Cricket / West Indies Tour: Curtly casts a giant shadow: Derek Pringle assesses the main weapon in the West Indians' armoury

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The Independent Online
THIS may be the land of Curtly Ambrose, but apart from a feisty calypso - 'see the batsman shiver, when Curtly start to deliver' - hard evidence of his greatness is thin on the ground. On the other hand, walk into any beach bar or canteen, and the walls are littered with much-prized posters of Vivian Richards and Richie Richardson, clubbing some hapless bowler into submission. Barely a sign of Curtly's 6ft 7in frame.

Yet it is almost solely due to Ambrose's bowling that the West Indies still find themselves top of the pile and odds-on favourites to win the Test series against England that begins in a fortnight's time. And if Ambrose isn't quite in the Richard Hadlee class of one-man bowling attacks, he has certainly retrieved more lost causes than even George Carman QC would care to claim.

His 6 for 34 in the second innings against South Africa at Bridgetown in 1992 was one such sustained effort under great pressure, and denied the newly reformed 'Zebras' a win in their comeback Test. Even more important was his match figures of 10 for 120 that helped snatch victory by one run against Australia in Adelaide last year. Not only did it keep the West Indies in a series they eventually won, it allowed a rampant Ambrose to deliver the coup de grace himself in Perth. His awesome 7 for 28 in the first innings effectively sealed Australia's fate.

For someone who didn't play club cricket until he was 21, his progress to the top has been almost as quick as one of his lethal throat balls. From playing for his village, Swetes, in the south of the island, to representing Antigua, then the Leeward Islands and finally the West Indies, took him less than four years.

What is more, he has never once been coached. He presumes - rather logically, and more modestly than it appears - that because he was an instant hit with the ball, his methods were sound, and nobody has seen fit to alter them, revolving as they do around pin-point accuracy. Allan Lamb, a regular opponent and his captain at Northamptonshire, concurs: 'Curtly's awkwardness, especially with the new ball, stems from the fact that you don't pick his length or line early enough. With his extra bounce, the ball is on to you a lot quicker than his loping action suggests. He's so accurate - a real handful when you come in.'

What he did need early in his Test career was some fine tuning and tactical acumen, which he picked up from Malcolm Marshall during his first tour of England in 1988. Up to that point he had just bowled as fast as he could, throwing in as many yorkers as possible, because he liked to hit the stumps. Marshall got him to think players out and, in particular, to use his height more and drag his length back, so as not to be driven.

The advice must have stuck, for it is one of the rarer sights in cricket to see Ambrose cover-driven for four off the front foot. More often than not the ball is played off the splice of the bat or is perceived to have passed somewhere between nose and throat before burying itself in the wicket-keeper's gloves with a hearty splat. On the largely slow and uneven pitches here, England will find the prospect of playing Ambrose off the back foot irresistible, despite the uneven bounce dictating otherwise.

'If I was to give any advice to the England batsmen,' Lamb said, 'particularly now that Curtly is not surrounded by as many quality bowlers, it would be quietly to see him off. A lot of the time, as long as runs aren't being scored off him, he just seems content to bowl his spell and take a rest. But the moment someone takes him on and whacks a couple of fours, he starts to come at you.'

What lit the fuse in Australia last year was the moment during the World Series final when Dean Jones, in a typical moment of Aussie bluster, insisted that Ambrose remove his wristbands before he bowled. With relations between the two sides never far from boiling point, this ignited Ambrose.

It will be the sustained hostility that England's batsmen will have to cope with. Though there have been rumours that Ambrose is jaded and may be close to quitting, it is unlikely to be before he has achieved his ambition of 300 Test wickets (at present he has 193). It should be a foregone conclusion, as Ambrose has missed only one of the 44 Tests played since his debut.

Andy Roberts, the former West Indies fast bowler, marvels at his fitness record. 'He's so strong,' he says. 'He just keeps going all the time and doesn't carry any weight. If only he could learn to swing the ball. With his accuracy, he'd easily be the best in the world.'

Off the field, Ambrose is a good-natured, God-fearing man with a closely knit family, who likes nothing more than to sing and strum his guitar. Shy with strangers, he is reluctant to deal with the press and was outraged one day when he overheard a journalist asking Viv Richards about him. Interrupting, he pointed out that if he (the reporter) wanted to know anything about Curtly Ambrose, then he should ask Curtly Ambrose. 'Well, Curtly,' replied the reporter, '. . . tell me about yourself.' 'Curtly,' replied the infuriated Ambrose, 'don't speak to no one.'

When he pulls on his West Indies sweater in two weeks' time, it is likely that his bowling will speak volumes.

(Photograph omitted)

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