Cricket: The giant shadow of the tall guy

Andrew Longmore feels both sides are haunted by brooding figure of Ambrose
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A FALLACY has grown up over the last turbulent month in the Caribbean. It is that England can beat the West Indies. The truth is that only the West Indies can beat the West Indies. Or, to reduce a game of myriad complication to one essential principle: only Curtly can beat the West Indies. Dependent on his mood, Curtly can beat England and the West Indies.

Take the last Test in Guyana. On the third morning, Curtly was left mysteriously unused and England prospered, doing just enough to nudge themselves back into a match they had forfeited on the first day. Ambrose was apparently indisposed, which in the strange patois of the West Indian dressing-room could mean anything. "Curtly got out of bed the wrong side this morning and did not feel like stretching his legs until after his siesta" or "Curtly had a row with his captain and was sulking". Curtly may have gone shopping for all anyone really knew.

When the ball did finally rest between the index and middle finger of his giant hand, the England innings folded pronto, merely adding to the impression from afar that this Test series is not being played out on the dodgy products of West Indian groundsmen but in the unfathomable psyche of the brooding, ageing, Antiguan. The problem is that Ambrose's interview technique has been copied from a Trappist monk. When asked to enlighten the press with a few words of wisdom, his stock reply is "Curtly don't talk to no one." When the ball is talking, who needs to say more?

We know nothing about Ambrose, which simply adds to the mystique. His mother rings a bell whenever her son takes a wicket (346 ding-dongs and counting) and, given the choice, Curtly would rather have played basketball. That's about it. Fast bowlers come in two types: noisy and silent. Neither arepleasant to face. "No one likes fast bowling, it's just that some show it more than others," as Eddie Paynter once remarked. But the infinitely more worrying characters are not Mervyn Hughes or Fred Trueman, people who advertise the combat, it is the silent assassins, Andy Roberts or Charlie Griffith, those who give you nothing but a blank page. In their brooding features, batsmen's imaginations can run riot. Whole centuries of exploitation and menace ooze from the eyes. A few beers at the close of a hard day's play? Not Curtly.

Imagine, if you can, being in the size nines of Mike Atherton, who will come into the Fifth Test of this bizarre series with parallel lines from the Guyana Test reading "c Lara b Ambrose 0; lbw b Ambrose 1". The second of the two should have the word "ditto Trinidad '94, unplayable" appended in brackets after it because no batsman in the history of the game could have survived a 95mph delivery which snapped back like a cobra's strike to hit Atherton on the shin. But the uncomfortable thought is that, like Glenn McGrath last summer, Ambrose has Atherton's number. Numbers 13 and 14, to be precise, in a duel which stretches back four years and 15 Tests to the start of Atherton's tenure of the captaincy. Atherton has enjoyed his moments, notably two centuries in the last series here, but his form is not as consistent these days, his feet are a fraction slower and his nerves a touch more frayed.

Atherton's role has to change. His luck has been out too long now. He needs a break, not necessarily from captaincy, but from opening. Serious thought should be given to dropping him down the order, to number five or six where he can shepherd the lower middle order and tackle his old adversary when the odds are more in his favour.

Ambrose has two weaknesses: one is brittle temperament, the other is left-handers. No one can be quite sure whether he will be firing. Sometimes, like an irascible donkey, he digs his heels in at the prospect of shouldering West Indian hopes yet again. There are few of the days of grace Holding, Roberts and co enjoyed in the pomp of Greenidge, Richards and Haynes. As Ambrose has grown older, the yoke has grown heavier. Rarely has he been able to put his feet up, safe in the knowledge that padding up can be postponed to the morrow. On donkey days, his knees barely bend, his arms stay limp and ordinary county batsmen heave a sigh of relief. The trick then is to let sleeping dogs lie.

A foolish request by Dean Jones for Ambrose to remove his white wristbands in a Test against Australia at Perth in 1992-93 brought a terminal descent of the red mist. Seven wickets and 32 balls later, the Australians were strapping Jones to the pavilion railings. Atherton has become too comfortable a target for Ambrose. The left-handed Mark Butcher would force Ambrose to change his line and his thinking, as it did to England's advantage on the decisive final morning of the Third Test. If Alec Stewart, the only England batsman ever to glimpse comfort against Ambrose, stays as an opener, Mark Ramprakash could move to number three, with Graham Thorpe at four. A long shot perhaps and a blow to Atherton's considerable pride. But England have to try something different or Curtly will win this series on his own.