When I started watching cricket in the early 90’s I was fascinated by the bowlers from different parts of the world. Their celebration after scalping a wicket was something I loved to copy as a 10 year old kid. That was an era when cricketing world saw some of the best fast and swing bowlers. Wasim, Waqar, Allan Donald, Walsh, Ambrose, Mcgrath all made batsman’s life hell on a 22 yard cricket pitch. The 1st bowler who inspired me most was the West Indian fast bowler Curtly Ambrose.

The Giant

Curtly Ambrose, born on September, 1963 Swetes, a village in the parched interior of Antigua. The 6 feet 7 inches tall Ambrose had no interest in playing cricket at young age and always dreamt of playing Basketball at the highest level. He also thought of migrating to US before starting cricket at the age of 17. Basketball’s loss was Cricket’s gain. It took some 8 years for him to play the cricket at the highest level for his country. Ambrose made his debut against Pakistan in the year 1988 at Gorgetown. It was the 1st test in a decade when West Indies lost at home. The career didn’t start at a very good note. Ambrose took 2 wickets and that too came at 54 runs per piece. But that is something happens with almost every debutant player.

In the next series against England, Ambrose showed the glimpse of his rare talent. Though he didn’t take 5 wickets in any innings in the series still his strike rate, average and economy were top class. He along with Marshal took 57 wickets out of 93 English wickets. Since then England remained his favorite team. His height was the real threat for the batsmen as he generated the kind of bounce which where unplayable. It was almost 10 feet from where he used to release the ball. He was really quick, like the other pace-men from West Indies, he too used to bowl over 150 kmph.

As Wisden described his bowling “ Never a great swinger of the ball, he compensates with a smooth, leggy run-up, fast arm action and accuracy. Like Joel Garner, he possesses a lethal yorker and a nasty bouncer, but his career-best eight for 45 against hapless England at Bridgetown in 1990 owed everything to the virtues of speed and straightness.”

The greatness of Ambrose didn’t restrict to bounce and pace, he was equally good in using the seam movement and not many know that Mc Grath when entered the international arena, he was described as the new Ambrose by many for his seam movement. Former Australian fast bowler called Mc Grath as “thin – but Ambrose – thin, not Bruce Reid – thin”. Once Ambrose said “Bowl a proper line and length consistently, you will get wickets and will be successful.”

Like Mc Grath, Ambrose too was very mean in giving runs. It was hard for batsmen to score runs against him. In his own word “The batsmen should not get any free runs. They should have to work just as hard as I have to get a wicket. I try to keep my figures tight, so that when I do get a break-through, then the figures are always tighter, and my team benefits”. Steve Waugh rated him as the supreme fast bowling machine, and better than Marshall. That’s a huge compliment. His economy in test and ODI speaks volume for his cheap bowling figures. In his own words Ambrose said “I never wanted to hurt any batsman, but I never gave it easy. Even if I hurt a batsman once, I wouldn’t give it easy the next time.”

Surprisingly like other bowlers of his era Ambrose was not that popular in the sub-continent The main reason could have been is that he hardly played test cricket in the subcontinent. Only 6 test matches out of 98 he played in his career were in the sub continent. Though his record in the sub continent is as good as his over all record but he didn’t play a single test match in India and somehow his performance against the Indian team in West Indies also was below par. Ambrose was just able to take 15 wickets in 9 test matches at an average of 38.26, with a strike rate of 99.4 against the Indians. Other than this, the giant of the game has similar stats/record when it’s compared to other legends of his time.

Ambrose and the other fast bowlers of his time

Matches Maidens Wickets BBI BBM Ave Econ St Rt 5 Wkt 10 Wkt
Curtly Ambrose 98 1001 405 8/45 11/84 20.99 2.30 54.5 22 3
Courtney Walsh 132 1144 519 7/37 13/55 24.44 2.53 57.8 22 3
Allan Donald 72 661 330 8/71 12/139 22.25 2.83 47.0 20 3
Glenn McGrath 124 1470 563 8/24 10/27 21.64 2.49 51.9 29 3
Wasim Akram 104 871 414 7/119 11/110 23.62 2.59 54.6 25 5
Waqar Younis 87 516 373 7/76 13/135 23.56 3.25 43.4 22 5

Hardly anyone knows that once Sachin Tendulkar didn’t want to face him in a test match. In a television news program, Navjot Singh Sidhu said that when he and Tendulkar were playing against the West Indies at Port of Spain in 1997, Tendulkar was feeling uncomfortable to play some balls bowled by Ambrose near his rib cage area and then Tendulkar asked Sidhu to face as many deliveries as he can during that bowling spell from Ambrose.

When Jayasuriya was in his prime form in late 90’s and was thrashing every bowler/bowling attack in the world, Ambrose produced a magical figure (in one single spell) of 10-5-5-1 against them on a dead pitch of Sharjah.

There is one more hidden story about Ambrose’s greatness, when Lara was scoring tons after tons in County cricket in 1994 (the same year when he scored 6 hundred in a row in county matches and scored his famous knock of 375 vs England and 501* vs Durham in the same season) , Lara just managed to score 9 runs from 60 odd balls from Ambrose in one of the county match.

Analysis of Wickets Taken by Batting Order

Top Order (1-3) Middle Order (4-7) Tail (8-11)
Curtly Ambrose 147 (36.3%) 146 (36.0%) 112 (27.7%)
Courtney Walsh 177 (34.1%) 179 (34.5%) 163 (31.4%)
Allan Donald 129 (39.1%) 115 (34.8%) 86 (26.1%)
Glenn McGrath 225 (40.0%) 196 (34.8%) 142 (25.2%)
Wasim Akram 132 (31.9%) 137 (33.1%) 145 (35.0%)
Waqar Younis 132 (35.4%) 132 (35.4%) 109 (29.2%)

There are few outstanding spells which are remarkable in the history of test cricket. In 1992, when South Africa re-entered test cricket, they played their first test against the West Indies at Bridgetown. South African team never looked like playing test cricket after 20 odd years. On first four days of the test match they were on the top. Chasing 201 against Ambrose and Walsh, South Africa were 122 for 2 at the start of the 5th day morning (with KC Wessels 74*, PN Kirsten 36*). As Tony Cozier said, last day at Kensington Oval, Bridgetown, Barbados always belongs to us (West Indies), Ambrose along with his partner Walsh pulled off an amazing victory. They bundled out South Africa for just 148. In next 26 runs South Africa lost 8 wickets. Ambrose, who already scalped the openers on the 4th day evening, took 4 more wickets on 5th day. None of the batsmen were able to play him with any sort of confidence. All the wickets that fell off Ambrose bowling were either bowled or behind the wickets to keeper or slips. He gave just 34 runs in 24 odd overs fetching 6 wickets, each for just below 6 runs. The stats says it all.

One of the most devastating spell in the history of cricket was bowled by Curtly Ambrose at Perth in 1993. Ambrose crushed the Australian batting line up in his spell of 32 balls, in which he created havoc in the Australian batting line up and claimed 7 wickets in no time. Ambrose bettered the record of Sarfraz Nawab of 7 wickets for 1 run in the spell of 33 ball against the same opposition at Melbourne in 1978-79 series. Again, 6 wickets out of 7 were either caught by wicketkeeper or slip. The balls just skidded through the wicket, hurried on to the batsmen and it was all over for them, no time to react. If this was not enough then comes his another devastating spell which almost made England to fall below their lowest test score. Ambrose was brutal on that 4th day evening, he almost killed the batsmen.

If at Perth he didn’t let the batsmen to react, here he didn’t even let them to act also. In few minutes the whole English lineup was destroyed and they couldn’t even realized that they have are 8 down for just 40 runs in 14 overs. Ambrose rose to the occasion at the right time. England who needed only 194 runs to win started their inning on the 4th day evening with just 14 overs to go. The Tall Dark and Awesome Ambrose was asked to start the proceedings and before he started to run on his bowling run up, the whole crowd got behind him. English captain Mike Atherton must have realised what he has to face that day, just on the full length on the stumps, no chance for the batsman to move and he was trapped in front of the stumps.

The crowd start celebrating even before the umpire’s finger raised, Ambrose didn’t appeal as well, he knew it was all over for Atherton, and the big arms started rolling in the air vigorously. The fall down of the poms started there on. In his 7.5 over spell he took 6 wickets for 22 runs and put England in all sort of trouble to save themselves from being getting out below their lowest score of 45. On 5th day morning they did score those 6 important runs from being getting out on their lowest score but it was still shameful for the oldest test team to being bowled out for just 48 runs in less than 20 overs. It was the only third time in the history that a team only used 2 bowlers to bowl out the entire opposition. Wisden Almanack said ‘he came “rampaging in as if on springs,” 6 for 24 as England were routed for 46 in Trinidad in 1994, stumps flying everywhere as a frenzied, cacophonous crowd bayed for English blood.’

Once asked, who was the toughest batsman he bowled to, he response was terse. “I didn’t like them anyway. A few of them were worthy but I wouldn’t take their names now and make them feel happy. I hated conceding runs. I had no sympathy for the batsman. I never wanted to hurt any batsman, but I never gave it easy. Even if I hurt a batsman once, I wouldn’t give it easy the next time.”

Ambrose announced his retirement after the Pakistan series got over at home in 2000 and hung his boot after playing 5 more tests against England in the summers. Ambrose didn’t wait for a remarkable feat of playing 100 test for his country, he called it a day when he felt he should. Ambrose talks to no man, remained his theory all his life and that’s why we know less about this Giant of the game. Now he is a musician and plays guitar for the band ‘Big Bad Dread and the Baldhead’, along with Richie Richardson and few other fellow cricketers.

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