Home Interviews Richard Ellison, former England and Kent seam bowler

Richard Ellison, former England and Kent seam bowler

by Freddie

We may have lost another Ashes series down under, but Ashes cricket hasn’t always been doom and gloom. So, this month we are delighted to speak with Richard Ellison, a seam bowler who took ten wickets in his first Ashes Test (including a spell of four wickets for one run), and seven more in his second! We need some Ashes cheers, right?

Now, Richard only played 11 Tests for England (and 14 ODIs), but it’s fair to say he certainly made an impact, so let’s start with his thoughts on the series just gone.

“What it’s shown is that warm up games are critical. They went into that series under-prepared. The bad weather in Brisbane was obviously out of their control, but they still didn’t have any meaningful games arranged. They just had inter-team games on their schedule. You need three or four games against Sheffield Shield sides. But that appears to be the modern way now.”

But, as we all know, it goes far deeper than that.

“You’re right. White ball cricket has taken over in this country, in terms of priorities. I know I’m from a different generation of cricketers, but I do think white ball cricket in England has taken over too much. However, what I will say is that the most successful white ball cricketers, are those that have been grounded in red ball cricket. I don’t think youngsters coming through today necessarily realise that. I’ve been a match referee in recent years, and I have seen a lot of young players and there aren’t many that stood out and made you think ‘he’s a technically well-organised player.’ For me, young players need to realise the importance of hitting through the V, getting yourself in. Once you get in, your V gets bigger, and your range of shots naturally become more expansive. But it’s just not the modern way.”

We all know Richard is spot on. I guess we just hope that after this latest Ashes debacle, the ECB finally begin to realise the importance of red-ball cricket.

Let’s rewind to happier times, cricket in the 80s and 90s and our usual opening delivery, what got our interviewee into this great game of ours.

“Well, as a youngster, I was into any sport that I could play. I loved playing football. I didn’t play rugby, but I played cricket, hockey, swimming, and table tennis. Anything and everything really. Being honest, I never really thought I’d become a professional sportsman. So much so, I thought at the age of 16 I was going to join the Royal Marines.”

Thank God he didn’t. We might not have won that 1985 Ashes…

“I experienced some back trouble, so didn’t go down that route.”

So, why cricket over the others on that long list of sports?

“My Dad used to take me down to the village green to go and play with my two brothers. And when I was 12 or 13, I was selected to go up to Lilleshall with Rachel Heyhoe Flint. There were 6 of us who were invited for five days of training. That was the first time I realised I had some potential with my cricket. And then when I was playing for my school at 16 my coach, who used to play for Kent, mentioned to them that he had someone that they might be interested in having a look at. At the time I was playing for the Association of Kent Cricket Clubs and Kent Schools with people like Neil Taylor, Mark Benson, and Nigel Felton. I was given a trial for Kent, and I ended up getting a summer contract in the summer of 1978.”

Like many others during that period, Richard juggled university life with his cricket commitments. But it wasn’t long before he was making his first-class debut.

“I had three years away at university from 1979, but I made my debut in 1981. Kent had a strong side. They still had a lot of players who had won the championship in 1977 and 1978. Players such as: Derek Underwood, Alan Knott, Bob Woolmer, John Shepherd, Alan Ealham, Chris Tavare, Kevin Jarvis and Asif Iqbal.”

Who was that debut against? Only a Hampshire side which included the ferocious pace of Malcolm Marshall!

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Yet, Richard marked the occasion with a wonderful 55 not out, batting at number 9 – he did also take a wicket – John Southern – in the five overs he bowled during the game.

“Derek Underwood and myself put on 105 before I ran him out! My second game was against Somerset who had Joel Garner and the third against Gloucestershire who had Courtney Walsh. So, it’s fair to say my introduction to cricket had a lot of pace!”

And when you hear those names, it reiterates just why we all enjoy the stories from that period. Every county had quality overseas players. Oh, I wish we could turn back the clock at times.

“The issue now is players are centrally contracted, but back then players had freedom of movement and could go and play where they wanted.”

So, what were some of Richard’s early highlights at Kent?

“We reached three one-day finals in 1983, 1984 and 1986. The first one was against Somerset. That game was rain affected. We were going quite well. Graham Dilley had removed Viv Richards just before lunch and they were 90 or so for 4 and then Vic Marks came in and got them up to 190-odd. We were going quite well in reply and then the wheels just fell off. I remember trying to whip Joel Garner over wide mid-on and missed the ball. The ball came down the slope and hit me smack on the back leg above the top of my pad and I just collapsed in a heap. That evening we went out for a meal and a drink, and I passed out in the lift. Who knows if it was that delivery or the beer, but I couldn’t remember anything.”

In the 1984 final, Richard was tasked with bowling the final over with opponents Middlesex needing 7 runs to win. I asked Richard what goes through a bowler’s head in that situation.

“If you’ve been in the situation before you can go into it with a certain degree of confidence. I’d been in the situation previously in a couple of games. In one game at Chelmsford, I got Derek Pringle out and I ended up taking three wickets in the final over by bowling yorkers. And I did the same in a game against Hampshire. So, if you’ve done it previously you can gain confidence. But you are on a hiding to nothing as well. So, that also goes through your head. You just have to have the mentality of ‘I know what I need to do’. If it comes off great, if it doesn’t you’ve got to have an idea on how to restrict them. Your confidence can also depend on who you’re bowling to. Seven to eleven was always a little easier.”

In that final over at Lord’s John Emburey came out on top as Middlesex lifted the trophy. “I couldn’t restrict him from hitting the ball for four off the last ball when we had all the field up. But you have too always back yourself. If you look at Chris Jordan now. He’s done it so many times. There’s also more tricks and deliveries now. Back of the hand slower balls, cutters, slower balls, slower ball bouncers, hitting the return crease or hitting the wide line – the game has evolved.”

One of Richard’s regrets at Kent was the side not managing to get over the line in any of those three finals. “It was disappointing. But I suppose that’s the way it is. Not everyone can win.”

Richard also recalls how special those finals were to play in. “Kent were always well supported. We got big crowds at Canterbury for the semi-finals, and they’d have all the temporary stands up. The finals were always full houses at Lord’s. They’d be 24,000 people, no problem. I know the capacity has increased now, but no matter who was in the final, they’d be capacity crowds. The atmosphere was always special.”

Richard’s exploits for Kent saw him receive England recognition, when he was selected in the squad for the 4th Test against the West Indies in 1984. As was typical in those days, he found out thanks to Ceefax!

“On the Sunday at 12pm Graham Dilley called me to say, ‘have you seen you’ve been selected?’ My immediate reaction was that was stupid. But there it was up on Ceefax. I was in the 12 to play the West Indies at Old Trafford. If I’m honest, I never really enjoyed playing at Old Trafford, because when the pitch used to be side on, I always used to bowl as you look out from the pavilion from the left-hand end, and it was always into a gale, while the quicker bowlers had the wind behind them. So, I was quite relieved I was 12th man for that Test. I was there for three days and then I was asked to go back to Kent to play in the championship. I eventually made my debut at the Oval for the 5th Test.”

Richard took an impressive 5 wickets on debut, including that of West Indies captain Clive Lloyd. I asked him what it was like to suddenly be sharing a dressing room with the likes of Ian Botham, a childhood hero. “I remember sitting next to Ian before play at the Oval. I was about to go out for a run around the ground and do my stretches, but I couldn’t find my trainers. My childhood hero had superglued them to the ceiling of the dressing room!”

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The trainers did go on and Richard was content with his debut. “I came on before lunch on the first morning and managed to get Larry Gomes out. I got the ball across him, and Botham snared the ball above his head at second slip. I had the ball swinging which was great because if I didn’t get the ball to swing, I knew I’d be cannon-fodder. Overall, I was happy with my performance as a debutant.”

I intrigued to hear from Richard if he thought his numerous games, and successes, in county cricket against the various West Indians made him more confident going into that Test match? “I think it probably did. You had to trust your ability to get batsmen out, or if you’re facing their quicks, find a way to score runs.  However, you must remember in county cricket you were only facing one of them, not all of them at the same time! Test cricket is relentless.” It’s a valid point. “I’m also not sure if they ever held themselves back a little bit in county cricket. For their country they always charged in. It wasn’t fun.”

The winter of 1984, saw England and Richard tour India, in conditions far removed from facing that ferocious West Indian bowling.

“I loved India. We were away for three and a half months, and don’t get me wrong some of the things we saw were horrific and eye opening. But I enjoyed that tour.”

It was a tour full of incident, off the pitch…

“Leading into that tour the press was saying we hadn’t picked our best squad. Ian Botham didn’t go and those who went to South Africa on the rebel tour were banned, so we weren’t given much of a chance. When we arrived in Delhi, Indira Gandhi had just been assassinated. There was uncertainty on whether we’d be safe and should we stay. It was decided we’d leave India and fly to Sri Lanka for 10 days to see if everything in India would settle down. We got assurances that everything would be okay. We returned to Bombay to play the 1st Test match, and the night before the game went to a cocktail party laid on by the British High Commissioner; Percy Norris. The following day on the way to work, he was also assassinated. There was a lot of uncertainty and we needed assurances to play. There was some doubt on whether we should stay, but in the end we did. We had armed guards in hotel corridors, armed escorts to the games. We lost the 1st Test match – Mike Gatting scored his first Test hundred. We thought we’d then end up playing on feather-bed pitches with nothing going on, but we then went to Delhi where there was a big internal ruckus between Gavaskar and Kapil Dev. Kapil got out hitting out to deep mid-wicket, so we had to chase down about 120 in 22 overs or something, which we did. Graeme Fowler and Tim Robinson got us off to a great start, then Gatting or Gower came in and we levelled the series. I picked up 4 wickets which was nice.  The 3rd Test was in Calcutta, which was very rain affected. We only bowled one innings, but I remember bowling 53 overs, 14 maidens none for 117. I couldn’t get a wicket. I beat the bat occasionally, but just couldn’t get a wicket. We then went to Madras for the fourth Test, which I didn’t play in. Graeme Fowler and Mike Gatting got double hundreds in that game and Neil Foster took 11 wickets. Suddenly, we were 2-1 up going into the final Test at Nagpur. The pitch there was as flat as anything, so we ended up winning the series 2-1.”

Following that incident packed tour, 1985 was the summer everyone remembers and when Richard became a cult hero. He didn’t play in the first four Ashes Tests of that summer, but he was recalled for the 5th Test and it’s fair to say it couldn’t have gone better. 10 wickets in the match and a spell which included four wickets for just one run!

“I’d missed the first 6 weeks of the season having damaged the ankle ligaments in my right foot. I got myself back as fit as I’d ever been and we played a B&H game up in Leicester, which we lost. We were bowled out for 118 and they got them for 2 down. But I managed to get Gower out. After the game I told him that ‘I am going to make you pick me again’. Now, that game was a semi-final in May/June time, so there was a bit of time between saying those words and the last two Ashes Tests. I carried on taking wickets and I suppose I forced the selectors hands. But really, at Edgbaston I just had my 15 minutes in the sun. The ball swung, the pitch wasn’t particularly quick, catches were taken. In the second innings, it was just a crazy Saturday night. I remember running in from the city end. Australia was 30/1 and I just had my 15 minutes. A couple of leading edges, nightwatchman Bob Holland LBW and then I managed to get Allan Border out to a ball that I wasn’t trying to bowl. I was trying to bowl it across him to knick him off, but it nipped back in and dislodged the off bail. I was just pleased to have been involved in a winning Ashes side. We then went down to the Oval and ended up winning down there as well.”

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The Oval Test saw Richard add another 7 wickets to his increasing tally. “I got two in the first innings, and five in the second. I remember on the Sunday, which was the rest day, Les Taylor and myself went pigeon shooting near Maidenhead. The next morning, I could hardly move my bowling arm because of where the gun had been resting. Eventually, I managed to loosen up. I remember the forecast wasn’t great, but we managed to bowl them out before lunch. And then we had a good party in the changing room. It was a couple of games where everything just went right.”

Richard also recalls David Gower’s infamous line on the Oval balcony. “We were touring the West Indies that winter and this was the moment when Gower had told Peter West that the West Indies would be quaking in their boots!”

It’s fair to say they weren’t quaking! “The West Indies dominated that era. In that series they had the same batting and bowling set-up to what we faced in 1984. The first Test was in Jamaica. The pitch looked fine, but you could see your reflection in it. It was almost mirror like. There was no grass at all. The ball would just take things out of the pitch, so balls would either roll along the ground or be up by your nose. This was the series they introduced Patrick Patterson, who was young but quicker than all the others. I remember Phil Edmonds getting one in the chest. We got badly beaten in that 1st Test. We then headed to Trinidad where we were beaten again. Then on to Barbados and a third loss. I remember in Barbados it was sunny every day and then this one small cloud appeared, and Malcolm Marshall got the ball moving in all directions. We then went back to Trinidad and then to Antigua where Viv Richards scored a hundred off 56 balls and suffered two more losses. It was relentless. We did win one ODI on that tour, Graham Gooch scored a magnificent 130 odd not out. But apart from that it was carnage. It was just a relentless tour of fast bowling. I can see why England picked me, but in truth, you need to be going to the West Indies with quick bowlers. Sid Lawrence was around then, and Graham Dilley was still bowling well. There were people around who could fight fire with fire, but the only player we had who could bowl fast was Greg Thomas.”

After that West Indies tour, Richard played just one more Test match for England against India at Lord’s in the summer of 1986.

“I took 1/80 in that Test and if I’m honest with you, I should have looked after my body better than I did do. I should have made sure I got myself fit. I’d had back problems since I was 16. I didn’t look after myself and suffered the consequences. Later that year when England were on tour to Australia in 1986, I flew over to Tasmania to play state cricket. I played against England which was weird. I went over with the thought process that if someone got injured, I might get called up because I was playing locally. I really enjoyed playing Sheffield Shield Cricket. It was tough. Really tough. The first ball I faced was against Victoria who had in their attack Merv Hughes. The first ball I faced was from him and

I played and missed it, and I received a right mouthful and I mean a right mouthful. After that day’s play, Merv came into our dressing room with a six pack of beer and sat down next to me and started talking to me. I said to him, why are you talking to me, you’ve just abused the hell out of me. He just smiled and said, ‘it’s just the way we play’. We had a decent side at Tasmania. David Boon was captain. However, while I was out there, I got a stress fracture of my lower back which meant I had to fly back home and that put me out of the game as I had to rehabilitate. It took the whole of 1987 to get back fit. I enjoyed a good season in 1988 and I thought I might get back in, in terms of England, but it just didn’t happen.”

I asked Richard if that non-selection was one of the reasons, he elected to go on the 1989 Rebel tour to South Africa. “It was in the back of my mind that the end of my career was close. Of course, I had hopes of playing for England again, but I’d probably become a bit too lazy or casual about it. I’d had some winters playing in Johannesburg previously and I enjoyed it. And I’ll be honest when the offer came, the money was attractive. I didn’t know what the future would hold for me, so I took the decision to go. The security was tight on us over there. We couldn’t go out unless we were escorted. Nelson Mandela was about to be released and apartheid was gradually coming to an end. But it was dangerous. I remember a bomb went off in Cape Town just before we were about to head there for the second Test and there were demonstrations outside the grounds at each match.”

Scary stuff. Richard eventually retired from cricket in 1994, a decision that he admits was mutual. “I was playing second team cricket and it was a mutual decision between myself and the secretary of Kent. I knew I wasn’t going to be reengaged on a contract, so I was quite happy to step down. I remember the last game we played was up near Greenwich and I knew that was my last game. I went back to Canterbury afterwards and that was it. I didn’t get any kind of send-off. I wasn’t expecting a send-off. I just disappeared off into the night!”

After his playing days, Richard went into education, where he took charge of cricket at Millfield School. “I loved it. We had a good number of youngsters who came through and went into professional cricket.”

It’s no surprise so many youngsters progressed under his tutelage. There was so much to be learnt from Richard and his long career.

Richard might only have played 11 Tests for his country, but he took 35 wickets in those matches, including Clive Lloyd, Sunil Gavaskar and Allan Border, some of the greats of the game.

When you add on the 675 other wickets he took in first class, list A and ODI cricket – it’s an outstanding career this bowler from Kent enjoyed.

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