Bruce French comes from a family of cricket fanatics, based on the Welbeck Colliery Cricket Club; his elder brother, Charlie, also a wicket keeper but now better known as a bat maker, played briefly for Notts Seconds and younger sibling Neil for Lincolnshire. In recent years, the family connection has been cemented with Bruce’s nephew Jake Ball following him into the Notts first team and the England Test side.
Bruce, born in Market Warsop on 13 August 1959, made his first-class debut for Nottinghamshire in 1976 at the tender age of 16 and was engaged on the Trent Bridge playing staff.
At the time, with a modest batting line-up, the county had were using the tried-and-tested ploy of asking as established and reliable batsman – Mike Harris – to double as keeper. French however was clearly so talented that he could hardly be ignored. After the initial matches of 1977, Harris went back to concentrate on his batting, whilst French became Notts' permanent stumper. The England authorities were not unaware of French's expertise, thus in 1978, he was chosen for England Under l9s.
To move from there to keeping for England in Tests was going to prove difficult. England already had a problem on their hands trying to decide between Bob Taylor and Alan Knott for the top job. French had to wait until these two retired in 1984. In the winter which followed French travelled with the England side to India, as deputy to Paul Downton who kept in the Tests, again, largely due to his batting ability, but French made his ODI debut at Chandigarh. French played the first of his 16 tests in 1986, when he appeared both against New Zealand and India.
By far his most memorable test appearance was also his briefest. In the summer of 1986, French was batting for England against New Zealand, and his county team-mate Richard Hadlee, at Lord’s when he was struck a nasty blow trying to duck a bouncer. He was unable to continue and not fit to keep when the Kiwis batted; initially the England management asked Bill Athey, a versatile cricketer, to take over keeping duties but when it was apparent that French would not be resuming soon, sent out a call to the recently-retired Bob Taylor. Taylor, who was on the ground hosting a cricket tour group, kept for the rest of that innings – with the generous agreement of New Zealand skipper Jeremy Coney – until a more suitable substitute, and current player, could be found in Bobby Park. French took back the gloves only near the end of what was, this incident aside, a rather dull draw. This remains the only occasion on which a test team has fielded four wicket keepers in the same match!
Off with the England team in 1986-87, French now found himself as deputy to Richards. His ill-luck dogged him then too - being bitten by a dog, he was hit by a spectator thrown ball whilst practising, and then knocked down by a car as he arrived at hospital for treatment for that blow. On that same Pakistan trip, he distinguished himself when he saved two young girls from drowning.
When Richards’s keeping came in for some sharp press criticism, French found himself again recalled for the One-day Internationals and began the 1987 summer as England's man. He appeared set on a long run in Test cricket, then in the first month of 1988, he suffered a finger injury. Downton moved back into pole position. Further injuries in 1989 lost him any opportunity of grabbing the England job back, though he was still considered by many the best wicket-keeper in the country. After his Test playing days were over, French joined the Gatting-led 1990 rebel tour to South Africa. He continued to serve Nottinghamshire until illness forced him to retire in 1995.
After leaving Notts he only rarely played cricket but took on important coaching roles with the England team, where he mentored, among others, Matt Prior, and with his home county.
For someone with his injury record, it is perhaps surprising that, away from cricket, Bruce French was active in mountaineering and rock-climbing, establishing a reputation as a reliable and safe ‘pair of hands’, much as he had on the cricket field.