Friday, June 24, 2011

My Favourite Cricketer: Curtly Ambrose - Matthew Wood

As we involve noted cricket writers and bloggers on our topic "My Favourite Cricketer" - the brainchild of Balanced Sports' Matthew Wood - sees the series creator delve into his happy childhood memories to pay homage to the baddest, coolest fast bowler in recent memory: Curtly Elconn Lynwall Ambrose.

As cricket fans, we favour iconoclasts and champions. Every player in this series is likely to fall into one category or the other. The players who appeal most express a certain freedom - of emotion, thought, preparation, leadership or 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.

I spent months considering who actually is my favourite cricketer; narrowing the list of potentials proving more difficult than anticipated. Certain players I respect 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 savant. My childhood favourite? Merv Hughes. Stylistically, no-one comes within galaxies of Sir Viv Richards, while the greatest moment of cricket perspective was Keith Miller's "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-century 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 that length but for it's deadly effect when combined with his natural talent and work ethic.

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 due to 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 murderous yorker and a bouncer so evil it hissed "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. 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.

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 the Caribbean fast bowling progression. He was criticised more often for coasting than he actually did. Much of that may have come from poor use as necessity harnessed him into the role of combo bowler, stock-plus-strike. Perhaps fittingly his only competition for the title of "best paceman" over the past twenty years is McGrath, who successfully combined those fraught roles. The large man was human and prone to emotion which focused his mind on delivering missiles that seemed to come from orbit.

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 magnificently, taking 9 for 72. So good - and gracious - was he that no-one begrudged his success and most were left 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 of all time 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 an seeing-is-believing stretch of form climaxing when he ensured the retention of the Sir Frank Worrell trophy with a villainous spell of 7/1 at the WACA.

His 1995 stouch with Steve Waugh at Trinidad turned Bankstown's finest from "good" to "great" and was the last great tribulation for Waugh before he could claim to be amongst the all-timers. 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 has not since been the same.

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. Curtly 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 "troat balls". Of all the players I remember seeing, the one of whom I have the fondest memories for who he was, was Curtley Ambrose.

1 comment:

  1. An amazing read Matt. So much love for Curtly exuding from everywhere!