A cricketer’s retirement, in both its timing and manner, can often tell you as much as you need to know about that player’s career. In Curtly Ambrose’s case, the timing, like his approach to the crease, was near perfect. He was still at the top of his game, as the 2000 series in England showed. Yet, some of his trademark pace and fire was beginning to wane, and in his final spell the ageing legs seemed to be sending him a message. Rather than risk a trip too far to Australia, which with its unremitting heat, big grounds and flat wickets is no place for old bones, he decided enough was enough and left us with memories of how great he is, rather than was.
The manner of his retirement, too, was typically Ambrose-like. He announced at the beginning of the summer, with no histrionics, that the series against England would be his last, and, with little or no fuss from the big man himself, he was true to his word. There were precious few titbits for the media to scrap over, although he did give his old pal Michael Holding one interview to ruin that oft-quoted phrase, ‘Curtly talks to no one’.
In this modern age of image and spin, with the accent on style rather than substance, he has been a refreshing change. He went, as he came and then conquered, with little to say. And yet, despite the low-key approach to retirement from Ambrose himself, rarely can a crowd or an opposition team have acknowledged a cricketer’s leaving in such a fashion. An indication, if one were needed, of the high esteem in which he is held. It was one of the most touching moments I have seen on a field, when The Oval crowd rose to Ambrose and his great mate, Courtney Walsh, to applaud them off the field for an assumed last time. They left, arm-in-arm, one sensed close to tears, and halfway up the pavilion steps Ambrose symbolically removed his famous white armbands, safe in the knowledge that his legs would have to do no more pounding.
The next day, as he walked to the crease with West Indies on the brink of a famous defeat, the England team lined up and applauded him all the way to the wicket. It was a fitting mark of respect and, no doubt, a private thank you that their tormentor was finally on his way. (A few of us had remembered his wave to The Oval crowd five years before, hoping we wouldn’t see him again.) In the middle of the salute he mumbled ‘Thanks, lads,’ which is about as much as I’ve heard him say. In cricket, even when you are losing, you can sometimes be a winner.
In statistical terms, Ambrose’s career ranks among the very best the modern game has to offer. He took 405 Test wickets at a shade under 21, with a strike-rate of a wicket every 54 balls. Testimony to his parsimony is the 1,000th maiden in Test cricket that he notched up during last summer’s series. As someone he dismissed more times than anybody else, I think I am reasonably well qualified to comment and compare him with the other fast bowlers from the last decade of the last millennium.
At his best, there is no doubt he 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. He was certainly quick, especially in the mid-1990s, and the extra bounce he generated from his beanpole frame made life even more awkward for the batsman. More than anything, though, he was a mean bowler: he hated giving away runs. Twice during last summer’s series it took me half an hour to get off the mark, and then it was only a nudge off the inside edge through square leg for one. But each time Ambrose was livid with himself for offering even this measly morsel.
His best spell against England was undoubtedly at Trinidad’s Queen’s Park Oval in 1994. On a wearing fourth-innings pitch, we needed 194 to win. But from the very first ball, which he nipped back to trap me leg before, it looked a distant target. For the final frenetic hour on the fourth evening Ambrose steamed in, reducing the England innings to tatters (40 for eight) with as good a display of hostile and aggressive fast bowling as you will see. One look at Graham Thorpe’s eyes as he walked off that evening told you everything. Ambrose’s performance prompted Lord Kitchener to pen a calypso about him and about that extraordinary hour, and for the remainder of the tour the whole of the West Indies could be seen dancing to its beat.
Lest you think it was only the English he harassed, his spell at Perth in 1993, when on the first day he took seven wickets for one run in 32 balls on a trampoline of a pitch, was apparently even more devastating. One can only be glad not to have been 22 yards away at the time.
As West Indies became more fragile during the second half of the 1990s, they came to rely on their fast bowlers more and more. So often defeat seemed inevitable, and yet somehow Ambrose and Walsh responded to the call. They always had. Their classic comeback was probably in the inaugural post-apartheid Test against South Africa at Bridgetown, where West Indies, outplayed for four days, roused themselves through Walsh and Ambrose to an astonishing victory on the last day in front of a deserted Kensington Oval. With South Africa, eight wickets in hand, requiring another 79 runs, Ambrose took four for 16 and Walsh four for eight.
In spite, or maybe because, of the hostility of his bowling, there was never a battle of words with Ambrose. There was no need. In the truest sense, he let his cricket do the talking. The most I ever heard him say was ‘Morning, skipper,’ and there were never any verbals during our frequent battles in the middle. Over time, however, there was a little more animation, to add spice to the contest. Before the first ball of the innings, he came to have a habit of walking down the wicket, yards from the batsman, and looking at that area of the pitch he deemed to be the ‘business area’. He would rub his hands with anticipation, and invariably at the end of the day there would be a cluster of ball marks worrying the patch.
This discipline and professionalism typified his bowling throughout his career. With his going, and the imminent departure of Courtney Walsh, West Indies have lost the last link with their great teams of the 1980s and early 1990s. Thankfully, for batsmen, there will no longer be the sight of Ambrose stood in mid-pitch after another wicket, pumping his arms skywards. He has been a magnificent servant to West Indies cricket, playing his part fully in carrying forward the famous fast-bowling legacy. He leaves an enormous hole to fill.
This article originally appeared in the 2001 edition of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack