‘I wanted to hit him’: Ambrose revisits his devastating best … and that Steve Waugh clash

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Curtly Ambrose remembers his teammates’ icy stares. On the fourth afternoon of England’s Test in Trinidad and Tobago in 1994, Ambrose was clean bowled playing a wild swipe.

“I say: ‘Boy, I messed up – I have to pull something magical out of the bag’,” Ambrose recalls. “I was really psyched up.”

He is 60 years old now, smiling and an affable talker – unlike in his playing career, when, as he said: ‘Curtly talk to no man’. And yet, with his lean but muscular frame and 203cm height, it remains immediately obvious why Ambrose produced some of the most lethal spells in the history of Test cricket.

At Queen’s Park Oval nearly 30 years ago, England began their chase of 194 runs to win; 15 overs of play remained on day four. For Ambrose, his personal frustration, combined with the knowledge that he would have only one spell that evening and a match in the balance was the prelude to a spell of awesome destruction.

“If you want to drive, buy a car,” was Ambrose’s beloved mantra. But at Trinidad, on a pitch now offering some low bounce, Ambrose shifted his length fractionally fuller. His very first ball seamed back to hit Michael Atherton’s front pad in line with off stump. Ambrose’s arms now twirled around in expectation. When Steve Bucknor raised his finger, Ambrose whirled his arms, and trademark white wristbands, in jubilation.

“When you get a wicket, all of a sudden, you can bowl a yard or two quicker, because it really energises you,” he said. “So I was really pumped up. And it just fell in place perfectly.”

Richie Richardson holds Curtly Ambrose back from Steve Waugh in 1995.Credit: AP

‘When I’m in the zone, I feel invincible’

It made for an exhilarating cocktail: a bowler of towering height finding speeds of 145km/h while exploiting some uneven bounce, cheered on by the Queen’s Park crowd at its most raucous. For all the ignominy of being bowled out for 46 – still England’s lowest Test total since 1877 – the score was the result of Ambrose’s extraordinary bowling far more than English ineptitude.

When Mark Ramprakash was run out later in the opening over, England’s trepidation was palpable. “That opened the floodgates,” Ambrose recalls. “England panicked a little bit.

“When I’m in a certain type of zone, I’ve always felt invincible. That’s how I feel at that moment. I could do no wrong. And I don’t think any batter on the planet can conquer me when I’m in that kind of mood.”

A bemused Alec Stewart as Curtly Ambrose appeals for his wicket.Credit: Getty

In barely an hour, Ambrose made a wreckage of the stumps of Robin Smith, Alec Stewart and Graham Thorpe. He walked off with six wickets in 7.5 overs; England were 8/40 and would be bowled out for 46 the following morning.

A year earlier, Ambrose had produced an even more destructive spell: 7/1 in 32 balls at Perth. Once again, the catalyst was frustration: this time, Ambrose’s belief that he had wasted the new ball on the first morning at the WACA Ground, where the series was poised at 1-1 in the deciding Test.

“My first spell was a joke really,” he reflects. “I was bowling a little bit too short. I was bowling my regular length and on that surface the batters were leaving them.”

At lunch, with Australia 2/59, Ambrose didn’t eat anything. “I just sat there and said to myself: ‘You messed up.’”

“Seven wickets for one run in a spell – that’s unheard of. That thing happened once in a lifetime, if ever, and against Australia, man!”

As West Indies returned to the field, captain Richie Richardson asked Ambrose how he was feeling. “I said ready to go,” he recalls.

“And I made the adjustment, bowling a little bit fuller – not half-volley length, but a length where the batters looked like they could drive.”

The difference, Ambrose believes, was less than a metre: enough to force batsmen camping on the back foot to grope forwards instead. “A lot got caught by the keeper and slips looking to drive because I adjusted my length.

“That’s what fast bowling is all about – the surface you’re playing on and make adjustments accordingly. And I did that and it worked perfectly.

“Seven wickets for one run in a spell – that’s unheard of.

“That thing happened once in a lifetime, if ever, and against Australia, man!”

‘Something will trigger me… and then I get upset’

These two magnificent spells encapsulated how being riled, either by personal frustration or the opposition, could lead Ambrose to produce his best.

“I’m at my most dangerous when I’m upset or my back’s against the wall,” he said. “Something will just trigger me off. And then I get upset. And then I also felt like I could bowl maybe a couple of yards quicker.

“Maybe a batsman will just walk around and look a bit too cocky for my liking. I’ll say: you know what, I’m gonna take care of you. It could be anything that would just trigger me.“Perhaps no batsman felt this Ambrose tendency more than Steve Waugh.

The two shared battles of ferocious intensity throughout the 1990s, as Australia claimed West Indies’ crown at the top of the Test game. In Trinidad in 1995, teammate Kenny Benjamin told Ambrose at lunch that Waugh had sworn at him.

Now Ambrose abandoned his normal maxim – “I figured that the 5½oz (ball) will do enough for me. I don’t say anything.

“When we came back from the break I bowled to him again. And somebody told me: ‘Ask him if he said it.’ And I said to him: ‘Did you say so and so to me?’ He didn’t say yes, he didn’t say no. He just simply said ‘I can say whatever I want’. That to me was a yes.”

This was Test cricket at its most primal. Ambrose’s fury led him to confront Waugh, needing to be pulled away by Richardson.

“I wanted to hit him physically because I demanded more respect from him,” he said. Characteristically, Ambrose channelled his anger into taking nine wickets for 65 runs in West Indies’ victory. “We’ve never talked about it.”

‘I’m a freak of nature’

Ambrose did not strive to be a Test player. As a boy, his great love was basketball.

It was said John F Kennedy became president because his eldest brother could not fulfil the family dream. Ambrose, too, fulfilled the hopes that were originally invested in someone else. His cricket loving mother, who used to listen to Test matches on her transistor radio in Swetes, their village in Antigua, dreamed of her oldest son becoming a Test cricketer.

“My older brother used to play club cricket,” Ambrose recalls. “When he migrated to the US to join my father I was naturally next in line.”

Late in his teens, Ambrose had a growth spurt so rapid that some schoolmates didn’t recognise him when they saw him bowl on TV. Aged 20, Ambrose started playing club cricket for Swetes. Within four years, after only six first-class games, he was playing for West Indies.

And so Ambrose did not need the 10,000 hours of training that are said to be necessary to achieve greatness – in any case, a largely debunked theory.

Even Glenn McGrath couldn’t match Ambrose’s economy rate.Credit: Getty

“It was natural for me,” he reflects. “According to Desmond Haynes, I’m a freak of nature.”

Ambrose initially relied upon the classic fast bowler’s combination: following a bouncer with a yorker. In Test cricket, he swiftly learned, this was not enough.

“I’ve developed that short-of-a-length delivery where batters aren’t sure to come forward or go back – an ‘in between’ length. The guys couldn’t leave on length. They had to look to play. I was never a swing bowler. I relied on hitting the pitch and getting the ball to seam away or nip back or go straight on.”

Some great fast bowlers accept being driven for boundaries as an inevitable cost of doing business. For Ambrose every run scored against him was more like a personal affront. No one who has taken more than his 405 Test wickets, not even Glenn McGrath, has been so frugal.

“I’m a very proud man. Everything I do, I want to be the best. I hate giving away runs. I have to work hard to take wickets so I’m not gonna make it easy for you as a batter.”

As a generation of Test batsmen could attest, Ambrose never did.

Telegraph, London

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