposed to bat at six. If West Indies are batting and we have good momentum, 30 overs bowled, only lost two wickets, then with only [about] 15 overs to go and we are 240-250, we're having a good day, I'll come in at five. These are changes that I don't have a problem with. As long as I get over ten overs to bat, the team will definitely see some fireworks from Dre Russ.
"The record is 59 sixes [in an IPL season]. I'm going to try and go for that record, because I've done it so easy this year without thinking about the record"
I back myself to bat wherever the team needs me. If they need me to bat at No. 4, to bat 30 overs, I'm willing to do that. But I'm happy batting when [there are] ten to 15 overs [left]. And I hope that the batsmen at the top can actually bat as long as possible because the longer they bat, they set the game up so I can come in and do what I do best. If I need to bat 35 overs, that's going to be a game where we're reeling. I need to come in and bat long. I can do that. So I'm ready to do whatever.
Where does the strength lie with this West Indies team?
The strength is in our batting. You have Chris Gayle at the top, with Evin Lewis, then [Darren] Bravo and [Shimron] Hetmyer, Shai Hope, myself, Jason [Holder], Carlos [Brathwaite]. You have [Nicholas] Pooran as well. All these guys coming out of the IPL with form. We all know what they can do. We have to win this World Cup with the bat, because most teams are getting over 300 runs comfortably now. We can't look to say we gonna defend. We have to try and win this tournament with the bat, meaning scoring close to 400 runs every game. Guys are going to feel the pressure. They're going to make mistakes. Even if we bowl bad, we might still get wickets. You're chasing 12-13 an over. For a batsman to go in and see they need 13-14 runs an over and to score that consistently for 10-15 overs [is tough]. That's why we have to make sure we raise the bar with the bat in this World Cup.
How do you embrace the role of being one of the most senior players in the team alongside your captain Jason Holder?
Jason is a very, very, cool guy. I'm willing to share whatever experience I've earned over the years. I know he must be picking Chris' brains. When I'm with him [Gayle], I don't talk cricket all the time because I know, as a player, it's annoying. But I pick his brain and ask him what his mindset is like when he goes to bat. It is funny, you know - all these big players have nerves too.
Really? Do you still get nervous?
Of course. I don't show it. But every single game, I'm nervous. Nervous to do well. It's not nervousness that "I am scared of the bowler". The more I perform, the better people expect me to do all the time. The expectation is so high that it makes me nervous to do well. Once I get a boundary or two, I'm set and I'm underway.
You had a year away from cricket due to the anti-doping ban. Not once during that time did I see you down. Where did that positive energy come from?
God put us on this earth for a reason. There is a saying, and you know this as well because we are from Jamaica: everything happens for a reason, and God don't give a man more than what he can bear. I believe in that saying. When I got banned for a year, I didn't do anything wrong and it happened. My family come to my house every two days just to sit and talk to me, try to comfort me. "You're okay?" I'm like, "Yes, I'm good." I still do everything. I never posted nothing negative about JADCO [Jamaica Anti-Doping Commission] or whoever was in charge. I was just saying to myself, "You know what? Maybe this is a part of my journey."
I just called my trainer and I said, "Big man, I need you to start making me work harder." I started running with parachutes on my back, started training like an NFL player. I tried to look for workouts, exercises that I've never seen a cricketer do. That's how I motivated myself, because I wanted to come back stronger. A lot of people accused me. "Oh yeah, I know he was on something because he's too strong. I know he was taking drugs."
You know, I'm strong, mentally. And if I wasn't strong, maybe I would shed tears. Because when I showed my mum and my grandparents those things, they were like, "Oh my god, why are they saying that?" And I'm like, "That's just how social media is. People always look for the negative things to comment."
But I'm still here. I look at David Warner and Steven Smith go through a similar situation. Their condition was better than mine, because they could still play in other leagues. My condition was so terrible, right? Just for filing failures. I didn't update my whereabouts on time.
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I couldn't even go to certain grounds to watch a cricket match. I thought I had killed someone.
The ban took you away from what you love, didn't it?
It was so annoying. I couldn't be seen at certain grounds practising. Once, a guy wasn't allowed to bowl to me. I wasn't allowed to bowl to him. It was so unfair to me. I was like, "Why is my life so hard?" But I didn't question it too much. I just know that it is a part of life, and I'm going to use this opportunity to get more success.
When I came back in 2018, I came back strong, smashing sixes for West Indies and working my way back into the 50-over format. Before I went to the IPL [in 2019], I wanted to achieve the MVP. I leave home and I said to my mother and family, "Listen, MVP - that's what I want to achieve. Even if my team win or lose, the MVP should be Andre Russell."
"I changed my mentality since I got banned. [Before] I was slacking off. When I got the ban, I came back stronger, leaner, more muscle. I'm hitting the ball effortlessly for six"
I set my standard. I didn't plan to hit 52 sixes. That's just crazy. Chris Gayle's record is 59 sixes. I didn't even know that. I just didn't believe 59 sixes were possible in a season, but I could have done it. It's actually something for me to think about next year. I'm going to try and go for that record, because I've done [52 sixes] so easy this year without thinking about the record. If I knew there was a record like that, when eight games were gone, I would have focused on just hitting sixes.
Who in the cricket world stuck by you during your time off from the game?
Most players were still in communication. I live good with each and every player. I don't live bad with people, because when you have enemies, it's never healthy. I want to drive my cars in Jamaica with my window down and with my top back and enjoy life. I don't want to be hiding and curse out people or be disrespectful to people. That's not my life.
The way Chris lives with people, that's amazing. That's why I choose a guy like that to be my idol. I idolise his career, the way he goes about it, how humble he is. He just gets along with people. He will just see two strangers and be like, "Hey mate, what are you drinking?" It makes me realise that it doesn't matter what you achieve or how much you achieve. Always be humble and just be a nice person.
I've met people on flights and they are powerful people - rich businessmen. They are so business-headed that it helped me become a businessman. Being a businessman is not easy while playing cricket, but when I picked their brains and talked to them about business and how would I do this or do that - it helped my game as well. You end up being smart, wiser.
My biggest fear in life is to go back to where I came from. I'm from a poor background. Most athletes, most cricketers, most basketballers, most successful people, don't get a handout. We all work hard for it. Cricket don't pay forever. Our lifespan is until 35, and then you start thinking about another year, another two years, because your body is getting older. I want to play till I'm 38-40, but when I get to 35, I'll see how it is. I'm 31 now and sometimes getting out of the bed, I'm like, "Aaargh." (laughs)
You said in the IPL that bowlers fear you. What are your plans when you attack bowlers? Is it instinctive or just natural to hit bowlers out of the ground?
When you have a skill and you are blessed in a certain way, it becomes easy for you. Someone sees from outside, they're like "Wow, it's hard."
So you're born with it?
I think I have it naturally. It's like Jofra Archer bowling at 150kph. Like, he don't have a big, long run-up. He's skinny. But his inner strength and his action is perfect. [Jasprit] Bumrah don't have a proper run-up. I would never teach my son to run up like Bumrah. But at the end of the day, cricket is evolving. [Lasith] Malinga - different action. But they all bowl good pace and are very, very effective.
With my batting - it's just a gift. I work hard at it as well, because you might get a gift - like Steph Curry is good at shooting three-pointers, but if he takes a week away from the gym and doesn't shoot any ball, he's going to become rusty. That's how I'm consistent. I make sure I keep batting, keep bowling, do something. I was home for a week or two weeks recently. I was planning a vacation after the IPL. I was saying to my wife, "Listen, I ain't got no rest time. World Cup is coming next. MVP. People expectin' Andre Russell to do what he's been doing for KKR."
So I went to the beach, put in some work. I have a gym at home. I put in work late nights. Because of the time difference [from India during the IPL], coming back to the Caribbean, I was up till 2-3 in the morning. Sometimes people think I post [on social media] every time I work out. No. I work out late nights, I work out early mornings - but I post when I feel like. I work out twice a day. I bat, go to the physio, then bowl, then go home, gym.
When I look at Cristiano Ronaldo and LeBron James, I watch their progress. They work hard and that's why they're so successful. I changed my mentality since I got banned. [Before] I was slacking off. I was big. I was lazy. I wasn't practising hard. Then when I got the ban, I came back stronger, leaner, more muscle. I'm hitting the ball effortlessly for six. Sometimes I don't even time the ball well and it still goes for six just because of the hard work I've put in. We all have to be disciplined if we want to be a legend.
"The way Chris [Gayle] lives with people, that's amazing - the way he goes about it, how humble he is. He just gets along with people. He will see two strangers and be like, 'Hey mate, what are you drinking?"
I would love to contribute big for West Indies and help them win this World Cup. If I can play an innings like I did in the IPL in the final of the World Cup and put West Indies over the line, lifting that cup would mean... I don't even know how to explain it. Can't describe that.
What are you favourite shots?
One of my favourite shots is a pull off a fast bowler, because a lot of guys have it that I'm not a good puller or hooker. To be honest, since I saw what happened to Phil Hughes [who died after being hit on the side of the head] - may his soul rest in peace - it shake me up. I get serious and realise this is a life-and-death sport.
When I bowled a ball and it hit [Usman] Khawaja [in the unofficial warm-up] this evening, I run to him and I was like, "You okay?" I tried to bowl a short ball to get him out or to bowl a dot ball, not to hit him. I don't like to see blood. I don't like to hurt someone else. It is a tough sport. We all have to be tough.
So a short ball from a fast bowler and I pull it in the stands - that's the best shot ever, because I'm used to hitting sixes in this area. I'm accustomed to batting at the death and that's where I get most of my runs from. Yorkers, low full toss, length balls - I don't worry about those. I worry about the short balls and pulling them or upper-cutting them for six. I get goosebumps when I play those shots. I'm like, "Okay, I've put the fast bowler under pressure."