Physical education: Ashes winner now a PE teacher

21st August 2009 at 01:00
As England and Australia fight it out for the Ashes, Nick Morrison talks to a PE teacher who once helped our national team win cricket's most coveted prize

Original magazine headline: Bat amp; board

David Gower got his highest test score, Ian Botham was in his pomp, there were four future England captains in the team, and the man of the match is now a housemaster and PE teacher at an independent school in Somerset.

An Ashes series always brings back special memories for Richard Ellison. As the battle between England and Australia for possession of the precious urn goes down to the wire at The Oval over the next few days, few people will be watching with greater interest than the man who now passes on the benefit of his experience to pupils at Millfield School in Somerset.

In the summer of 1985 it was his turn to become a national hero. He twice helped bowl England to victory in what was to be the last Ashes triumph until the exploits of Andrew Flintoff and co captured the public imagination four years ago.

He had abandoned a prospective teaching career for professional cricket, only to return when he retired from the game. But he admits he originally chose teaching for the want of something else to do. His mother was a teacher and his stepfather a headteacher, so once a bad back ruled out the Royal Marines, teaching seemed the natural choice. "It just seemed like a good thing to do," he says. "I never thought I would end up teaching."

He had always played a lot of sport at school - cricket in the summer, hockey in the winter. At 13 he was chosen to take part in a national coaching scheme, and at 18 he signed a contract with Kent, his home county. He kept up his cricket at Exeter University, where he took a BEd with sport, making his debut for Kent's first team in his second year at the age of 21.

By the time he graduated he was a regular member of the Kent side, although even then his cricket career crept up on him rather than being a positive choice. "I never thought, `This is what I want to do.' It just sort of happened," he says.

He made his international debut against the West Indies in 1984, but it was his exploits against Australia the following year that earned him a place in England folklore. Recalled after injury for the fifth test at Edgbaston, with the series level at one apiece, his bowling in the second innings clinched the match. In the space of 15 balls he took four Australian wickets, including the prized scalp of Allan Border.

Those four wickets, added to the six he got in the first innings, earned him the man of the match award, ahead of three England batsmen who had scored a century, including Gower with a career-best 215.

But his heroics did not stop there. In the next test, at the Oval, he took five wickets in the Australian second innings as England won to clinch the series 3-1. "With the series being one-all, going into test matches five and six I knew it was there for the taking," he says. "To come out on top and play a part in doing that was obviously significant.

"There's a lot more hype about the Ashes now, but it was still very important then."

As the hero of the hour at the age of 26, he was looking forward to a lengthy spell in the national team. "I genuinely believed I would be around for the next three or four years," he says. But he struggled on the winter tour to the West Indies and played his last test match against India the following year.

He continued playing for Kent, and was several times in contention for a recall to the national side, but back problems took their toll and he retired from first-class cricket in 1994, to find himself at something of a loose end. "I wasn't sure what I was going to do but I had to do something," he says.

Teaching green

He got a job teaching at his old prep school in Ashford, but the following summer he got a phone call from Lord's, England's cricket headquarters, to say Millfield School, a co-educational fee-paying school, was looking for a teacher who had played first-class cricket.

He was invited down for interview and got the job, but he admits his return to teaching was not entirely smooth. "When I qualified we were trained to teach practical PE, which was very different to how we teach PE now," he says. "I was flying by the seat of my pants to start with. Gradually you build it up, but at first it was a big shock.

"My training was a distant memory and there were some lessons when I wondered if anyone understood what I was talking about. I certainly haven't cracked it yet, but I do my best. You ask some questions, get them involved and hope they enjoy the experience."

It was not just the teaching that took a bit of adjustment. "In cricket everything is done for you," he says. "You work on your fitness and your skills but that's it. You get your meal money, a sponsored car, you're given directions to your hotel, you turn up at the ground at 9.30, you do your warm up at 10.30 and you're batting or bowling at 11.

"Your life is organised for you, and all of a sudden I had to organise my own life. When I was playing it was all about me, but now it is about other people."

His second big adjustment came when he was made a housemaster four years ago. He runs Orchards House, home to 60 boys aged 13 to 18 during term- time, and says the responsibility has had a profound effect on him.

"Once you get a position in a school, you grow into various aspects," he says. "I've had various positions of responsibility and I'm learning a bit more about teenage boys and girls and how they work.

"The impact you can have is huge. They are the most formative years of their lives and you are given the responsibility of trying to parent them away from home. It's hard work and very challenging, but it's thoroughly enjoyable.

"I do get frustrated when I'm repeating the same message on a number of occasions, but that is young people, and I'm more patient than I used to be. I have always tried to work along the lines of honesty, fairness and equality, and hopefully that is something they will pick up."

Cricket's effect on teaching

His cricketing experience has had a major effect on his teaching - most directly in coaching the school cricket team, although even here his approach has changed. "When I came here I was pretty much win-orientated, but we had a season where a lot of the team left, so we're now trying to develop a group of 12 to 15 cricketers. We won 11 and lost eight this season but I think we're better off than we were.

"A little bit of experience helps - not so much having played test cricket, but I have experienced the highs of doing well and I have also been right down at the bottom, when I was looking for any remedy for technical problems I had. I think that's given me an understanding of how people work."

He says this hitting rock bottom and searching for solutions also feeds into his role as a housemaster. "Sometimes you need to take a couple of steps backwards, because you can get too emotionally involved in what is going on."

Despite his record, he doesn't get to coach much on a one-to-one basis. Lack of time is one factor: he teaches 24 periods a week, as well as running the boarding house. He does occasionally bowl in the nets, his back permitting, although he doesn't face the pupils' bowling. "I don't want them to knock my head off," he says.

As far as he knows, many of the boys are unaware they have a former England player in their midst. Some do Google him and find out, and occasionally ask him questions about his cricketing career, but it's rarely raised, other than in Ashes years. "I'm not going to go around telling them what I did 25-30 years ago," he says.

Now 49, he still plays occasionally, turning out four or five times a year for the Old England team, and admits he is still tempted by the thought of a role in cricket outside education.

"Your life outside cricket is longer than your life in cricket, so you have got to do something. I have enjoyed what I'm doing but I don't want to be a headmaster or deputy head, so I might have a look at cricket and using my classroom experience in some way."

The only regret in his cricket career is that in a period when he was plagued by injuries he didn't look after his body as well as he could have done. "Sometimes I wish I was playing now, but it doesn't cross my mind to regret it," he says.

"The game has changed hugely from when I was playing. Every generation has a different approach, and batsmen now tend to be more aggressive. There are different skills and it has become much more of a thinking game."

The summer of 1985 seems a long time ago, and he has now spent more time teaching than he spent playing professional cricket. But nothing gets his attention quite as much as the Ashes. "Cricket interests me hugely. It is a fantastic game, which I was involved in for a small period of my life," he says. "I had a fantastic career, but other things take over in terms of what's most important."

Ellison's cricket highlights

  • Test matches: 11
  • Runs: 202
  • Highest score: 41
  • Batting average: 13.46
  • Wickets: 35
  • Best bowling: 6-77 (v Australia at Edgbaston, 1985)
  • Bowling average: 29.94.

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