THE BIG INTERVIEW
WISECRACKING cricketer Rex Purnell is well-known for delivering the witty one-liner.
Whether it is in the dressing room at Chorley Cricket Club or on the stage in his guise as a stand-up comedian at the Frog and Bucket Comedy Club in Preston, the 49-year-old boasts an innate ability to make people laugh.
So it is apt that Purnell seems destined to be Chorley’s ‘Joker in the Pack’ this season as they target glory on a national stage.
Andrew Holdsworth men’s surprise – but welcome – run to the last eight of the ECB National Club Knockout Competition has evoked memories of the club’s glory days of the 1990s when they reached the final at Lord’s in three successive years.
Back then, Purnell played an integral role as Chorley, skippered by Roland Horridge, were crowned Abbot Ale Cup – as the competition was known back then – champions in 1994 and 1995, before finishing runners-up in 1996.
Nowadays, having reached veteran status, Purnell no longer commands a regular place in Chorley’s starting XI in the Northern League.
However, the club is still keen to tap into his vast experience and knowledge – especially on the big occasion.
Drafted into the side for the last-16 encounter against Bowdon a couple of weeks ago, Purnell took two wickets with his self-described slow left-arm ‘duckers’ as Chorley restricted the Greater Manchester-based side to 160-6.
In reply, No.10 batsman Purnell (eight not out) then held firm with the bat as he and partner Billy Smith guided their team to a dramatic victory with just one ball and two wickets to spare.
With the serious stuff of ensuring victory out of the way, it was cue for Purnell to enjoy a celebratory drink, or several, in the pavilion after the game – with a joke or two thrown in for good measure.
“There is a serious side to me. I’m serious when I need to be but it probably doesn’t last for too long,” Purnell said with a grin.
“Generally in life I prefer to be having a laugh and looking on the bright side of life.
“It was a great day when we beat Bowdon.
“I’m at a stage where I can’t commit to playing every week like I used to but I will play if I’m available. If the club want to pick me and I’m available, I will play.
“Cricket is a young man’s game but I try to keep myself fit and bowling slow left-arm is not too strenuous.
“As we know, cricket is an all-day job and it can turn into all-night job, especially if you win in the cup – which I found to my cost the day after our win over Bowdon!
“I was nursing a slight hangover on the Monday morning.”
Although Purnell may have a jokey demeanour, there is a real sense of determination in his voice when he discusses the prospect of Chorley’s current crop emulating the class of the 1990s.
In 1994, Chorley defeated Ealing at Lord’s and then defended their title a year later at cricket’s HQ by getting the better of Gloucestershire-based outfit Clifton Flax Bourton.
They were unable to make it an unprecedented hat-trick of titles a year later when they were beaten by Walsall. Unfortunately, these days the competition’s showpiece match has moved from Lord’s – although this year’s finalists will get the opportunity to test themselves at Gloucestershire’s County Ground.
“I’ll never forget those days in the ’90s,” Purnell said.
“There were a number of people at Windsor Park against Bowdon who used to come and watch us up and down the country back then and you could see the memories of our cup runs coming back to them.
“To see some of the spectators celebrating – they were relating it all back to ’94, ’95 and ’96.
“I think we took more than 1,000 spectators with us down to Lord’s – there were coach loads. They were special times. Being able to do something like that with a special group of players was just incredible.
“I guess it’s all about moments and memories – and they are memories that no one will ever take away from me.
“Cricket has always been my thing so to play at Lord’s – the home of cricket – is the ultimate honour. I am very lucky.
“Can we do it again and reach the final? Well, who knows?
“There are only eight teams left in it – so we have got a chance. There’s a lot of talent in our team and if we keep playing to the best of our ability, then you never know.
“When we won the competition before, we were beating teams who were, on paper, far stronger than us.
“I remember in the first final against Ealing in ’94 – if they could catch, we would have lost that game.
“In the second final against Clifton Flax Bourton, they had the game won – then we took a wicket and we ran through them.
“So we are in it to win it and we’ve got every chance.
“I think also every game until the final is going to be at home – so that’s going to be a major advantage for us.”
Although Purnell calls Chorley home, he was actually born in Gibraltar – the small British territory near Spain.
It was his island roots which enabled him to play international cricket.
He has represented Gilbraltar more than 20 times in matches against other cricketing minnows, such as Germany, Bahrain and France.
“I am one of those few people to be born on the Rock,” Purnell said.
“How my call-up came about was I went on a MCC Tour to Holland and I met a man called Richard Cox, who was the coach of Gibraltar.
“I showed him my passport and I got registered to play.
“In the year 2000, I played for Gibraltar in the European Division Two Championships against Germany, France, Portugal, Israel and Greece.
“We beat Germany in the final to win the Championship, which was a lot of fun but also a very surreal experience.
“To have this big German bowler appealing for an lbw against me – in German – while I am playing this quintessentially English game was just so surreal.
“In all, I have played 25 times for Gibraltar.
“My best figures were against Greece.
“I got five waiters out and received the man-of-the-match award! My batting average against Germany is 112.
“So it’s quite funny to look back on these things.
“I’ve played against countries like Japan and Nigeria.
“I remember they played the game against us with a huge smile on their faces.
“They were just happy to be playing the game and they clapped everything and everyone – no matter what.”
It was while playing for Gibraltar that Purnell also managed to entice famous West Indian umpire Steve Bucknor to raise his unmistakable finger.
“The last tournament I played in, Steve Bucknor was umpiring – he was about to retire,” he said.
“Just to be bowling with Steve Bucknor there and he gives you a dismissal with that famous finger – was just an unbelievable experience.”
Purnell’s long involvement in the game has also seen him earn the honour of playing for the prestigious MCC Select XI, which tours the world promoting the sport by playing charity matches.
“I’ve played with a lot ex-pros like Geoff Miller, who played for England and was a national team selector until recently,” Purnell said.
“I’ve played with David Hughes, who used to captain Lancashire.
“I’ve probably not played in any of the glamour matches but playing for the MCC is a great honour.
“We generally play games against private schools and just try to encourage the kids to keep playing.
“I think all sports have the same problems in that the advent of the internet, tablets, iPads, Xbox means kids have many more distractions than when I was young.
“When I was a kid all there was to do was kick or throw a ball or climb up a tree.
“There are definitely fewer people playing cricket and the MCC XI just tries to keep the game going.”
Although Purnell, who works in sales in the telecommunications business, is beginning to wind down as a cricketer, his career as a comedian is on the upward curve. Always at the centre of dressing room banter, it was seven years ago when the father of three realised there might be an opportunity to take his unique sense of humour to a wider audience.
“I suppose for me, I just followed the route that most people do,” said Purnell, whose children are called Josh, Grace and Lucy.
“One day I just decided that I fancied doing stand up.
“I’d always been a fan of stand-up – people like Eddie Izzard.
“I suppose being in a sporting environment...there is a lot of mucking about in changing rooms – a huge amount of banter which goes on.
“But I suppose from an early age, I was always looking to make people laugh.
“I was a bit of an idiot in the classroom. I remember getting in touch with a few of my old school mates on Friends Reunited, who I hadn’t seen for years.
“They said that I always made them laugh and I suppose I am the same at work.
“So it built from there and it made me think I could perhaps do it professionally.”
Initially, Purnell entered on stage as himself, but then soon hit upon the idea of acting out a comedy character.
Since 2009, he has worked the UK’s clubs as ‘El Purnell’. Self-styled as Ecuador’s No.1 comic, he delivers his act using a combination of Spanish and English words known as ‘Spanglish’.
“I started out at a club in Manchester called the Comedy Balloon – it’s where a lot of comedians start out,” Purnell said.
“It was what is known as an ‘open mic’ evening.
“I put my name down, got up on stage, cracked a few jokes...and nobody laughed.
“The following week I went to the Frog and Bucket for a night which is called ‘Beat the Frog’.
“I thought it would be easy but there are literally hundreds of people trying to be stand-ups.
“At first, I just got up as myself and told a few jokes – I did okay.
“But it was one night at the Comedy Balloon again – I did my act mainly in Spanish and I got a really good reaction. So I started to develop this character.
“I pretended to be from Ecuador. The act is a bit of Spanish with a few key English words. So essentially, I created something which is funny and unique and importantly it makes people laugh.”
Purnell is unsure where his comedy career will lead him but harbours dreams of one day making it on television. He said: “I would love to appear on something like Live at the Apollo – that is a long way off at the moment but you never know.
“Like all comics, I would like to do a story or a sitcom. I have got stuff written but it’s whether I can get it considered as a pilot.
“The funny thing is with stand-up – you can start and then within six months you could be on the same bill as a somebody who is on the television. As an industry, it just works like that.
“For me, stand-up comics are at their best just before they have made it on to TV because they are working their hardest – not earning huge amounts but they are hungry.”