Throughout this summer of cricket and beyond, Balanced Sports and World Cricket Watch are inviting cricket writers from around the globe to wax lyrical on who they consider their “favourite cricketer”. Today Matthew Wood (@balanced_sports) marvels at a West Indian who re-imagined fast bowling.
As cricket fans, we favour iconoclasts and champions. Every player in this series is likely to be one or the other. The players who appeal most express a certain freedom – of emotion, thought, preparation, leadership and of skill. Our game more than any other creates artistry – in batsmanship, bowling, fielding and captaincy. That liberty allows one to create results from nothing a la Shane Warne, to redefine the game as Jardine or one’s own game like Lillee; to propagate evolution by force of will alone in the mould of Allan Border or simply just to be oneself, enormous moustache and all – Merv Hughes.
After spending months considering who my favourite cricketer is, narrowing the list proved more difficult than anticipated. Certain players are respected for their skill and resulting achievement: Sir Donald Bradman, Warne or McGrath. The Chappell brothers remain straight-shooters, one an iconoclast and the other a fractured genius. My childhood favourite? Merv Hughes. Stylistically, no-one comes within galaxies of Sir Viv Richards and the greatest moment of cricket perspective of all came from Keith Miller: “Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, not playing cricket”.
Curtly Elconn Lynwall Ambrose didn’t redefine fast bowling, but re-imagined it. The last in almost a half-decade of the truly great West Indian pacemen, he not only picked up the legacy of forbears Hall, Griffith, Roberts, Holding, Croft, Garner and Marshall but added his own chapter to cricket’s most exciting history. His stature – 6’7 – led to constant, inevitable and overstated references to a basketball career, but he shouldn’t be remembered for his length but for it’s deadly effect when combined with his natural talent and work ethic.
Curtly Elconn Lynwall Ambrose didn’t redefine fast bowling, but re-imagined it.”
Fast strides to the wicket turned into a quickish amble as the years passed, but Ambrose casually delivered the ball from over 9 feet high at extreme pace for twelve years at Test level. Instead of losing accuracy with his height, he turned that divine gift into a stock ball which reared off a good length: he had the accuracy of McGrath, the malice of Holding, the movement of Marshall and the faster changeup of the killer Roberts. He had everything any fast bowler could want, including a killer yorker and a bouncer so evil batsmen often heard “Luke, I am your father” as the ball passed their throat.
Loose-jointed and almost outrageously fast, he was the evolutionary Joel Garner. His languid appearance, nevermore on show than when bowing to Bay 13, often gave the impression of coasting. He could afford to celebrate victories as they kept him going – cricket never meant that much to him. After years of competition between bowlers to get into the West Indian side, the destiny of their pace attack rested with Curtly, who became the sole embodiment of Caribbean fast bowling progression.
He was criticised far too often for as coasting than he actually did. Much of that may have come from poor use as he became harnessed by the role of combo bowler, stock-plus-strike. The only competition for best paceman of the last twenty years is McGrath, who successfully combined those fraught roles. The large man was human, prone to emotion which only focused his mind on deliveries which seemed to come from orbit. Unlike some others, he appeared a to have a life outside cricket and now combines with former captain and fellow Antiguan Richie Richardson in a reggae outfit.
That human side came out in his final assault on Australian shores in 1996-97. Down on form and luck, he announced before the third Test in Melbourne he would take ten wickets and Brian Lara would score a century. Lara couldn’t fulfill his end, but Ambrose performed magnficently, taking 9 for 72. So good – and gracious – was he that no-one begrudged the success and most were disappointed when he couldn’t quite manage the ten-fer. After missing the next match through injury (unsurprisingly, the West Indians lost), he returned for Perth and in a 10-wicket triumph took 7/93 – Curtly owned Perth.
His Test averages speak for themselves: 405 Test wickets at 20.99 and an Economy rate of 2.3. He has the lowest economy rate of any fast bowler with over 200 wickets, and is fifth overall. The average stands the third best of any of the greats: .05 behind Marshall and .02 behind his prototype Garner.
Ambrose’s most famous moments came against the Australians – he toured Australia three times – in 1988-89 as a rookie , in 92-93 as the best bowler in the world and in 1996-97 as a fading force still commanding ultimate respect. The most revered spell of fast bowling in recent Australian memory, talked about as the greatest of follies occurred in a One-Day match in Brisbane in 1993. The recently-reinstated Dean Jones asked him to remove his white wristband. Instantly, commentators, spectators and the West Indian fielders knew he had made a mistake and Curtly told him so – in words and actions. He unleashed the most unholy spell of fast bowling , claiming 5/32 and running himself into a seeing-is-believing stretch of form climaxing when he ensured the retention of the Sir Frank Worrell trophy with a downright silly spell of 7/1 at the WACA.
His 1995 stouch with Steve Waugh at Trinidad turned Randwick’s finest from “good” to “great” and was the last great tribulation for Waugh before he could claim to be amongst the greats. Curtly Ambrose, so long a man-mountain of fast bowlers, was Waugh’s – and with Lara, Australia’s – Everest. The best of the 1980s had to succumb to the best of the 1990s. West Indian cricket would never be the same again.
It’s not fair – and very wrong – that Curtly Ambrose is probably not considered at the same level as Lillee, Hall, Marshall and McGrath. He was every bit as talented and driven as those bowlers yet for the majority of his career was supported by a gimpy Ian Bishop and the corpse of Courtney Walsh. After he became the attack leader, he never had the support of a Thomson, Warne or Gillespie, meaning he had to know when to attack and when to defend. The freedom to go all out was denied him for the last seven years of his career. His pacy Islander ancestors could rely on the guy at the other end joining you in ritually strangling the batsmen. Curtley could not.
Don’t tell me Curtly Ambrose wasn’t amongst the greats. Mike Atherton and Steve Waugh certainly think he was. His combination of lethal pace, pinpoint accuracy and devastating “throat balls”. Of all the players I remember seeing, the one of whom I have the fondest memories for who he was, was Curtley Ambrose.
Follow Matthew Wood on Twitter – @balanced_sports
Previous Favourite Cricketers:
Brian Lara by David Siddall
Allan Border by Ben Roberts
Douglas Jardine by David Green
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