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The fast bowler who flew…..jumbo jets, as it happened

“Quick? He isn’t quick! Military medium, I’d say. ‘Bout your pace, eh, Mr Murtagh.”

The onlooker with an opinion was Geoff Morton, the cricket professional at Malvern College and he was responding to anxious enquiries from panicky members of his team – those padding up at least – about the speed the opponents’ opening bowler was generating. I did not respond to my colleague’s scornful assessment. He had his own unconventional methods of reassuring his troops, which basically ran along the lines that his wife Gladys could play any bowler from every opposing school with a stick of rhubarb and that none of their batsmen knew which end of a bat was the handle and which was the blade. Geoff was wrong on two counts I reckoned. Describing my bowling as military medium was an insult to our armed forces and the boy with a run up not unlike Michael Holding’s was the quickest – by far – that I had yet seen at this level, an impression that never changed over the subsequent 30 years that I was in charge of cricket at Malvern.

It was July 1980 and we were on a tour of Barbados. The boy in question was playing for Combermere School. He did not bowl us out, as it happened. He was wayward in his direction and as our boys jabbed and flashed, none of them got anywhere near any of his deliveries. Then he visibly tired, his pace dropped and eventually he was replaced, to Malvern’s relief. Nonetheless, the mental image of those first few overs of explosive pace remained with me as I pondered the day’s play beside the hotel pool that evening, rum punch in hand. His name was Ricardo Husbands, I noted in the scorebook, and I was astonished to learn that he was only 15. No wonder he had tired; he should never have bowled so many overs at that age.

I would probably have thought no more about him but wherever we subsequently played on the island, there would Ricardo be, watching and supporting us. The boys swiftly took him under their wing. He was an affable young man, with immaculate manners, and every so often his head would rock back and a loud rumbling laugh, a bit like an active volcano, would reverberate around the pavilion. By the end of our tour, he had become a de facto member of the Malvern party, even acting as a 12th Man on occasions.

Over a nightcap before flying home the following day, Alan Duff, the senior partner of the management team, started the protracted and laborious process of lighting his pipe. This usually meant an idea was fomenting in his mind. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” he mused amongst clouds of smoke, “if Ricardo opened the bowling for us next season?” I thought he’d had one brandy too many but Duffers, as he was universally known, was a man with extraordinary persuasive powers. To cut a long story short, after much machination, arm-twisting and financial petitioning, that is precisely what was achieved. Ricardo Ellcock (his mother had insisted he take her maiden name with him to England) did open the bowling for Malvern in our first match of the season……and it snowed! The game was abandoned at tea and Ricardo’s eyes popped out of his head.

By then, he had made himself as popular a boy with fellow pupils and staff alike as anybody I can remember. He had an easy, friendly manner and his lilting Bajan accent allied to a natural charm of manner melted the hearts of even the most choleric and crusty of masters. Of course his cricket reputation went before him. We had to ban him from playing in House matches for fear that he would do physical damage to inexpert participants. But why don’t you just tell him to bowl slowly, was the supplication of his House mates. My response was that clearly you don’t understand the psychological make-up of a fast bowler; they are born to bowl fast and they can no more bowl slowly than a gladiator can fight half-heartedly. We were even worried about him injuring opponents in school matches, so much so that we took round with us two helmets (these were in the days of their infancy and they were not seen at this level) to offer batsmen their use. Rarely was the offer taken up, either through ignorance or a foolhardy sense of pride. I remember well when he hit a Repton boy flush on the back of the head, much to everybody’s alarm. The victim’s name was John Carr, ironically Ricardo’s future colleague at Middlesex. To his credit, Carr always maintained the blow was his fault: it had not been a short ball, he had misjudged its length and he had ducked into it – with painful results.

Ricardo’s reputation spread like wildfire. Even Basil D’Oliveira opened his eyes wide and took note when, in his new role as coach at Worcestershire, he brought a Club and Ground side to the College and watched as professional players were forced to duck and weave out of the way of this young Barbadian’s thunderbolts. Ricardo was not exactly signed up by Worcestershire on the spot but it was not long before he was making his county debut for them – still at school, mark you. He took three wickets in the match in a losing cause against, as it happened, his future employers, Middlesex. Then it was back to the classroom in preparation for his O levels.

In point of fact, Ricardo did not take a hatful of wickets at Malvern. He terrified batsmen but didn’t often get them out. He was still a little wild and woolly, a prodigy in the making, still to learn and perfect the art of accuracy and control, how to think with his brain as well as exert his tremendously powerful physique. In truth he was just too fast for most schoolboys to lay a bat on him and as he was bowling a West Indian rather than an English length, the ball more often than not would sail harmlessly over the stumps. If a better batsman did get an edge, the ball would fly either over or through inexperienced slip fielders’ hands. But he had pace - extreme, unbridled, raw pace - a rare commodity in this country, and the Worcestershire powers-that-be licked their lips.

Contrary to expectations in some quarters, he was no slouch in the classroom either. He left Malvern with a clutch of respectable grades and endeared himself to all those who taught him. His history teacher approached me in the Common Room one day, perturbation etched across his face, “Do you know what Ricardo has chosen as the subject of his extended essay?” he asked. Several frivolous answers crossed my mind but I said nothing. “Slavery!” I gulped. Problems ahead. Our fears were soon allayed. His essay was a model of thoughtful and balanced research. The chaplain buttonholed me on another occasion. “We have been discussing the concept of heaven and hell,” he told me, “and I set an essay on what would be their philosophical notion of paradise. Have a look at Ricardo’s effort.” He handed over a sheet of A4 paper. It was blank save for the single word ‘Barbados’. One other story about Ricardo soon went the round the Common Room. He was messing about in the nets, trying to hit every ball over the trees and onto the M5. “Ricardo!” bellowed the unmistakeable voice of the aforementioned Geoff Morton, “If you don’t stop messin’ abaht, you’ll be on the first train back to Barbados!”

Ricardo was something of a folk hero, a bit of a legend really, at Malvern. Tales of his antics still do the rounds. Lack of space here and a certain discretion on my part prevent me from further disclosure but you would be hard put to find anyone who had a bad word to say about him. He joined Worcestershire and he was no longer under our care. To be truthful, he did not exactly set the world on fire for the county. When fit, he was capable of giving the ‘hurry-up’ (as the phrase goes in the Caribbean) to even the best of batsmen but a succession of injuries hampered his progress. At length, he decided that a change of county might improve his fortunes and in 1989, he went south to join Middlesex. There was much lamentation and gnashing of teeth in Worcester on his departure. Wherever he went, it would seem he made cohorts of firm friends.

It was no different at Middlesex. For a time, he remained injury free and his latent talent finally emerged for all to see. He was rewarded by a call-up to the England colours for the 1990 tour of the West Indies. The prospect of representing his adopted country in the land of his birth must have been a surreal experience as he joined the touring party, captained by Graham Gooch, at Heathrow. As he walked to the nets in the Leeward Islands, their first port of call, Ricardo had the world at his feet. At last, it was felt, England had the wherewithal to fight fire with fire; though inexperienced at this level, he had the faith of his captain and the selectors that the West Indies would not for once have it all their own way in the fast bowling department.

Sadly, he never made it to the Barbados leg of the tour. He never made it to the end of that net session. A stress fracture of his back forced his immediate return home and that, as far as his cricket career went, was pretty well that. He struggled on with Middlesex for a few more games but midway through the 1991 season, he accepted the inevitable and retired immediately from the game.

Ricardo being Ricardo, he did not thereafter sit on his backside and mope. Drawing together all available funds, including an insurance pay out from the Test and County Cricket Board, he learnt to fly and having been granted his licence, he took a job as a pilot for the Antiguan airline, Liat. In 1997, he applied for and secured a post in Virgin Atlantic Airlines, thus becoming the first black captain in their fleet. He flew 747s out of Heathrow or Gatwick to the Caribbean and US. He loved flying but admitted that piloting jumbo jets was providing nothing much more than a glorified taxi service.

Earlier this year, he began to feel distinctly under the weather. He seemed to have a permanent cold. “Flying plays havoc with your sinuses,” he told me, “so I put it down to no more than that.” Then, more alarmingly, he became aware that, on occasions, his coordination deteriorated. Being of a naturally positive disposition, he blamed tiredness and over-work and resolved to take a holiday at the earliest opportunity. The crisis came mid-Atlantic. He felt so ill he had to hand over the controls to his co-pilot and retire to the makeshift bunk for the remainder of the flight. On landing, an ambulance was awaiting him on the tarmac and he was immediately transported to hospital where tests were run and a subdural haematoma was diagnosed. Brain surgery was initially considered a success to relieve the internal bleeding but seizures of increasing severity resulted in three further brain operations. At one stage, he was convinced he was going to die.

But he pulled through, much to the relief of his family, his many friends and the wider cricketing fraternity, to say nothing of his English teacher and former cricket master at Malvern College. I went to see him at his home in Camberley in Surrey. Under the circumstances, he looked and sounded remarkably well. He granted me a close look at his scar, running from one side of his forehead to just above the ear – I say ‘close’ because it was surprisingly faint, barely visible. The old Ricardo spirit was undaunted and reassuringly the volcano was still rumbling. He recognised that the DRS upstairs had granted him a reprieve and he was determined to take full advantage and regain full fitness.” He runs every day,” his partner, Denise, said, “Madness! But you can’t tell him.” He is determined to get his licence back. “Driving licence, that is,” Denise interjected. He accepted that his days on the flight deck of a 747 were probably over but he was pleased that his consultant had given him permission to fly again, back to Barbados to see his family. “As a passenger,” Denise again put me right.

What next for my former pupil? He would give that some thought, he assured me, whilst back home. With a rum punch in his hand, I trust.

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