It's a jungle out there

June 7 2003 / The Observer

Before he became a celebrity, Phil Tufnell was a cricketer. With a nice looping action and considerable control, he bowled, should we ever forget, slow left arm spin for Middlesex and, with intermittent success, for England. He was never what one might call a celebrity cricketer: there have been so few of those in recent times, certainly in England. Ian Botham, Geoff Boycott perhaps - er, that’s about it. But if Tufnell wasn’t a celebrity, he was the next best thing in the monochrome world of English cricket - a personality. He may have been a public school boy, but he was also a bit of a lad, a latter-day artful dodger who spoke in a wised-up, street-smart demotic. He experimented with drugs. He drank and smoked heavily. He didn’t train too hard, would go missing late at night while on tour with England and was often in trouble with women, which made him popular with the tabloids - popular fodder, that is.

Amid the bland uniformity and general mediocrity of the county circuit, he was different. His teammates called him ‘The Cat’, because he could sleep whenever he wanted, wherever he wanted: up all night, asleep all day, they used to say. Everyone else called him Tuffers, even those who had never met him. With his long chin and curling, mischevious smile, his floppy fringe and shrewd eyes, Tuffers, you sensed, was a fun kind of guy. It did not really matter that he could scarcely hold a bat or that he was slow and unathletic in the field. At least, in the English way of old, he didn’t take his sport too seriously. All this made him suspect with many of his fellow cricketers but, to the fans, he was always one of the boys. And now he is King of the Jungle. Could any man ask for more?

Tuffers and I are sitting in a bar at the Oval cricket ground. In an open-necked striped shirt and casual, loose-fitting cotton suit, he is fashionably dishevelled. He may be hungover, having had a very late night, or perhaps he’s simply tired. Later this evening he will be presenting his weekly cricket show on Radio 5 Live so, for now, he is sensibly drinking nothing stronger than orange juice. Out on the green field below England are taking on a young, inexperienced Pakistan side that has arrived for an entirely meaningless three-game one-day series.

Tuffers, who is seldom without a cigarette, isn’t that interested in the cricket. He has many more important things to do today, such as offering his thoughts, live on air to Simon Mayo of Radio 5, on life, cricket and his life in cricket, as well as meeting accountants and management consultants as they enjoy a day of corporate entertainment in a hospitality box. The accountants have booked their hospitality through a company called Paragon, which Tufnell runs with his brother, Greg, and his amiable agent Mike Martin. A personal appearance by Tuffers is the little extra that Paragon can offer its clients. Tuffers carries out all the duties asked of him, no matter how banal, with patience and good humour, because, as he keeps telling me, these are ‘happy days’ for him, days of glory.

Since emerging from an Australian jungle as winner of ITV’s I’m a Celebrity - Get Me Out of Here, during which he was forced to eat bugs and proved adept at building camp fires, Tuffers has been ceaselessly on the move, travelling across the country in search of even greater celebrity and, no doubt, some very good pay days. In the past few days alone he has dressed up as a character from The Matrix outside Earls Court exhibition centre, judged a barbecue competition between rival teams at a London pub (a perk of celebrity, this one), been paid to visit Ascot, agreed to become a team captain on BBC’s They Think It’s All Over, and been followed by a Sky documentary team, as well as somehow finding the time to meet any number of would-be sponsors. How are you enjoying your new life, Phil? I ask. ‘I’m having fun, mate. You’ve got to enjoy it while you can. Happy days!’

They certainly are. Mike Martin assures me that Tuffers is truly a man of our times, popular with all age groups. ‘Grannies stop him in the street, and so do young men,’ he says, with pride. His appearance fee alone, since returning from Australia, has increased from £2,000 to anything up to £15,000. For a man who claims to be be so poor that he doesn’t have even a ‘pot to piss in’, Tuffers may soon be very rich indeed. ‘I’m not so sure about that,’ he says. ‘People keep telling me I’m going to be a millionaire but I’d like to see some of the money first before I believe them.’

Twice divorced and the father of two young girls, Tuffers, who is 37, lives with his latest girlfriend, Dawn (‘my Dawnie’) in a small two-bed terraced house in Sutton. He tells me that he owns what he calls a ‘big house’ out at Chigwell in Essex, but ‘I’m not allowed to live in it.’ Why not? ‘Because my second wife lives there and she fucking hates me.’ There is bitterness in his tobacco-scorched laugh.

As we walk through the lunchtime crowds at the Oval, Tuffers banters with those who pause to shake his hand or congratulate him, he signs autographs and shows no displeasure when one man shouts out that he should enjoy his ‘15 minutes’ while he can. ‘I don’t know why people keep congratulating me,’ he says, oblivious to the odd passing shout of ‘idiot’ and worse. ‘I didn’t really do anything special in the jungle. I was just being myself out there, and having a bit of a laugh.’

Tuffers was first approached to appear as a housemate in Celebrity Big Brother but he was still playing for Middlesex at the time and this offer didn’t quite fit his schedule. But when Middlesex showed reluctance to extend his contract beyond the 2003 season and with his Test career over, Mike Martin advised him to accept ITV’s offer of a fortnight of potential humiliation, in an Australian jungle, in the company of the diminutive Ant and Dec and other creepy-crawlies. What did he hope to achieve by taking part in the show?

‘I just thought it would be a bit of a laugh,’ he says, laughing. This, it seems, is his standard response to questions.

Why does he think he was chosen?

‘I dunno.’

Was he paid to go to Australia?

‘What kind of question is that?’ he says, irritated. ‘Well, I was given a few quid.’

Was he concerned that only comic grotesques, those with dysfunctional personalities or with troubled histories, were chosen for such shows? ‘Look, mate. It never occurred to me to consider what I might get out of it, if that’s what you mean.’

Much later, however, long after England have beaten Pakistan and we are sitting in an empty stand, he says: ‘There were times when I would wake up in that jungle in the night and think: “What am I doing here? What’s going on?” Now, when people congratulate me, I ask myself this: “What have I won really?” I’ve won nothing. The whole experience - especially with what’s happening to me now - is completely surreal. I don’t know what’s really going on or what I’m going to do next.’

How seriously should we take Phil Tufnell? Simon Hughes, the Channel 4 broadcaster and a former Middlesex teammate, says that while his public persona is not an elaborate act, he is much shrewder than one would think. Hughes believes that sport is much more revealing of personality and character than any game show and the truth about Tufnell the sportsman and indeed the man is that he is deeply insecure. ‘He needs constant reassurance, praise, encouragement. You really have to treat him with kid gloves,’ he says. ‘When we were playing together, he was always asking if the ball was coming out of his hand all right. “Am I turning it? Am I being cut?” he would say. “How did I do? Was I all right?” When he was batting, he would always be worried that he was backing away, especially from the fast bowlers. He had a lot of skill as a bowler but not much self-belief or confidence. He was unreliable, both as a bowler and as a teammate. You never knew what mood he would be in. And he was always getting himself into scrapes - with women or the law. His relationship history is very twisted. He’s never had the right girl. Money was also a worry to him; he had a reputation for being rather mean. I guess, in the end, Phil is a very vulnerable and insecure man, and it is this that causes him to self-destruct.’

When I mention Hughes’s comments to Tufnell, he becomes, for the first time, rather diffident. The hectic banter and jack-the-laddish posturing give way to a more restrained, contemplative delivery. He seems distracted and, as he removes his sunglasses, I notice that there is an odd distance in his inflamed, sun-strained eyes. ‘The thing about cricket,’ he says, after a long hesitation, ‘is that I’m sure it saved my life. If I hadn’t played cricket, I don’t know what would have become of me. It was the only thing I could ever do well. When I was on a cricket pitch, even when I was having a bad day and not getting any wickets, everything seemed to be all right. It was when I left the pitch that everything in my life seemed to become chaos.’

He remembers the camaraderie of the Middlesex dressing room - the banter and teasing - with affection, but has no regrets about having broken his contract to be free for his jungle adventure. ‘The club were offering me no real security.’

Earlier, on arrival at the Oval, Tuffers went straight to the Radio 5 commentary box where, quite unexpectedly, he met his former Middlesex captain Mike Gatting. Alec Stewart, who as England captain was instrumental in the decision to exclude Tufnell from the 1998 tour of Australia, was also in the box, and it was amusing to observe how all three of them immediately assumed their old adversarial roles, as if they were once more together in a dressing room, with Tufnell - or ‘Cat’ as they preferred to call him - defending himself against a tirade of mockery. Tufnell mentions in passing that he has been given a new sports car. ‘Who gave you that then, Cat?’ Stewart asks, astonished. When Tufnell is asked a question by Mayo, he turns towards Gatting, once he has answered, opening his arms in exasperated helplessness, as if to say: ‘Look, I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing.’

When I asked Tuffers later how he felt to be excluded by Stewart from that 1998 tour, he said: ‘At the time, you are very hurt and deflated. More than anything else as a cricketer you want to play for your country and it’s hard to be left out of the team or from an important tour. But what can you do? You can either give up, or fight twice as hard to get back into contention.’

But you were never renowned as a fighter?

‘I don’t know about that,’ he says. ‘What I wasn’t was an enthusiastic trainer. I put in my work in the nets, but I couldn’t see the point of training fanatically, spending all my time in the gym and the rest. I liked a drink and a fag and I didn’t see why I should hide that. I’ve seen grown men hiding in the toilets while they have a fag because they don’t want the coach to see them. That’s ridiculous.’

Tufnell learnt very early on just how unpredictable and capricious the life of a cricketer could be, something which influenced his whole approach to the game. ‘If you are a sprinter your duty is to run as fast as you can. There isn’t much that can stop you getting on with what you do. But there are so many variables in cricket - the weather, the pitch, whether someone drops a catch or not - so much that is outside your control that you never feel fully on top of the game.’

Gatting, while frustrated by Tuffnell’s lack of application and dedication to his craft, still praises his natural talent. ‘If he had worked harder, he could have achieved so much more,’ he told me. It is said that Gatting got more out of Tufnell than any other captain, certainly more so than Graham Gooch, who was easily exasperated by his nonchalance and swagger. Angus Fraser, who played under both Gatting and Gooch and toured regularly with Tufnell for Middlesex and England, describes Tufnell as having been driven by extremes. ‘He could be amusing and engaging but he could also be incredibly frustrating and often unpleasant, especially when you had to spend long periods away with him on tour. There was one tour - the 1994-95 tour to Australia - when he ended up seeing a psychiatrist, so disturbed had become the relationships in his life. He was gifted all right, but lacked a certain work ethic. He could have done so much better with his ability, but his basic insecurity always got in the way.’

Tufnell was a talented junior schoolboy cricketer, both as an opening bowler and batsman. In his teens, while being coached at the MCC, he was encouraged, because he bowled left-handed, to experiment with spin; he responded with enthusiasm and soon discovered that he had a natural gift for flight and for turning the ball away from the right-hander. It was about this time that his mother died from leukaemia. He was very close to her and, for a period, he stopped playing cricket altogether as his home life in north London became more disordered. He realises now that he spent much of a troubled adolescence - he was expelled from school - mourning his mother; indeed, there is a sense, when you speak to him, that he may be still mourning her even today. As winner of Celebrity, he received £400,000 to donate to charity; he chose leukaemia research. He spoke to me often of his mother and said that, although he did not believe in benevolent destiny, he felt that ‘somewhere somehow my mother is watching over me’.

For such a naturally gifted spinner of the ball, Tufnell had a disappointing Test career, taking 121 wickets at an indifferent average of 37. He twice bowled England to victory at the Oval, against the then powerful West Indies in 1991 and against Australia in 1997, when, on a pitch that was taking extravagant turn, he bowled as well as anyone can remember, finishing with match figures of 11-93. ‘Those days are what you play the game for,’ he says, ‘but they are so rare. You have to take the good times when they come because, in cricket, you know they won’t last long.’

Tufnell, you sense, is an instinctive pessimist: too much, starting with the early death of his mother, has gone wrong in his life for him not to be. Beyond cricket, he has never had any clear career aspirations and he says he lives each day as he finds it in the hope that the future will be better. What frustrates him most about his new-found celebrity is that he may have to let friends down. ‘I agreed to play cricket for an old friend. Then the other day some bloke rings up offering me 10 grand to stand on his stall. I had to take the offer, because you have to nick a few quid while you can, don’t you? But it meant letting my friend down, which is hard.’

The world of professional cricket is peculiar. It is quite unlike any other sport. Small groups of men, not all of whom like each other, are condemned, because the game continues to adhere to rituals and patterns of behaviour established long before the age of commercial jet travel, to spend long periods away from home together in a closed, artificial environment. If a cricketer is out of form on tour, he can easily become isolated, frustrated and depressed, as Tufnell was on numerous occasions. ‘If you ever expressed doubts about your game or your form on tour, or confided in someone about your fears and anxieties, that was often seen as a weakness, which can’t be right,’ he told me. ‘The whole thing should be about working together, but it often wasn’t.’

If Tufnell rebelled against the uniformity and general weirdness of life on tour, it was because he is very much a free spirit. (He says the claustrophobia of life on tour was the ideal preparation for life in the jungle.) He may, since returning from Australia, have become something of a parody of himself, but, in person, he is genuine and amusing. The insecurity about which his former teammates speak is there for all to see (he pleaded with me, for instance, to have copy approval for this article; when I declined, he spent 10 minutes apologising for ever having asked) as are the unpredictability, tantrums and mood swings that have so delighted the tabloids. Yet there is nothing calculated about him; he is rather guileless and gauche, which is why, perhaps, he ended up winning Celebrity. ‘The thing about Phil,’ says Linda Barker, a fellow captive in the jungle, ‘is that he’s just a really nice, unaffected guy. What you see with him is what you get: we all liked him.’

Much gossiping takes place behind the scenes at an international cricket match, particularly in the media centre, where players-turned-broadcasters restlessly patrol the corridors, murmuring into mobile phones or aimlessly swapping jokes. Tuffers was received with warmth by Ian Botham and Dermot Reeve but more circumspectly by David Gower and Mark Nicholas, the self-contented frontman of Channel 4’s cricket coverage. When I spoke to Gower, he was gently dismissive of Tufnell the broadcaster and indeed of Tufnell the media construct.

Was Gower perhaps just a little disappointed at being replaced by Tuffers as a team captain on They Think It’s Over?

‘Do you want the official or unofficial line?’ he said, and then answered his own question. ‘The official line is that I’m moving on to new projects.’

And the unofficial line?

‘You can work that out for yourself.’

It is late in the evening now and, as the sun sets on a long hot day, Tuffers is posing for photographs when he suddenly notices Ian Botham making his way slowly across a deserted outfield. ‘Oi, Beef!’ he yells out. ‘Beefy, all right?’

Botham raises a lazy arm but doesn’t stop to talk. Now, Tuffers isn’t laughing.

‘Something’s got to him,’ he mutters to himself as he watches Botham disappear into the shadows at the other end of the ground. ‘Something must have got to him.’ There is panic in his voice.

He turns back to the camera but is distracted by an attractive young blonde. They have a brief conversation.

‘Do you know what she called me? She called me the king of cheese.’ He is delighted. ‘And you know what? She’s right - I am the king of cheese.’

Happy days indeed.