Sunday, 21 July 2013

1985 Ashes: Richard Ellison

The 1985 Ashes series was all square with two to play when an unlikely hero arrived on the scene to write his very own brief chapter in the history of Anglo-Australian clashes. With all eyes trained on potential match winners in Botham, Gower, and Border, Richard Mark Ellison stepped forward to play a significant role in regaining the urn for England, and as a ten-year-old boy recently converted to the marvellous spectacle of Test cricket, I was enraptured by the rise of this new star.

Little did I know pre-Edgbaston, that Ellison had already played four times for his country in the Test match arena, and he had hardly set the world alight. A right-arm medium fast bowler, who swung the ball, his ten Test wickets against the West Indies, Sri Lanka, and India had cost 48.90 each, and come the start of the 1985 English season, Ellison looked a long way down the list of bowling options for the forthcoming Ashes series, behind the likes of Botham, Norman Cowans, Paul Allott, Neil Foster, and Jonathan Agnew.

His international aspirations were dealt another blow at the start of the county season, when he tore ligaments in his left ankle in pre-season training with his county Kent. The fact that Ellison played his first match on May 22 meant that his stock had dipped even lower, and if England continued their revival that had started under Gower in India, then the chances were that his international opportunities were looking bleak.

England did start the series well, a win at Headingley giving them the early impetus, yet their Lord's curse against Australia continued - since 1896, Australia had won eight Test matches to England's one - and a draw on a flat track at Trent Bridge, left England needing a win from somewhere to wrestle the Ashes off the tourists. Botham apart, England's seamers had struggled; prior to the fourth Test, Cowans had taken 2/128, Allott 5/264, Foster 1/83, and Arnie Sidebottom, in his one and only Test, 1/65.

Ellison in the meantime had started to show the kind of form that would eventually make the England selectors sit up and take notice. Against Gloucestershire in June, Ellison took 9/92 in the match, despite Kent losing, and 11/164 at Maidstone as Northamptonshire were beaten. With Ellison fourth in the first-class bowling averages - only Malcolm Marshall, Gary Sainsbury, and Imran Khan ahead of him - a call-up for the Old Trafford match was inevitable.

Other options were discussed in the press (Greg Thomas, David Lawrence, Graham Dilley) but Ellison was named in the twelve-man squad for Old Trafford, yet on a pitch that was expected to turn, England's desire to play Emburey and Edmonds, left the final two spots in the team a straight fight between Allott, Agnew and Ellison. It was Ellison who missed out, the selectors feeling that Allott's home-ground experience and Agnew's recent form (9/70 against Kent) were better options, although with the selected duo finishing with combined figures of 0/136, Ellison may have counted himself lucky to have missed out.

Agnew and Allott paid the price for the fifth Test at Edgbaston, Ellison and Leicestershire's Les Taylor becoming the seventh and eighth seam bowlers to be selected for England in the summer. Not all were enamoured by the decision though, the Daily Mirror's Pat Gibson stating "And with respect to Taylor, and Ellison, the swing specialist, I cannot see them causing the Aussies to lose too much sleep either". It would not have provided happy reading for a bed-bound Ellison, who was struck down with a heavy cold and chest infection in the week leading up to the Test, but come Wednesday the seamer reported himself fit for duty, and a vital piece of England's jigsaw was in place. Not that we knew this at the time of course.

On a frustrating opening day in which only 64 overs were possible due to rain, Gower won the toss and inserted the Australians, the tourists closing on 181/2, with Ellison wicketless. What a difference a day made though, as Ellison ripped through the Australian middle order, taking four wickets for just twelve runs and helping to reduce the tourists to 229/7. Australia fought back, but it would be Ellison who would break the eighth wicket stand of 58 between Geoff Lawson and Craig McDermott, and when he took the final Australian wicket to fall early on the Saturday morning, he had recorded Test best figures of 6/77.

The praise Ellison received in the press was well deserved. The Daily Telegraph's Michael Carey noted that "he now seems a better equipped bowler than when he first appeared last year", Jim Laker was impressed with Ellison's extra speed - "Now he has a bit of nip, but has not lost the swing" - the man himself admitting that his new fitness regime and weight loss at the start of the season (helped by staying off the beer), had helped him gain a few yards in pace.

The best was yet to come though. If Ellison had dragged England back into the match, and Gower, Robinson, Gatting and Botham briefly (18 runs from just 7 balls) had given England the platform to push for the win, then the spell of bowling produced by England's new king of swing late on the Monday evening was the decisive period of the Test match.

With a lead of 260, England had a little under four sessions to seal the win. Not in their wildest of dreams would they have believed the outcome of the 21 overs to be bowled on the Monday evening, as Ellison bettered his first innings burst, taking four wickets for one run in fifteen balls of carnage which quite literally swung the Ashes England's way. First to go was Kepler Wessels, then nightwatchman Bob Holland, and when Graeme Wood departed, Australia had slumped to 35/4.

Throughout the series though, the most prized Australian wicket was that of their skipper Allan Border. With scores of 32, 196, 41*, 146*, and 45 so far in the series, it was not hard to see why. So when Ellison produced a delivery with just enough movement to sneak through Border's defences, the reaction of the players and spectators was understandable. Australia closed on 37/5, and although rain threatened England's chances on the Tuesday, enough play was possible for England to claim an innings and 118 runs victory, to take a 2-1 lead in the series.

In 2005, Ellison talked proudly about his bowling on the Monday evening, although he did admit to a stroke of luck in his dismissal of the Australian captain: "Then I came on to bowl one of the greatest spells of my career. Allan Border's wicket was the one we wanted. I got him, with one that nipped back, even though I was trying to bowl an outswinger". Either way, it could be described as the ball of the series.

Ellison in all took 10/106, not bad for a player technically playing against medical advice due to his illness, and still dosing up on antibiotics. The plaudits kept on coming, The Times' John Woodcock aptly describing the memorable scenes on the Monday night: "A good crowd so warmed to this big, shambling, hirsute fellow, a bowler of traditional English stock, that they roared their heads off in support". "Richard the Lionheart" declared the Daily Mirror, as England's new hero, in his understated way told reporters that "it's a lovely feeling getting wickets against Australia". It wasn't bad watching it either.

Australia were pretty much down and out on arriving at the Oval, a psychological fragility not helped by the fact that Gower won the toss and batted first in beautiful sunny conditions - incidentally, I watched the coverage in front of a log fire in a cottage whilst on holiday in Scotland, such was the temperature difference between the two locations. England amassed 376/3 on the first day (Gower 157, Gooch 179*) and although the last seven wickets fell for 61, England's 464 looked plenty, as Australia ended Friday night on 145/6. Australia folded to 241 all out, Gower deliberating as to whether to enforce the follow-on or not, but correctly judging that the tourists were ripe for the taking.

Ellison had continued his fine series, claiming 2/35 from his eighteen overs in the first innings, and again ripping the heart out of Australia's middle order in the second, including Border for the third time in four innings. England comfortably regained the Ashes on September 2 1985, Ellison's 5/46 taking his series total to seventeen wickets at a frightening average of 10.88. As I basked in this new found glory of winning the urn, all was well with English cricket and I immediately headed to the garden with a tennis ball in hand to bend it like Ellison.

Of course nothing ever lasts forever. Ellison was named as a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in the 1986 Almanack, and he did take 5/78 in his next Test outing against the West Indies in Jamaica, but soon it began to unravel for both player and team. England were hammered 5-0 in the Caribbean, Ellison only taking two more wickets in the series, and just eight months after his Ashes glory, he was to play his last Test match against India at Lord's.

A back injury caused Ellison to miss the whole of the 1987 season, and despite taking 71 county wickets for Kent in 1988, he must have known his England career was at an end when he missed out on selection even though 23 players were selected for Test match duty during the West Indian summer and five more for the one-off Test against Sri Lanka. Things didn't improve in 1989, as England picked 29 players in an Ashes debacle, Ellison taking the hint that his services were no longer required, signing-up for Mike Gatting's doomed rebel tour of South Africa.

Ask English cricket fans of a certain age and the majority will reel off the same boyhood heroes; Botham, Lamb, Gooch, Gower, Robin Smith etc. But how many would include Richard Ellison in that list? His star may have only shined brightly for a brief period of time, but he will always hold a special place in Ashes folklore and in my memory bank, as the man who delivered the knockout blow to Australia in my first Test series. Seeing as it took until September 12 2005 for us to win the Ashes in England again, then is it any wonder that I would often dig out my Ashes Regained video to remember those halcyon days, when for two glorious Tests, Richard Ellison became a legend in my lifetime.


  1. I remember that Scottish cottage well. Another great article that brings it all flooding back.

  2. I love all these articles. Best sports blog on the net. Loads of memories flooding back!

  3. I love this blog. How wonderful articles on this blog.