The devastating Curtly Ambrose was born on September 21, 1963. He was at par with some of the best bowlers to have emerged from the Caribbean. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the career of one of the greatest fast bowlers of all time.
Describing Curtly Ambrose is possibly one of the toughest challenges for anyone: you can write about the feral aggression in every made-to-look-easy footstep of the man as he ran in to bowl; or the mean, hostile look in his eyes that would send a chill down the spine of the bravest of warriors; or the immaculate configuration of the torso just before the ball was released; or the antagonistic pace, the fuming bounce, and the relentless accuracy.
But what about the bowler as a whole? Ambrose was more than the sum of his parts: you do not have the words to describe the way he kept your eyes glued to the television screen the moment he ran in to bowl. You knew something was going to happen. It might not be a wicket: it might have been just a dot ball that would climb up the batsman’s throat from a length, making it impossible for him to score a run off.
And when the unthinkable happened — when some batsman was capable (and unfortunate) enough to hit him for a boundary he would walk straight to the centre of the pitch: the eyes would remain quiet as always, but you could not help notice the venom in them. It made you squirm in terror: think of what it did to the batsman.
Curtly Elconn Lynwall Ambrose would feature among the top 10 devastating fast bowlers of all time, and that is not an exaggeration. He bowled in an era when heavy bats, helmeted batsman, batsman-friendly bouncer rules, and — in One-Day Internationals (ODIs) — fielding restrictions for the first 15 overs had come into being.
Despite the handicaps Ambrose was devastating as any fast bowler from any era; he never erred in line or length, he was fast (he could be faster if you had somehow committed the grave error of getting under his skin), he could extract unreal bounce, and despite not being gifted with the ability to move the ball prodigiously in the air he made up for it with lethal movements off the surface.
Ambrose’s wrist typically snapped forward during the release — which was the reason that Clyde Cumberbatch, the umpire from Trinidad, had called him for chucking once. However, his action is undoubtedly legal: the wrist action — reminiscent of Michael Holding’s and Courtney Walsh’s — added to the nip in his bowling. As the ball descended from a height of over 10 feet (Ambrose was 6’7″; add to that the leap and the overhead extension of the arm) the nip allowed the ball to take off the moment it landed on the surface.
Apart from the ferocious bouncer he also had an almost unplayable yorker; it was impossible to pick one given his height and his pace; it would simply shoot at the batsman’s boot, and if he was fortunate enough to keep his feet out of the way, the ball would crash into the timber.
Perhaps an assortment of Ambrose getting batsmen out bowled would make the younger generation understand his abilities a lot more. Remember, these are only the bowled dismissals: there have been other wickets, and other lethal deliveries that the batsman could not get anywhere close to.
More important than anything, however, was the pride: the pride showed as he took every pace on the turf, whether running to bowl in, going back to his mark, or even while putting up a hopelessly poor effort while fielding. “Pride is an essential quality for every sportsman. I am a very, very proud man,” were the words.
There was also the brutal antagonism towards the hapless batsmen: “I couldn’t afford to think of whether the batsman would be hurt or if he would struggle. Fast bowling is really, really hard work. I can’t give up all my hard work for what the batsman is thinking.” And then, “I had no sympathy for the batsman.”
Michael Atherton would know: nobody has fallen prey to the menace of Ambrose as many times. There was a reason that he was in awe: “At his best, there is no doubt that [Ambrose] moved beyond the fine line that separates the great from the very good. Quality bowlers essentially need two of three things: pace, movement and accuracy. Ambrose had all three.”
Then there was a celebration; it might have been a trivial one — or a somewhat difficult decision by the umpire; the celebration, however, did not vary a lot from one another. The air was punched vehemently, and since high-fives were not easy to execute from 6’7″, the hands of the lesser mortals were almost inevitably slapped hard with a downward motion.
From 98 Tests Ambrose had picked up 405 wickets at 20.99. To put things into perspective his average among all bowlers with over 200 Test wickets is only marginally behind Malcolm Marshall (20.94) and Joel Garner (20.94). Additionally his strike rate was 54.5 and his economy rate 2.30.
His ODI records — 225 wickets at 24.12 from 176 matches with an economy rate of 3.48 — were equally impressive. In 239 First-Class matches Ambrose had acquired 941 wickets at 20.24 with 50 five-fors and eight ten-fors.
Most opening bowlers are more than happy to be a part of a formidable pair: Ambrose was a part of two. Other than Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis (476 from 56 Tests) no fast bowling pair has taken more wickets than Ambrose and Walsh (412 from 52 Tests).
Ambrose and Walsh average 22.10 runs per wicket as a pair (behind only Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall’s 230 wickets at 20.16 from 23 Tests and Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock’s 346 wickets at 21.36 from 44 Tests). If we lower the bar to 190 wickets Ambrose and Ian Bishop have taken 196 wickets from 23 Tests at a phenomenal 18.96.
Ambrose had picked up 78 wickets in Australia at 19.79 from 14 Tests; this remains the most wickets picked up by an overseas bowler in Australia. His 88 wickets in England at 20.77 from 20 Tests rank only behind Shane Warne, Dennis Lillee, and Marshall.
Jeff Dujon had the enviable experience of watching some of the greatest West Indian fast bowlers at close quarters. “[Ambrose’s] Wonderful control was the essence, and the faster one shocked some very good batsmen. He is mature beyond his years, has pace, accuracy, heart and determination, plus, importantly, real pride in economical figures,” wrote the champion wicket-keeper on him.
Ambrose was the fourth son of seven children born to a carpenter in Swetes Village, Antigua and Barbuda. He had absolutely no family background in cricket other than the fact that his mother Hillie was an ardent cricket fan: not only did she stay up nights listening to commentary on the radio she could also run out of her house and ring the bell every time her son picked up a wicket.
With Ambrose’s track records things might not have been very soothing for the neighbours — especially if the venue of the match in question took place at night in the Antiguan time zone. “I didn’t know about the bell thing till I read it in the paper, and when I came back and asked her, she showed me the bell,” Ambrose later said.
Given his frame Ambrose had grown up as an aspiring basketball player and had decided to migrate to the United States at an age of 17. In fact, he had avoided cricket because it was “too long” and “took up a lot of energy”. The occasional exposure to beach cricket, turning up for the school team, and umpiring to the parish team were all that his cricket was limited to.
Fortunately for the sport (and the opposite for a lot of batsmen in the 1990s) he found someone who would change his life forever: “Andy Roberts was an early mentor, emphasising the psychological aspect of bowling and instilling a belief in [Curtly] Ambrose that he could join countrymen [Eldine] Baptiste, [George] Ferris, and [Winston] Benjamin at the highest level,” wrote Wisden.
He was yet to play First-Class cricket when he was well past his 22nd birthday — an age at which Sachin Tendulkar was in the contention for the world’s leading batsman and Archie Jackson had played his last Test; he was still contemplating whether to take up cricket as a career.
“My first proper game was representing Swetes, my village, in the national league at the age of 21 which in some people’s minds is a late start, but I like to tell people — I chose my time correctly,” mentions Ambrose in his personal website.
Ambrose would play his first tournament — The Red Stripes Cup — in 1985-86; he picked up four wickets at 35.00. However, it was in 1987-88 that he would pick up 35 wickets at 15.51, going past Winston Davis’ haul of 33, set five years back. Meanwhile, Viv Richards had insisted he toured England and played for Chester Boughton Hall in the Liverpool Competition.
Wisden called him “an inveterate late arriver, though he only lived across the road” during his tenure at Chester; the next season he came back – this time to play for Heywood in the Central Lancashire League; he picked up 115 wickets that season. The next tour would be for West Indies.
Ambrose made his First-Class debut in 1985-86 against Guyana at Bourda. Playing alongside him was his cousin Ralston Otto, a composed middle-order batsman who played First-Class cricket for Leeward Islands. Opening bowling with Winston Benjamin Ambrose picked up two for 61 and two for 79 on debut.
The first five-wicket haul came shortly afterwards, against Jamaica at Basseterre. After Leeward Islands were bowled out for 186 Winston Benjamin (five for 50) and Ambrose (five for 40) bowled unchanged to rout Jamaica for 96; set a target of 492 Jamaica collapsed again — this time for 186 — Ambrose picking up four for 52.
Eleven days later he routed Guyana at St John’s with seven for 66 and five for 67 to inflict an innings defeat; nine of the 12 batsmen were bowled. In a clash of the titans Leeward Islands beat Barbados at Kensington Oval in Ambrose’s next match when the man picked up five more wickets. His next First-Class match was a Test against Pakistan at Bourda in the iconic series of 1987-88.
Few ascents have been as steep. Ambrose writes on his website: “In 1984 I was playing for Swetes, in 1985 I was playing for Antigua and Barbuda, then by 1986 I was picked for the Leeward Islands, alongside Richie Richardson, Viv Richards, Winston Benjamin, Eldine Baptiste who have all represented the West Indies. By 1988 I was in the West Indies team.”
Garner’s retirement had left a void in West Indian attack: Marshall was still around, Patrick Patterson provided with the pace, and Walsh was the perfect foil. What they needed was a tall, lean, hungry, voracious fast bowler who could make life further miserable for batsmen with his unerring accuracy, ruthless aggression, awkward bounce, and venomous pace.
They had found their man in Ambrose. Indeed, Tony Cozier wrote that Ambrose “was a readymade replacement for [Joel] Garner”.
Gordon Greendige threw the ball to Ambrose after Patterson — ahead of Walsh started by clean bowling Mudassar Nazar; he also removed Ijaz Ahmed, but finished with two for 121 in the Test. He played the other two Tests in the series two, but finished with a woeful haul of seven wickets at 52.14.
He began the England tour well, decimating the hosts for 245 with figures of four for 53 in the first innings of the series at Trent Bridge (he also scored a 98-ball 43); he did not do in the second innings or in the rest of the series till Headingley, where he picked up his first Man of the Match award.
West Indies had a four-pronged attack consisting of Marshall, Ambrose, Winston Benjamin, and Walsh. Between them they shot out England for 201 (they were 183 for three) and 138. Ambrose was the most successful of the quartet, finishing with four for 58 and three for 40. West Indies clinched the series with that Test, and eventually finished with a 4-0 margin.
Ambrose’s love-affair with England had begun: the series numbers read 22 wickets from five Tests at 20.22 and an economy rate of 2.19. The only reason for him not picking up more wickets or return without a five-for was the fact that the booty was almost always shared.
The first Australian tour of 1988-89 began with some hostile, short-pitched bowling from the West Indians. Even after Patterson broke down after sending down 19 balls at The Gabba Marshall, Ambrose, and Walsh led West Indies to a comfortable nine-wicket victory.
More horror awaited the Australians at WACA. On a pitch renowned for its pace and steep bounce Ambrose turned out to be the most devastating of the quartet. His bouncers were almost always aimed at the batsmen, and given the sharp bounce one simply could not avoid them.
The Test us generally remembered for what was arguably Merv Hughes’ greatest performance (five for 130 and eight for 87); however, Hughes was no match for an army of four. Despite coming late into the attack Ambrose led the pack, picking up his first five-for, finishing with five for 72 and three for 66. He also broke Geoff Lawson’s jaw with a snorter.
The series was won in the next Test at MCG. Though Australia came back strongly to reduce the eventual margin to 1-3 there was no doubt which side was the better one. He had helped his side conquer Australia the same way he had done in England: this time he finished with 26 wickets at 21.46. The Pakistan series was long forgotten.
A rather surprising low came against India at home but with England paying a return visit he was ready to charge at them. Leading the attack in Marshall’s absence Ambrose picked up four for 60 in the third Test at Queen’s Park Oval. Then came Kensington Oval.
Exhibit One: Against England at Kensington Oval, 1990
Things were not looking too bad for England even with Marshall back in the fray: West Indies had eventually set them 356 to win. Walsh and Patterson were missing, but their places had been taken up by Ian Bishop and Ezra Moseley. They had barely over a day to bat out, and it seemed that they would hold on to their lead acquired at Sabina Park.
Bishop began by snaring Wayne Larkins; Ambrose had Rob Bailey almost immediately afterwards, caught down the leg-side; two balls later the night-watchman Gladstone Small was trapped leg-before. England finished the day at 15 for three, with the fight having left them already.
Alec Stewart and Jack Russell — the two men who would vie for the wicketkeeper’s slot for England in the 1990s — put up a dogged fight, taking the score to 71 the next morning. Ambrose then struck: the ball flew off Stewart’s edge to Richards at first slip as the Surrey man attempted an expansive drive. A few minutes later Allan Lamb was caught behind off Ambrose.
Once again there was a dogged resistance, this time a demoted Robin Smith coming to Russell’s assistance with a 69-run partnership. Once Ambrose bowled Russell, however, the rest fell in a heap: Ambrose finished with figures of eight for 45. England lost by 164 runs; and Ambrose picked up his first ten-for (10 for 127).
With figures of six for 101 at St John’s he helped West Indies claim the series 2-1. Ambrose finished with 20 wickets at 15.35. He followed this with a particularly successful tour of Pakistan where he picked up 14 wickets from three Tests at 17.07. After a decent show against Australia at home (where he scored 53 — his only Test fifty) he was back for the hapless English again.
England were not a pushover this time: they took a lead at Headingley thanks to Graham Gooch’s immortal 154 not out and later came back from behind to square the series at The Oval in what turned out to be the last Test for Richards, Dujon, and Marshall. Ambrose’s figures read 28 wickets at 20.00. It was evident that he was ready to lead the attack after Marshall’s retirement.
At Headingley, where Gooch carved out his epic, Ambrose was busy making dents in the England batting line-up. He picked up the first six wickets; it was a 98-run partnership between Gooch and Derek Pringle that helped England out of the pit. The other bowlers came into business too late for comfort.
He picked up four for 87 in the rain-washed Lord’s Test and followed it with five for 74 and three for 61 at Trent Bridge. In all Ambrose finished the tour with 51 wickets at 17.03. His performances made him a Wisden Cricketer of the Year.
Scyld Berry wrote: “Since the 1988 tour, Ambrose had improved his control to the point where a batsman had to play almost every ball — and not with a scoring stroke, either.” Graeme Hick would have been the first to agree: the batsman, hailed as the most talented, faced a severe setback after being dismissed by Ambrose six times in seven innings and had to go back to domestic cricket.
Berry also marvelled at Ambrose’s celebrations: “[Curtly] Ambrose’s rise to the status of a giant — with the mannerism of celebrating each wicket by whirling his arms upwards, like a flock of doves taking to the air.”
Later that year Ambrose managed to pull off an excellent innings at WACA in the opening match of Benson & Hedges World Series. After India were bowled out for 126 Kapil Dev responded by removing Desmond Haynes the first ball; the other seamers responded well, and the West Indians were soon reeling at 76 for eight.
Anderson Cummins walked out to join Ambrose. He hit a six, and the pressure was eased; the pair hung on grimly and added a crucial 37 in 32 minutes before Ambrose was run out for a 17; the match ended in a tie.
Exhibit two: Against South Africa at Kensington Oval, 1992
The one-off Test at Kensington Oval was supposed to be South Africa’s comeback Test match: the locals, however, boycotted the Test when Kenneth Benjamin was selected to make his debut ahead of the local boy Cummins. No Cummings, No Goings was just one of the posters that were set up by the sparse population watching the Test.
The South Africans were having a good time. Richard Snell bowled out the hosts for 262; Andrew Hudson scored 163 on debut to secure an 83-run lead; and then Snell and Allan Donald ensured that the tourists needed to score only 201. Ambrose provided two early jolts by removing Hudson and Mark Rushmere, but Kepler Wessels and Peter Kirsten held fort; South Africa were 122 for two at the end of Day Four.
Walsh began the wreckage, removing Wessels; Ambrose found Hansie Cronje’s edge, and with Walsh also removing Adrian Kuiper, South Africa were suddenly 131 for five. Walsh then ran through the resolute Kirsten’s defence, and Ambrose ran through the rest. He finished with six for 34 while Walsh had four for 31; from 123 for two South Africa had collapsed for 148, losing their last four wickets for a single run.
Ambrose began soundly in the Frank Worrell Trophy next season, picking up two for 53 and five for 66 at The Gabba; his batsmen, however, let him down, and saved the Test only marginally. Australia took a lead at MCG and held on to it at SCG.
Then, after Tim May restricted West Indies’ lead to 185 at Adelaide it seemed that Australia would eventually break West Indies’ unbroken run. They began well, and at 54 for two it seemed like they would get away with it. Then the fast bowlers – Ambrose, Bishop, Kenneth Benjamin, and Walsh – kept on striking, and after a 40-run last-wicket partnership Australia lost by the heartbreaking margin of a single run.
Ambrose had picked up four for 46, Walsh three for 44, and Bishop two for 41. Ambrose’s best, however, was to come.
Exhibit three: Against Australia at WACA, 1992-93
There are good spells, very good spells, or maybe excellent spells. How do you, however, rate a seven for one? Even after Bishop had removed Justin Langer early and Steve Waugh some time later David Boon and Mark Waugh were going about it serenely at 85 for two. Ambrose had nought for 24 at this stage.
He then unleashed two gems: both took off from a good length on a bouncy WACA pitch, the batsmen played forward, and the ball flew to safe pairs of hands — those of a leaping Dave Williams and a diving Richie Richardson — behind the stumps. Poor Allan Border got the crème la crème — a peach that nobody could have left and would have got any batsman.
Ian Healy saved the hat-trick but edged one soon; Hughes went for an almighty slog and was caught at cover. It would be Ambrose’s only wicket caught in front of the stumps. Damien Martyn, holding fort till now, edged another one, as did Jo Angel. Warne’s run out eventually brought the innings to an end at 119.
Ambrose finished with seven for 25. The spell had fetched him seven for one. Australia lost by an innings and conceded the series 1-2. The residents of Swetes Village might have been under the impression that a fire-brigade had been running amok.
Ambrose finished the series with 33 wickets from five Tests at 16.42. Perth saw him drive the 16 members of his side in his new Nissan, thus acquired, through the lush turf of the WACA.
Temper: Against Australia at SCG, 1992-93
Earlier on the tour Ambrose was bowling in the first Final of the Benson and Hedges Cup. West Indies had scored 239 for eight, and Dean Jones had just walked out after Ambrose had Boon caught behind. Jones walked out, took guard, and did something extremely foolish: he asked Ambrose to take the sweatband off his right wrist on the ground that the ball got camouflaged in the process.
It took a few seconds for Ambrose to realise what was going on. He then removed it; his body language changed; the next ball was a snorter that Jones had no chance of coming anywhere close to; though he survived Ambrose his teammates did not — Ambrose ran through them with five for 32. Australia lost by 25 runs and then went on to lose the second final as well.
“There’s an old saying that you should never wake a sleeping lion and in truth I was annoyed at the request. It was just a one-off situation and it really did fire me up which was a warning to batsmen all over the world. I blew them away,” recalls Ambrose on the incident.
England had managed to fight back against Ambrose at Sabina Park next year but could not escape Kenneth Benjamin. At Bourda, too, they lost by an innings; what was worse was the fact that Ambrose had shown ominous signs of coming back to form.
Exhibit four: Against England at Queen’s Park Oval, 1993-94
In the third Test at Queen’s Park Oval England defied Ambrose (five for 60) to pile up a significant 76-run lead. Andy Caddick’s spell then ensured that England would have to chase only 194, albeit on a deteriorating surface, to gnaw back into the series. “This ought to be England’s game”, said Peter Roebuck. They had about an hour to bat on Day Four.
Mike Atherton was trapped leg-before first ball by a vicious one that jagged back in; Mark Ramprakash slipped and could not make it to the striker’s end. England were two for one before the first over had ended. Smith played forward to Ambrose — or he thought he did: the ball crashed into the off-stump.
As Stewart played a few strokes Hick struggled, trying to keep his wicket from falling. Then Ambrose ended his miseries by getting him to poke one to the wicket-keeper; Stewart’s resolution ended as Ambrose hit his timber; and after Walsh had poor Ian Salisbury caught at slip Ambrose had a flier that took Russell’s bat and flew to the slips.
Ambrose then struck the final nail in the coffin by uprooting Graham Thorpe’s off-stump. The English spectators were too confused and awestruck to react. Posters with the message Boycott, Pad Up Now went up across the stadium as England were 40 for eight at stumps.
Walsh picked up the final two wickets the next morning. He had bowled unchanged with Ambrose and had helped rout England for 46. Ambrose finished with six for 24 and a match haul of 11 for 84. He finished the series with 26 wickets at 19.96.
At this point Ambrose was, without a doubt, the best bowler on the planet. Given his achievements he was also probably chasing the high standards set by his predecessors. This was, however, also roughly the phase when Bishop started picking up injury problems and the three-pronged attack was sporadically in use.
Walsh was there, of course: he lasted longer than any of the West Indian fast bowlers; he had started his career alongside the giants of the 1980s, was with Bishop and Ambrose throughout the 1990s, and outlasted all of them, going into the 2000s; few people have had world records more deserving.
Ambrose, on the other hand, probably did not believe in longevity. The venom, the spite, the temper, the aggression – none of them had any reason to go on the wane. The good aspect was the fact that his easy run-up ensured that he did not pick up the regular injuries that so hurt the other fast bowlers, but the first signs of fatigue had appeared: the shoulder had started to give in.
However, despite the presence of the fast bowlers, the experience of Richardson and Hooper, and the arrival of Brian Lara and Jimmy Adams, it was evident that West Indies cricket was slowly on the wane: the blackwashes had been replaced by hard-fought series. West Indies barely managed to draw a series in India, albeit in Ambrose’s absence. It was only a matter of time.
Things looked ominous when Glenn McGrath came to the forefront at Kensington Oval to snatch a lead against West Indies. Ambrose picked up two wickets but did not seem to be at his best. The second Test at St John’s was disrupted by frequent rain; it was another disappointing performance by the Antiguan.
Temper: Against Australia at Queen’s Park Oval, 1994-95
Ambrose was charged up when the teams headed for the Queen’s Park Oval. The groundsman had laid out a green surface. It was all going like a picture: Richardson won the toss, Walsh provided with an early breakthrough, and the stage was set for Ambrose.
He had Mark Taylor out caught, and soon found Mark Waugh’s edge. The scoreboard read 14 for three, and for once the West Indians supporters had found their voice back. Ambrose, with his rhythm back, was now back at his best, making life miserable for Boon. With the Tasmanian struggling against Ambrose and Walsh it seemed that the Australian line-up was on the verge of being dented further.
It was then that Steve Waugh decided to take on the bull by its horns. As Waugh wrote later in his West Indian Tour Diary, Ambrose “followed through to within two metres away from me and gave me the regulation Clint Eastwood stare. I thought he [Ambrose] went on with the silent assassin-style interrogation for longer (than) was necessary, so I came back with, ‘What the f*** are you looking at?’”
This was sacrilege. Ambrose was at the receiving end of profanities; in his own den. Waugh himself had realised what he had just done: “no one had ever been stupid enough” to do this, he thought.
Ambrose walked towards Waugh, not taking his eyes away from the Australian for a split-second; the two-metre distance came down to an arm’s length when Ambrose, with fire in his eyes and some vague memories of phrases like ‘spirit of the game’ holding him back.
“Don’t cuss me, maan,” were the words.
Waugh wrote later: “His [Ambrose’s] eyeballs were spinning and as he edged to within a metre, it seemed he was ready to erupt.” Richardson, the veteran of many a battle, hurried to the spot; he had probably had realised that a murder or something equivalent was on the cards; he conjured whatever strength who could muster and tried to pull the giant away from the scenario.
In his Out of my Comfort Zone, Waugh reminisced: “Unfortunately, nothing inventive or witty came to mind, rather another piece of personal abuse: ‘Why don’t you go and get f**ked?’”
“It was on TV, which means there were a lot of people watching; you can’t behave like a coward and back out; you need to stand there and pretend you’re tough,” said Waugh later, justifying what was perhaps his most ridiculously brave act on a cricket ground.
“Come, don’t waste my time; let’s get on with the job. Our job is to get him out,” said a frantic Richardson as he somehow managed to tug Ambrose away from Waugh. Waugh later said “I was hoping Richie Richardson would come and pull me away, because he was far too big for me.”
The next two balls were short and furiously fast but Waugh managed to get behind each quite comfortably.
Ambrose eventually picked up five for 45 to bowl out Australia for 128 but he could not fell Waugh; the New South Welshman remained unbeaten on 63; Ambrose followed up with four for 20 and West Indies squared the series with a nine-wicket victory.
Then it was lost: the supremacy West Indies had hung on to — their invincibility that had lasted for 16 years – had eventually come to an end. Ambrose picked up a solitary wicket before the Waugh twins put up a 231-run partnership and eventually guided the tourists to an innings victory.
The champions were vanquished. The world had found its new champion. Ambrose, with 13 wickets at 19.84, could not prevent West Indies from losing the series.
There was worse to come, though: the Wisden Trophy was drawn on English soil in a few months’ time yet again. With Bishop back in the side England lost the first Test at Headingley, but After Dominic Cork had routed West Indies on debut at Lord’s to pull off a historic victory.
The tourists led yet again with an innings victory at Edgbaston despite Ambrose not being able to bowl in the second innings. England squared the series at Old Trafford thanks to yet another exceptional display from Cork. Ambrose missed the fifth Test at Trent Bridge.
Ambrose went flat out on a featherbed at The Oval; he bowled with a lion’s heart and eventually finished with five for 96 off 42 overs; England, however, reached 454 after being 192 for five. West Indies declared at 692 for eight; Ambrose removed Jason Gallian and John Crawley with 64 on the board; but time ran out with England on 223 for four.
Yet again the great man had proved his worth, picking up 21 wickets at 24.09. It was evident, though, that such performances were not good to win Tests and series for West Indies anymore.
The One That Got Away
More disappointment waited for Ambrose in the 1996 World Cup. He demolished Zimbabwe with three for 28 at Hyderabad, gave India a couple of initial jolts at Gwalior, helped bowl out Kenya at Poona, and choked Australia into submission at Jaipur with figures of 10-4-25-0. When he helped thwart South Africa with one for 29 at Karachi it seemed that West Indies were the team that had been peaking at the right time.
Ambrose and Bishop opened bowling against Australia at Mohali; Mark Waugh lasted two balls, and Ricky Ponting fell to Ambrose for a duck as well. At the other end Bishop took out Taylor and Steve Waugh, and Australia were soon 15 for four. It took Stuart Law and Michael Bevan a herculean effort to help Australia reach 207 for eight.
At 165 for two Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Richardson seemed to have things under control; it was then that McGrath struck twice and Warne ripped through the lower-middle order; the quixotic decisions to promote Roger Harper and Ottis Gibson above Adams and Keith Arthurton did not help, either.
Ambrose walked out with the score on 194 for eight to join Richardson. On 202, however, Ambrose got involved in a terrible mix-up with Richardson and was run out. With Walsh falling for a golden duck West Indies lost by five runs.
Ambrose recollects the incident as The One That Got Away. “It still haunts me up to this day. It is about the only regret I’ve had during my career, not having a World Cup medal around my neck. It’s that one missing link and would really have been the zenith to my career,” he laments on his website. “Oh to have just got another five runs on my tally and my cricket life would have been complete and perfect.”
He adds with characteristic pride: “I knew that if we had taken care of Australia, there was no way Sri Lanka could have beaten us in the final. I really was that confident.”
Exhibit five: Against Australia at MCG, 1996-97
Walsh had assumed responsibilities as the captain after Richardson’s retirement. West Indies had gone down in the first two Tests at The Gabba and SCG in 1996-97; Ambrose thought he had a point to prove and decided to play in the third Test at MCG despite a hamstring injury. Could Ambrose make a losing side turn around bowling with an injury?
Walsh threw the new ball to Ambrose. Matthew Hayden had possibly underestimated the giant; the drive landed in Hooper’s hands at second slip. Taylor tried to move away but the ball kept coming into him, hit him on the solar plexus, and then ricocheted on to the stumps. Mark Waugh was trapped leg-before the next ball. Australia were 26 for three after 53 minutes of play — all to a man who should ideally have sat out of the Test.
Ambrose bowled the most overs in that innings; he also had Ian Healy caught in the slips, and finished off things by removing McGrath. He returned figures of five for 55; Australia had been bowled out for 219.
West Indies managed a slender 36-run lead but they need not have worried: Ambrose sent Taylor and Justin Langer back with three runs on the board, and came back to pick up two more. Ambrose had four for 17 in the innings, nine for 72 in the Test, and West Indies chased down the target of 87 for the loss of four wickets.
Exhibit six: Against Australia at WACA, 1996-97
Ambrose missed the next Test at Adelaide where Australia won, retaining the Frank Worrell Trophy; he came back for the final Test at WACA. With the series gone Ambrose had to play for pride — West Indies’ as well as his own.
WACA had always responded to Ambrose; it did not fail him here either. The bounce Ambrose obtained was ethereal; Matthew Hayden lasted three balls; the incredible bit was perhaps the fact that Lara had been standing the proverbial mile away from the batsman at first slip when he took the catch — and was still pushed back a couple of paces by the momentum. It was the best opening over WACA had seen for a long time.
Steve Waugh’s 20-minute struggle of a solitary run came to an end when his impatient edge landed in the eager gloves of Courtney Browne; shortly afterwards Mark Waugh, disoriented by the bounce, edged one to third slip. Here was a man, playing to prove a point in what would be his last Test Down Under.
Poor Healy had no idea of the snorter that pegged back his off-stump; and neither could Paul Reiffel believe the bounce Ambrose extracted the next ball. He finished with five for 43 as Australia were bowled out for 243. A regal 132 from Lara gave West Indies a 141-run lead.
Light entertainment, Ambrose-style
Ambrose removed Taylor and Blewett with 17 on the board, and Walsh (who picked up five for 74 bowling medium-paced due to an injury) and Bishop ran through the rest of the line-up. Australia were bowled out for 194. This was not without Ambrose’s historic ninth over, though.
His ninth over – the last he would bowl at WACA — contained nine no-balls; he ended up bowling a 15-ball over — the longest in Test history. “This is getting a bit farcical,” boomed Holding’s voice on the microphone as Ambrose tried desperately to carry out the most basic of acts — complete the over.
Warne added to the agony by pulling out towards the end; Ambrose, however, was probably too exhausted to be angry. When the ordeal got over he actually raised his hands to receive a standing ovation. It would be the last time he would bowl at WACA.
West Indies won by 10 wickets; it was their fifth Test win at WACA in five Tests. More significantly, they had never lost a second-innings wicket in these Tests. Ambrose finished with 24 wickets at the ground at 12.91 from three Tests — still the most wickets by an overseas player by a distance.
More light entertainment, Ambrose-style
It was not as if Ambrose was all about hostility. As mentioned above he had a sense of humour as well: on the days when nobody dared to get under his skin, went things went his way, he actually turned up in a cordial mood, providing rare moments of light entertainment for the crowd.
Even in his light mood Ambrose was good enough to take on any batsman. Consider Mark Waugh here, for example:
Anyway, back to cricket
Unfortunately, England faced Ambrose’s wrath yet again. West Indies won the series 3-1. As expected, Ambrose was named the Man of the Series. The first Test at Sabina Park had to be abandoned due to a terrible pitch; the other five belonged to Ambrose.
At 34 Ambrose showed that his best days were still not past him. He had his best series, picking up 30 wickets at a ridiculous 14.26. He picked up 13 more at 23.76 when West Indies were whitewashed in South Africa next season; this included a superlative spell of six for 51 at St George’s Park.
With Bishop out of action it was clear that the West Indian fast bowling attack was on the wane. The new crop — Franklyn Rose, Mervyn Dillon, Nixon McLean, Cameron Cuffy, Pedro Collins — were nowhere close to the champions in terms of class; Ambrose and Walsh had to shoulder the burden themselves.
Burnout was inevitable. More often than not Ambrose and Walsh had managed to pick up early wickets, only to be let down by the support cast. Ambrose, being the faster of the two, was expected to quit before his senior partner. Time was running out for the great man.
Ambrose played a crucial role in the epic series against Australia at home; he picked up three for 35 and two for 25 at Queen’s Park Oval but McGrath and Jason Gillespie routed the hosts for 51. Ambrose had two more wickets at Sabina Park where West Indies levelled the series thanks to Lara’s 213 and a five-for by Nehemiah Perry on debut.
So far Ambrose had been lying low: he picked up four more wickets at Kensington Oval, but more importantly he helped Lara add 54 for the ninth wicket — a partnership that was crucial in West Indies’ one-wicket victory. He eventually regained form at St John’s, picking up five for 94 and three for 55, but his batting let him down yet again.
The series was levelled. Ambrose, despite the ordinary start, finished with 19 wickets from four Tests at 22.26. Walsh went a step ahead with 26 at 20.88, but that was about it.
After the 1999 World Cup the selectors decided to alternate Ambrose and Walsh for the ODI series. Ambrose conjured figures of 10-5-5-1 against Sri Lanka at Sharjah by achieving the near-impossible: keeping Sanath Jayasuriya at the crease and not allowing him to score runs. This remains the second-most economic figures for any bowler who had bowled his complete quota after Phil Simmons’ 10-8-3-4 (Bishan Bedi had figures of 12-8-6-1).
The final hurrah
Ambrose had announced that he would retire after the England tour of 2000. He started with a solitary wicket at Edgbaston in a West Indies’ victory; at Lord’s he picked up four for 30 to rout England for 134, but the batsmen let him down once again by getting all out for 54; his four for 70 at Old Trafford ended in a draw.
Once again Ambrose and Walsh picked up four wickets apiece at Headingley, but once again the batsmen deserted the pair, getting bowled out for 61. In this Test Ambrose became the fifth bowler in history to reach the 400-wicket milestone with the wicket of – rather expectedly – Atherton.
The series was lost 1-3 at The Oval: Ambrose bowled his heart out, picking up three wickets, but could not prevent yet another defeat. As he bowed out of First-Class cricket he received a standing ovation from a huge crowd at The Oval. England had perhaps seen more effective bowlers, but few as menacing: they had never seen another Curtly Ambrose. Even his last series he finished with 17 wickets at 18.64.
He was rated the top bowler according to ICC ratings in 1991; he did not slide past the number two slot till 1998. He finished as sixth, dropping two positions in his last series mostly due to the fact that his efforts did not convert to victories.
Ambrose detached himself from cricket almost completely after he quit. He even turned down most interviews — even during his playing days — with the trademark words in third-person: “Curtly talks to no-one”.
Ambrose later became a part of the seven-piece reggae band The Big Dad Dread and the Baldhead as a bass guitar player; along with him is his former captain Richardson, who plays rhythm guitar for the band. They have been playing since 2002, and given that it is Ambrose, he is as passionate about his music as he had been with fast bowling.
Ambrose was inducted into the ICC Hall of Fame in 2011 along with Alan Davidson and Belinda Clark.
In photos: Curtly Ambrose’s cricketing career
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)