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Looking back – Curtly Ambrose

Garfield Robinson looks back at the destructive career of Curtly Ambrose

Wayne Lewis is currently the general secretary of the West Indies Players Association (WIPA).

In the Eighties he opened the batting for Jamaica in the regional first-class tournament,  the Red Stripe Cup. He was, in his early days, a promising player, but when Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes were proprietors of the opening spots.

Were he now in his prime, chances of him playing in Tests would’ve been very good indeed.

Attacking and attractive, he was  lovely to watch. He also was, as we shall see, extremely cunning.

In 1988, Curtly Ambrose blew through the Caribbean like one of the region’s hurricanes. In 1987, with a surfeit of established, high-class fast bowling options available to his Leeward Islands team, he was not required.

But, with Winston Benjamin and Eldine Baptiste away on West Indies duties, he returned with a vengeance the following season.

When Jamaica travelled to St. Kitts to face the Leewards, they were flattened for 96 in the first innings, Ambrose snatching 5-40. Having felt the force, Lewis wanted no part of him in the second innings. Somehow he managed to persuade opening partner Nigel Kennedy, on debut, that his left-handedness made him better equipped to handle the lanky paceman.

It made sense then for him to see off the newcomer, while he would content himself with Benjamin, whose offerings were much less dangerous than the missiles raining down at the other end.

Kennedy tried his best, and didn’t flinch. But he paid a high price for his bravery, or, some would argue, his naiveté in getting duped by his more experienced colleague. The broken arm he suffered ended his season, and he played only one more game at that level. Jamaica lost by 305 runs.

On a docile Antigua Recreation Ground surface, years later the venue of Lara’s 375 and 400 not out, Ambrose snatched 12 wickets, nine bowled. By the end of the tournament he had 35 wickets to his name from five games. The great Malcolm Marshall was next on 27. Pakistan were down to visit the Caribbean shortly afterwards and everyone who followed cricket were anticipating what was to come next for the tall Antiguan.

Ambrose took up the game late. He played his first serious game aged 21 for his village, Swetes. Prior to that it was mostly basketball and football. Cricket was too difficult, he felt, used up too much energy, so he limited his sporting activities, for the most part, to beach cricket and the occasional pick-up game in the village whenever his friends managed to cajole him to play.

He did play some cricket at school in his teens, but according to Benjamin, his schoolmate, lifelong friend, and fast-bowling comrade-in-arms for Antigua, Leeward Islands and West Indies, “he wouldn’t have killed ants with the pace he was bowling.”

Ambrose was never consumed by the game. An older brother was a good wicketkeeper. His mother, in Ambrose’s words, “has always been and still is a cricket fanatic”. Yet he never had any great affection for it and often grew annoyed with his mother’s incessant cricket talk.

Unlike most West Indian boys, he was not enraptured by the glorious feats of players his mother would talk about: Sobers, the three Ws, Lloyd, or even those of his countrymen Roberts and Richards. He played no imaginary Tests in his backyard as the Chappells did, nor did he sleep with bat or ball in the way of many starry eyed youngsters.

This is a radical departure from the usual path to elite sport. Almost all the world’s top performers will admit to an unwavering fondness for their sport of choice from their earliest years; a fondness bordering on obsession. As a child, Bradman spent hours every day throwing a golf ball against a water tank and hitting the rebound with a stump. Michael Jordan practised every morning before school with his high school coach. Tiger Woods had a golf club in his hands almost from the time he could stand.

Not many are able to reach the top coming to their sport as late as Ambrose did. He never took cricket seriously until after his teenage years. And yet, at the age of 24, he was bowling fast for the West Indies alongside Malcolm Marshall and Courtney Walsh.

His approach to the crease lasted about 10 strides. The bowling action was simple and hence repeatable. A 6ft 7in frame facilitated awkward lift off the pitch. The pace was often hot, especially in his early days, but his most utilitarian virtue was his demanding accuracy, and pitch maps of his bowling normally showed a concentrated grouping that could fit on a handkerchief. He moved quickly to the top of the fast bowling pile and there he remained for his entire career.

During the West Indies’ 1992-93 visit to Australia Ambrose was at the height of his powers. Aged 29, he terrorised the Australian batsmen throughout the series, and his spell of 7-1 in Perth is one of cricket’s most famed bowling performances.

One interviewer, probably echoing the exasperation of his countrymen who had to face the giant bowler, asked captain Richie Richardson how local batsmen played him back home. Richardson replied that Caribbean batsmen were always “hooking him and giving him chat”. Richie was just being flippant, of course, you had to be cut from the same cloth as Viv Richards to do that.

The question addressed, however, the awe in which Ambrose was held. The real one was: how does anyone play that kind of bowling?

The Perth spell notwithstanding, my favourite Ambrose bowling feat was the six-wicket haul he grabbed one evening in Trinidad that reduced England to rubble in 1994. Chasing 193, England were bundled out for 46. Batsman after batsman, trudging back to the pavilion, had a faraway look in their eyes – as if in some kind of daze.

West Indies’ 2000 visit to England was Ambrose’s last series. Many, including the West Indies board, would have had him continuing for a bit longer. His mind was made up.

Ambrose grew frustrated that he, and great friend Courtney Walsh, were not being given enough support by the other fast bowlers. “Our bowling was all about myself and Courtney, with Rose and King not stepping up enough. The opportunity was there for these guys to grab a West Indies career for themselves – Courtney and myself could not have supported them more. But you cannot bowl for them.”

More importantly, for such a proud man, Ambrose most likely felt he was lacking his old edge. During the tour, he received a call from Winston Benjamin: “Listen Ambi, I saw something that didn’t used to happen. You bowled a short ball to Vaughan and he pulled you. You tried to retaliate and it wasn’t working. Forget the extra year they’re talking – time to call it a day.”

Now 15 years retired, Sir Curtly Ambrose – he was knighted by the Antiguan government in February 2014 – is currently West Indies’ bowling coach. Frequently, he is seen delivering his points animatedly to his charges before they take the field, and those paying close attention agree that the West Indies’ fast bowling has become more consistent since he has been involved.

I know Kennedy (he of the broken arm) by sight. Sometime around 2008 I attended a club match in Jamaica and he was there. As he stood around with his friends having a good time, I eavesdropped as one of the group recalled their friend’s encounter with the great bowler. They all laughed hard, Kennedy laughing hardest of all.

There was no hint of disappointment. He would have got over such feelings in 20 years. What seemed clear was that he knew he had unwittingly played a part in the making of a legend, and he was far from being unhappy about it.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper on Friday November 27, 2015

This article was brought to you by The Cricket Paper, the UK's best-selling cricket publication, on-sale every Sunday.
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