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A tribute to Curtly

FAST bowlers are an aggressive lot. Or so they should be, if one judges them solely by their demeanour on the field. But some of them are pretty mild off the field: John Snow spent his spare time writing poetry, Andy Roberts never touched anything stronger than fruit juice, and Jeff Thomson likes growing orchids.

Curtly Elconn Lynwall Ambrose, who is feared by many a seasoned batsman, has his soft side too: he loves to sing and strum a guitar! But at the moment, Ambrose probably has something more serious on his mind: three more Tests in England and a series to be won. And after that the Antiguan beanpole will lope off into the sunset. Another fast bowler, one who has carried the West Indies for 12 years and a bit and left his mark, both phsyically and mentally on many an opposing batsman, will retire.

Ambrose came on the Test scene in 1988 a few years after Joel Garner had left. He was a perfect replacement because of his height; Garner at 6' 8" looked a lot bigger than that because of his physique. Ambrose was skinny and an inch shorter. Garner's bowling was once described by Clive Lloyd as "tighter than lycra panties." Ambrose fitted well into that bracket; he was more predatory and more accurate. He was the fourth Antiguan to come through the Test ranks: Andy Roberts, Viv Richards, and Richie Richardson had all done their little nation proud by then. He would do no less.

At that time, he was part of a quartet; Courtney Walsh was three years into his memorable career, the late Malcolm Marshall was going strong, and Anthony Gray was often part of the team. There were others like Milton Small and Eldine Baptiste who gradually faded. It was a tough act to keep up with the ones who had gone before: Roberts, Michael Holding. Colin Croft (for whom the lure of the rand proved a greater attraction than playing for the West Indies), Joel Garner, Wayne Daniel, Winston Davis.... the list goes on.

Ambrose had that one quality which all the bowlers (with the possible exception of Croft) had: he was selfless. Richards, Ambrose's first captain and the greatest batsman to emerge from any country during the last quarter of this century, once described his fellow Antiguan as having the biggest heart of any fast bowler he had known. And Richards knew them all.

Ambrose was ferocious when he started his career. He had a vicious yorker and loved to see the stumps go cartwheeling out of the ground. He bowled straight, with a lot of bounce, letting the ball do a lot off the seam. This meant that batsmen would have to negotiate deliveries which they would have rather let go by. And though he did not swing the ball a lot, his height meant that batsmen found it difficult to pick up the length and the line of the ball - an advantage that Garner had enjoyed as well.

But after some time, Ambrose seemed to incline more towards keeping the runs down. He bowled tighter and tighter, something that may have been influenced by the fact that he had lost control of his vicious yorker or the over-abundance of one-day matches where limiting the runs was important. On occasion he could be roused into a furious bout of wicket-taking: in 1993, Australia was well placed in a World Series match when Dean Jones asked Ambrose to remove his wristbands as he (Jones) found them a distraction. Well, you don't go asking Ambrose to do things like that as Jones found out. The lanky paceman raised his game a couple of notches and ripped out the rest of the Australians, giving his team an easy win.

A similar thing happened in 1997 when the West Indies toured Australia; two Tests were over and the West Indies had lost both. The press began to question whether Ambrose and Walsh were over the hill. Bang came the answer during the third Test in Melbourne: Ambrose was on fire and carried the West Indies to victory.

Ambrose's manner of bowling has often benefitted the bowler at the other end - Walsh, for much of his career. Finding runs extremely difficult to come by against Ambrose, batsmen often chanced their arm against what they considered loose deliveries from Walsh, only to be deceived. No more classic case could be cited than the recent Test against England when the hosts were chasing 188 for victory and scraped through. Ambrose bowled 22 overs for 22 runs and one wicket; he was unlucky not to get more scalps as the ball repeatedly beat the edge. Walsh reaped six for 74.

When West Indian pride has been at stake, Ambrose has never failed to rise to the occasion. He seems to enjoy situations like this. The first ever Test against South Africa was one such, with the visitors needing 79 runs to win on the last day with eight wickets in hand. Walsh and Ambrose took those eight for 26 runs. England will always remember that eight-wicket haul which knocked them over for 46. There are examples aplenty...

But now the time has come. Ambrose has decided that it is time to leave while he is still enjoying the game and when he can go out on a high. At 36, he is still a handful to handle and no batsman takes liberties with him. He has six wickets to go before he joins the 400 club which has just three members right now and I doubt anybody will grudge him those scalps. The stats show how miserly he has been: his wickets have come at 21.02 apiece. All fast bowlers love their batting and Curtly is no exception; he has crossed 1000 runs in Tests with one half-century to boot; his ODI record stands at 225 wickets at the amazing average of 24.12 runs each and 639 runs. He has been one of those real characters of the game, given to a bit of clowning on the field as well, and given cricket fans around the world much to remember him by. He will be sorely missed.