On August 16, 1985, Richard Ellison’s dream spell broke the back of the Australian batting line-up in the fifth Test at Edgbaston, Birmingham. It was a remarkable turnaround for someone whose selection was widely criticised in the lead up to the game, but his performance masterminded an innings victory for England over the old rivals and helped them take a 2-1 lead in the series. Nishad Pai Vaidya looks back at that spell.
Fierce rivalries have this unique power which can pull a man from near obscurity and make him an overnight hero. An unknown player would suddenly become a part of folklore and would be immortal in the annals of that rivalry. The Ashes have seen a fair share of players who were perhaps born for an occasion. Right from Bob Massie, whose 16 wickets on Test debut at Lord’s destroyed England, to the substitute fielder Garry Pratt who effected a crucial run-out in 2005, the Ashes have given a platform to become unforgettable. Richard Ellison, an English medium-pacer in the 1980s, is one such player and on this day in 1985, he experienced a moment of a lifetime.
Heading into the fifth Test at Edgbaston Birmingham, the series was tied at 1-1. England made two changes to their bowling as they dropped Paul Allot and Jonathan Agnew for Ellison and Les Taylor. Ellison’s selection did attract a bit of criticism. In five previous Tests, he had accounted for only 10 wickets and his record didn’t inspire much. To top it all, he had recovered from injury that season and had made his way into the Test side at the back of some good performances in county cricket after recovery. Then, there were his own woes in the lead-up to the game. He was affected by a severe bout of cold and was confined to bed for a few days. Somehow, he was fit by the time the game started on August 15, after brushing aside the physio’s advice to take a break.
The England playing XI for the Edgbaston Ashes Test in 1985 (standing from left): Paul Downton, John Emburey, Richard Ellison, Les Taylor, Phil Edmonds, Tim Robinson and Bernard Thomas (physio). Bottom row (from left) : Allan Lamb, Mike Gatting, David Gower, Ian Botham and Graham Gooch Getty Images
On Day One, England won the toss and put Allan Border’s Australians in to bat. It was a rain affected day during which only 64 overs were bowled and Australia finished on 181 for two. Kepler Wessels was unbeaten 76 and had Border for company, who was batting on 43. Ellison did not have a great day as he did not pick a wicket. That was to change the following day.
During the series, there were a few questions over England’s pace bowling attack. Ian Botham, the talismanic all-rounder, was the one who rallied the ship but they had chopped and changed the others. As Ellison commenced on Day Two, he was under a lot of pressure. Not only did he have to prove the critics wrong, but also convince the team management that they had taken the right call.
That summer, Border had come into his own and was leading the side from the front. In the previous Test match at Old Trafford, Manchester, his gritty innings of 146 had saved Australia and the English bowlers knew the value of his scalp.
On Day Two at Edgbaston, Elllison had worked out his own plans for the master batsman. He put Phil Edmonds on the leg-side for Border and the Aussie hit it straight to the fielder with the score on 189. Speaking to The Wisden Cricketer, Ellison said, “The dismissal of Border was one of the few occasions when we set a plan and it came off. We put Phil Edmonds on the leg side and he clipped one to him straight away. I sound surprised when I talk about it now but it was quite nice when those things happen.” It was a dismissal that was to start a dream spell for Ellison. In a matter of minutes, he was all over the Australian batting, using the swing to good effect.
Two runs later, the well-set Wessels edged Ellison to the wicketkeeper Paul Downton. Thus, early in the day, Australia had lost two well-set batsmen. Greg Ritchie and Wayne Phillips were in the centre. The pair added 16 runs before Ellison had Ritchie caught by Botham for eight. At the other end, Taylor had Simon O’Donnell caught behind for a solitary run. From 189 for two, Australia had collapsed to 208 for six. To make matters worse, Ellison then snared Phillips as he was caught by Tim Robinson with the score on 218.
Given the typical Australian character, they weren’t going to sit around and accept that the task was too enormous. Geoff Lawson and Craig McDermott then started rebuilding the innings and stitched together a partnership of 58. McDermott did most of the scoring as he stroked a well-paced 35. But, it was Ellison’s day and there was no stopping him. McDermott was caught by David Gower to hand the comeback man his fifer. It was left to Lawson to bat out the day with Jeff Thomson. The tail continued to wag and finished the day on 335 for eight. Nevertheless, five of the six wickets that had fallen that day were taken by Ellison. It was his first fifer in Test cricket and certainly something that would have silenced his critics.
Early next day, David Gower effected a brilliant run-out to dismiss the determined Lawson for 53. That innings had added valuable runs to the total and the wicket was of prime importance. Ellison then finished things off dismissing Bob Holland for a blob as Australia didn’t add anything to their overnight score. Finishing with figures of six for 77, Ellison had been vindicated. Jim Laker commented, “Now he has a bit of nip, but has not lost the swing.” That was what had proved to be Australia’s undoing. There was more to follow though….
What happened next?
The English batsmen piled on the misery on the Australians. David Gower’s supreme 215 led the way as Tim Robinson (148) and Mike Gatting (100 not out) also got to three figures. England finished their first innings on 595 for five declared.
In the second innings, Ellison was back in business as he delivered a spell of four for 27 in only nine overs. He also had Border again to see to it that Australia were bowled out for 142 which handed England a victory by an innings and 118 runs. Ellison’s match tally read 10 for 104.
England won the sixth and final Test at the Oval by an innings and 94 runs to clinch the urn.
Ellison played only four more Tests after this series and his final appearance came at Lord’s in 1986 against India.
Australia 335 (Kepler Wessels 83; Richard Ellison 6 for 77) and 142 (Wayne Phillips 59; Richard Ellison 4 for 27) lost to England 595 for 5 decl. (David Gower 215, Tim Robinson 148, Mike Gatting 100) by an innings and 118 runs.