In 1994, Curtly Ambrose was at his peak. He’d been there for a while, probably ever since his 8-45 demolition of England in Barbados in April, 1990.
In April, 1992, South Africa, in their first game back from exile, were cruising to what would have been an outstanding victory before Ambrose and Courtney Walsh engineered a stunning collapse early on the last day, bringing the West Indies back from the dead.
And the famous 7-1 spell at Perth came in February, 1993. These were simply some of his most outstanding performances in a career replete with outstanding performances.
England arrived in the Caribbean with understandable hope. The days of the humiliating series whitewashes had long gone and it was plain the Caribbean men were no longer the invincible force they had been a decade or so earlier. The pack was getting closer, the quicker ones even nipping at their heels.
Their two previous encounters were close-run affairs. England lost 1-2 on their 1989-90 visit, and would probably have won but for rain and some time-wasting tactics in Trinidad; tactics for which Brian Lara expressed shame during his recent MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey lecture at Lord’s.
The 1991 tour ended 2-2 with England winning at Headingley, on the back of Graham Gooch’s superhuman 154, and at the Oval, when Phillip Tufnell’s off-spin triggered a stunning collapse. The West Indies won convincingly at Trent Bridge and at Egbaston, while the Lord’s Test was being fairly evenly contested until ruined by rain.
Yet, though the cracks in West Indies cricket’s body politic were apparent, the side were still formidable. Ambrose and Walsh were a deadly pairing and were ably supported by the two Benjamins from Antigua, Winston and Kenny. The batting was holding its own as well. The emperor, Viv Richards, had gone. Richie Richardson, however, was largely thought to have inherited his countryman’s crown, even as everyone understood he was only holding it until the rightful heir came of age.
The Prince of Port of Spain was already hitting his stride, as his regal 277 in Sydney showed. And by the time the series concluded Lara had wrested the record Test score from his hero, Sir Garfield Sobers (who was on hand to congratulate Lara when he broke his record in Antigua), and would soon add the record for highest first-class score, 499, then held by Hanif Mohammad.
Desmond Haynes was also still around, Keith Arthurton came into the series with the good form he brought from Australia, and Jimmy Adams had showed himself as a steady accumulator.
England came with a pretty decent squad. The batting was probably its stronger division, featuring Michael Atherton, Alec Stewart, Robin Smith, Graham Thorpe, who had scored a century on debut against Australia a few months prior, while there was still hope that Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash would fulfil their immense potential.
If the bowling seemed less threatening it had promise as well. Phil Tufnell already showed what he could do to the West Indies’ line-up; Devon Malcolm had serious pace at his command; Angus Fraser was tall, insistently accurate, and generated lift; and 6ft 5in Andy Caddick could be a handful on his day.
But, whatever hopes England had of upsetting the hosts were quickly dashed as the West Indies comfortably won the first two Tests in Jamaica and in Guyana, where Shivnarine Chanderpaul debuted on his home ground. The English bowlers were unable to silence the bats of left-handers Lara, Arthurton and Adams, while Kenny Benjamin took six wickets in the first innings in Jamaica, and Ambrose captured eight wickets in the Guyana game.
The Trinidad Test, then, was pivotal for the visitors. Lose and the series was gone. Winning, therefore, was the only option if they had expectations of taking the series, and they began well by dismissing the West Indies for 252.
When their turn came only Thorpe managed a half century, but most of the other batsmen got starts, nudging England to 328, a useful lead of 76.
The home side struggled in their second innings. The surface wasn’t the easiest but a number of players got starts and ought to have gone on. The only half century came from Chanderpaul, already hinting, in only his second Test, at the adhesiveness for which he’d become known.
The West Indies were 227-7 when Ambrose joined Winston Benjamin on the afternoon of the fourth day with his teammates underlining the need to spend time at the crease. For some reason, Ambrose related in Time To Talk, he always felt the urge to hit Caddick’s bowling.
“If I had to give a reason for this irrational dislike for Caddick’s bowling, I would probably say it was because he had an action quite similar to Sir Richard Hadlee’s. I always admired Hadlee as a great cricketer and truly great bowler and I figured, ‘man, you shouldn’t be trying to bowl like Richard Hadlee, you’re not in the same class’, so I wanted to show Caddick that he was no Hadlee.”
An almighty swipe at Caddick, aimed at the midwicket area, led to Ambrose being bowled for 12. He was angry with himself. Additionally, and quite unusually for such a great performer, he got an “earful” from his teammates.
England had 194 to chase. And while batting was not going to be easy on a surface from which the ball didn’t always rise predictably, with judicious batting winning was highly possible.
What happened next shocked everybody, apart, perhaps, from Ambrose who felt urged to make up for his earlier indiscretion. “By the time I walked on, I was extremely focused and knew I could produce something that would prevent us from losing the game.”
Only about 90 minutes was left of the fourth day. “Richie said to us, ‘if we can take three or four wickets this evening we’re in business’.”
Well, they took eight. Charging in as if possessed, Ambrose removed six, suddenly ending what was a highly competitive contest. He blamed himself for the terrible shot he played and England reaped the rage it triggered.
Atherton was the first casualty, palpably lbw to a ball that came back wickedly from off. Ramprakash, in a stunningly inept bit of running was run out by a throw from the long leg boundary from Walsh of all persons, a man whose shoulder trouble forced him to throw underarm.
Wicketkeeper Junior Murray collected the ball two yards from the stumps and still had more than enough time to effect the dismissal.
Robin Smith’s immaculate forward defensive shot was breached and his stumps disturbed. Hick played slightly away from his body and was caught behind. Stewart seemed slightly reluctant to push forward. By the time he got there his off-stump was gone.
Walsh, working up some steam of his own at the other end, found the edge of Ian Salisbury’s dangling bat. He was caught at first slip by Lara.
Hit painfully on his hand one ball, Jack Russell hesitated to get properly behind the next, and the edge was caught by Phil Simmons at second slip, who was on the field for Desmond Haynes. And after taking a battering, mainly from Walsh, Thorpe had his off-stump flattened by one from Ambrose that kept slightly low. It was scheduled to be the penultimate ball of the day.
And so Thorpe, wide-eyed, shell-shocked, walked from the field with his side in shambles at 40-8 and Ambrose six for next to nothing. “He wouldn’t have played anything as torrid as the last hour and a half,” said Geoffrey Boycott on commentary. “I’ve seen a lot of cricket in my time and I’ve been excited by the last hour and a half.”
On the final morning Ambrose, content with the havoc he had wreaked, allowed Walsh to clean up. England added just six more runs to be bowled out for 46, losing a match they likely thought they would have won by 147 runs. They probably would have won, too, had they not had to contend with the Antiguan in such a foul mood.
Amazingly, and in a blow to those who believe there is something called momentum in cricket, England won the next Test at the then West Indies fortress, Kensington Oval, Barbados. Stewart, who hinted at good form early on the tour, scored centuries in both innings. Asked at the end of the game if he realised what he had accomplished. “Yes,” he answered, “we finally won a Test match.”