Driving through Eastbourne on Monday on the way to see Sussex play Kent, I remembered the last time I had been there, almost two years ago. I remembered knocking on a door in a sunny street, and my knock being answered by a white-haired old lady.
Her name was Ruth Prideaux.
I was there to interview her as part of my PhD – to hear her memories of her time playing and coaching England. Of the many interviews I conducted, they sometimes went well, sometimes not quite so well. And some stick in the memory more than others.
This one? One of the most enjoyable, most memorable, of all. It was impossible not to warm to Ruth in the two hours or so that I spent with her, drinking tea and listening to her memories of playing and coaching the sport she loved. It was also impossible – even at the age of 83 – not to feel slightly in awe of her; and to get a sense of why the players she coached were in awe of her, too.
Ruth sadly passed away last month. I am thankful I was able to meet her before she died. She deserves all the plaudits in the world.
Ruth Prideaux (nee Westbrook) was a formidable lady because she had had to be. Born in Greenhithe, Kent in 1930, she learned cricket at Gravesend Grammar School, before attending Anstey College of Physical Education to train as a PE teacher. All this came after an early battle of wills with her father about the sport she loved. “My father was not pleased,” she told me. “I had three brothers at that time, and he thought they should be playing cricket and not me. He didn’t like the idea of his daughter playing cricket. And I was the only one that really wanted to!” What happened in the end? “He had to put up with it,” she recalled, her blue eyes twinkling.
By the time she was selected for England, to tour Australia and New Zealand in 1957/8, he had come round to her way of thinking! She described that tour as “wonderful” – but it was yet another struggle, both to gain leave from her teaching job, and then suffering the financial burden of having to forfeit six months of her salary (the length of Australasian tours in those days, thanks partly to the month-long boat ride there and back).
Then there was her coaching career. In 1962 – as the Times reported in their obituary – Ruth and Mary Duggan became the first women to attend an MCC coaching course, passing the advanced certificate with ease. Several male first-class county players failed. And yet when she was interviewed for the England Women coaching job in 1988 – the first time such an appointment had ever taken place – she told one of her daughters, in full knowledge that she was the best qualified candidate: “I’ll never get the job, because men always do.”
Contrary to her own expectations, she did indeed get the job.
That was not the end of the battle, though. By the time of her appointment, Ruth was working as a lecturer in the Sports Science department of Chelsea College of Physical Education, with radical new ideas about the way she wanted the England team to progress. She secured funding from the National Coaching Foundation for a five-year intensive training programme from 1989 to 1993, which incorporated both sport psychology and physiological testing.
Steve Bull, a colleague at Chelsea, became the team’s official sport psychologist, and worked closely with Ruth to plan the programme, which aimed to increase confidence, develop positive thinking skills, and provide team cohesiveness. There was also an intensive focus on both nutrition and physical fitness.
Ruth recalled in our interview:
“I was quite determined that the whole squad, they wouldn’t be a member of the squad if they weren’t fit. And we worked a lot on fitness. They used to run up and down the beach [at Eastbourne], on the shingle, which was tough…And then we started to introduce the importance of diet. That particular aspect was not popular, because they were very fish-and-chip girls!”
Ruth’s coaching programme was years ahead of its time; no other sport, including men’s cricket, had utilised sports psychology before. And much of Ruth’s work in these years now serves as the foundation for the elite coaching techniques which are used within both men’s and women’s cricket.
Yet it did not initially sit well with the traditionalists within the Women’s Cricket Association. It was reported in The Cricketer in 1988 that “the decision to appoint Prideaux…did not meet with universal approval within the WCA fraternity”. She recalled that:
“the [England] selectors were not a bit supportive. They thought it was all wrong. They expected them always to be doing something on the cricket line as it were, with the activities of batting, or bowling, or fielding. But they were not in any way supportive of that type of [fitness] work. So that was quite difficult.”
Yet Ruth persisted.
Fast forward five years to Lord’s, August 1st 1993. Jan Brittin takes the winning catch, New Zealand are all out for 128, and Karen Smithies and her team lift the World Cup, hugging each other and shedding tears of joy.
That white-haired figure looks on from the balcony, quietly satisfied at what she has achieved with her team. She knew they could do it before they could.
“We were in Australia for the semi-finals of the World Cup in 1988,” she recalled in our interview, “and we lost to Australia. And I said to the players, ‘we will NOT lose the next World Cup. We’ll beat everybody, and we’ll win it.’ They all felt, ‘oh, she’s off again!’ But actually, we did.”
It was a win that would never have been possible without Ruth’s confidence in both her innovative new coaching techniques, and in her squad of players – a confidence she instilled in a variety of ways. One of my favourite stories was about the team’s arrival at Wellington College, where the teams were put up for the duration of the tournament:
“When we arrived we arrived as a squad before anybody else, and they’d put us on the ground floor and the Australians were upstairs, above us. And I said, ‘well we’re not having that’. So before the Australians came, we settled ourselves above them, and I said, ‘remember we’re on the top here!’
So that was another thing that, although it sounds little, was a great contribution to their belief in themselves.”
Sure enough, England were actually left needing to beat their old enemy, Australia, in order to reach the final – and they did so in spectacular fashion, thanks to a wonderful innings from Carole Hodges, who finished on 105*.
Ultimately, England’s World Cup victory in August 1993 was largely the fruit of Ruth’s labour. Steve Bull reported that, by the time he concluded his work with the squad, “a feeling existed [among players] that success would not have been achieved without the provision of sport psychology support”.
Her pride at the achievement was still evident in our interview, 20 years after the event, as she recalled the tournament, eyes shining. It is an achievement made all the more impressive by the fact that in all her years working with the England team, she was never paid a penny.
Ruth retired as coach in the wake of the World Cup, but remained involved in women’s cricket, going on to become the Chairman of Sussex Women’s Cricket Association. What of her legacy? Certainly that 1993 victory helped begin to change attitudes to the women’s game in England. A few days afterward the final, then President of MCC, Dennis Silk, wrote to the Chairman of the Women’s Cricket Association: “It was the best day’s cricket at Lord’s this year and between you all, you created a magical atmosphere. You have done the whole of English cricket a great service.”
There were awards, of course – the National Coaching Foundation’s England Coach of the Year in 1993 being just one – and yet somehow I wonder if Ruth ever quite got the recognition she so deserved. Had she been a man – had she won a men’s World Cup – the whole world would know her name. Did anyone realise, I wondered as I left her house after our interview, that one of cricket’s greatest ever coaches was at that moment living in a little corner of sunny Eastbourne?
It is just one more reflection of the battle Ruth fought her whole life – the battle against being told she couldn’t do it because she was a woman.
The battle continues – and the impact of Ruth’s approach is still being felt within women’s cricket. I put it to her in our interview that what she had really been trying to do was bring professionalisation to an amateur game. “Yes,” she concurred. “But you wouldn’t put it like that.”
Why wouldn’t you put it like that? “Well, it would be far removed from anybody’s expectation. I mean, to become a professional was unheard of.”
Not any longer. And as Ruth herself recognised, she is partly responsible for that transformation.
“I think we supplied a good grounding for women’s cricket to develop,” she told me. “And set an example of what can be achieved. Which was all good, because it meant everything moved forward.”
That is quite some legacy, I told her. “Yes,” she agreed.
“I’d rather leave that legacy than any other.”