Curtly's last hurrah
by Tony Cozier in London
August 31, 2000
With its long tradition of staging the final Test of the English season, the Oval has witnessed a few famous farewells over the years.
It was where Don Brad-man walked to the middle for his last innings in 1948, cheered all the way out and given three, cap-raising cheers on his arrival by Norman Yardley and his England team. In a massive anti-climax, Eric Hollies then bowled the great man second ball for 0, denying him the four he needed that would have ensured a Test average of over 100.
A couple of generations on, another legendary batsman, Viv Richards, left the Oval for the last time to a similar rapturous ovation, a huge placard on one of the flats surrounding the ground proclaiming: "Thanks, Viv. We'll miss you".
Sometime in the next five days, another giant of the game takes his final curtain call at the Oval and the reception for Curtly Ambrose, one of the finest fast bowlers of his time and an unforgettable character, should be the same.The emotions will be varied. There will be the sense of sadness attached to the end of any great entertainer's career. Opposing batsmen will be relieved they no longer have to cope with the controlled consistency and steep bounce that have earned the game's tallest bowler over 400 Test wickets.
For the West Indies, the prospect of making do without him - and, sooner rather than later, his enduring partner Courtney Walsh - after 12 years as the spearhead of the attack and the spark in the dressing room has already set off alarm bells from Kingston to Georgetown. Indeed, in spite of his repeated assertion that this is it, he is still being begged to stay on, West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) president Pat Rousseau the latest to join the queue.
Yet, when Ambrose suddenly burst onto the scene in the 1988 domestic season in the Caribbean with a record 35 wickets in the five Red Stripe Cup matches, there was widespread skepticism.
He was already 24, had only been cajoled into the conversion from tennis ball to hard ball cricket well into his teens, previously preferring to act as umpire for his Swetes village team in Antigua, and had appeared in one earlier first-class match for the Leeward Islands two years earlier.
He seemed a reluctant star, a quiet young man unfussed by the glitz of international sport who would spend his time between Tests, still living with his mother, relaxing and shooting hoops with his friends on the Swetes' basketball court.
Further doubts were raised when Ambrose was called for throwing, once, by Test match umpire Clyde Cumberbatch in his second first-class match (a perverse decision on all subsequent evidence) and when, fast-tracked into the 1988 home series against Pakistan, he managed only seven wickets in the three Tests at over 52 runs each.
Above all, there were misgivings over Ambrose's physique. Surely, someone built like what Henry Blofeld once described as "an elongated stork", 6 feet, 7 inches tall and not very wide in the areas always considered vital for fast bowling, couldn't stand the pressures of the job.
The stork has proved the doubters wrong. Of all fast bowlers, only Walsh (who becomes the most capped West Indies player with his 122nd Test at the Oval) and the Indian, Kapil Dev (110 Tests), have kept going longer. This will be Ambrose's 98th Test and, if he was so inclined, he could soldier on for many more.
"Because I'm all wiry and not bulky, a lot of people didn't believe I would last the distance," he said recently. "I know myself and I know I'm a strong fella."
Yet he acknowledged that he was never inclined to extra training to keep fit.
"I just figure bowling is enough to keep me fit," he explained. "I just bowl, bowl and bowl and that's enough to keep me going. If I get a chance to rest, I rest, recharge my batteries and come again. It never took me too long to get fit."It is no idle boast. Richards, his fellow Antiguan and captain for his first four years of Test cricket, once described him as "one of the strongest men I know". He and those who have led Ambrose since have demanded a lot from him and he has always been up to it, averaging 37.42 uncomplaining overs a Test.
For five years now, he has had to endure the painful decline of West Indies cricket, so powerful when he first came into the team that it hadn't been beaten in a series for eight years.
The lack of commitment in some of the younger players, more so than the lack of talent, has irked him and he recently had some pointed comments about the failure of emerging bowlers to take their chances.
He is quitting, he said, because he doesn't enjoy it as much as he used to and is sticking by his decision in spite of the pleas of those who fear even more difficult times for West Indies cricket without him.
He does sport the gold decorations that are standard accessories of contemporary West Indian cricketers but Ambrose has remained unaffected by the fame and relative fortune the game has brought.
He has had his run ins with authority, been fined by both the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) and by ICC match referee John Reid and once had to be dragged away by captain Richie Richardson from an eyeball-to-eyeball, on-pitch confrontation with Australia's Steve Waugh during a Test at the Queen's Park Oval.
He may be a cool customer but he is, after all, a fast bowler and, like all members of the breed, his feathers can be ruffled by uppity batsmen - as Australia's Dean Jones found to his cost in a one-day international in Sydney in Ambrose's early days.
The incident has become part of the game's folklore.
Jones, always keen to goad the opposition, demanded the umpires make Ambrose remove his white wrist bands. It was as good as calling Mike Tyson a sissy to his face. Ambrose immediately upped his speed and intensity, embarrassed Jones into flinching, missing and edging and scattered five Australian wickets to effectively win a low-scoring contest.No face in the game is more expressive. There is no wider smile than Ambrose's at the fall of another victim, no glare fiercer to a dogged batsman or an errant fielder, no shrug more indicative of resignation to yet another edge passed or catch dropped.
You're a long time retired, they say, but many sportsmen don't retire at all. They simply go straight back into their game in some other guise. Ambrose is unlikely to follow the trend.
He may be persuaded into some coaching in Antigua but a transfer to the commentary box or into adminstration does not seem his style.
He'll be content enjoying his treasured island life with some impromptu basketball, a musical session or two with mates he once strummed guitar with and, most of all, spending more time with his wife and two young daughters and his mother, always his greatest fan who famously rings a bell outside his home whenever Curtly takes another wicket.
There should be a few more peals in the coming days. Then, after Curtly leaves the scene for the last time to the Oval's customary sendoff, it will finally go silent.
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