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Cricket: Ambrose neutralises Atherton

HE WAS 34 years old, a back injury had forced him to return home early from the tour of Pakistan, where he managed only one wicket in two Tests, and he was a pale imitation of the finest fast bowler the game has known in the first few domestic cup matches of the season.

They were all worrying signs that the career of the great Curtly Ambrose was coming to its end. There were even reports that he had written a letter of retirement to the West Indies Cricket Board. But Ambrose knew himself and that reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated. He had promised, on his return from Pakistan in December, that he would be fit and ready for the challenge against England. His back complaint was purely muscular, nothing serious, and was quickly cured by plenty of swimming in the therapeutic Caribbean waters that surround his native Antigua.

He had heard England's boast that they had a real chance this time of beating the West Indies and warned: "That really motivates me."

He wasted no time in converting his prophecies into reality and, even now in the twilight of his active days, has enjoyed his most productive series in the Caribbean.

The England coach, David Lloyd, has identified his bowling, and the support of the other West Indies veteran Courtney Walsh as the difference between the teams.

As always with the West Indies, they have been particularly keen to put the pressure on the opposing captain. It is a tactic which goes back to the days when Clive Lloyd, the current manager, led them and always had four menacing fast bowlers at his disposal. Tony Greig, Ian Botham, David Gower and Kim Hughes were among those who withered under the assault.

Michael Atherton has undergone the same strain this season and Ambrose has been the principal executioner of the policy. Atherton was only persuaded to make the tour by his feeling that England had a chance to reverse 30 years of disappointment here. Not since 1968 had they returned home triumphant, but, given the West Indies' recent setbacks it was not an over-optimistic assessment.

Instead, Atherton has had a miserable time, caused principally by Ambrose, who completed his sixth removal of the skipper with a clear-cut lbw in his final innings yesterday.

Atherton goes back not only with his dream of team success shattered, but with his own position as leader surely now at an end. In his long years of retirement, the tall spectre of Curtly Ambrose will haunt him.