Curtly Ambrose's form and match fitness are cause for concern for the West Indies selectors as they meet here today to choose the squad of 13 for the first Test against England, starting at Kingston's Sabina Park on Thursday week.
It is unthinkable that Ambrose's name will be missing when their list is released. His reputation, based on 307 Test wickets, 117 of them against England at just under 20 runs apiece, affords him an immediate psychological advantage. His experience is also an invaluable asset to a team shaken by their recent 3-0 thrashing by Pakistan and under an untested new captain, Brian Lara.
However, the tall Antiguan is now 34, was incapacitated by a back strain that caused him to leave the Pakistan tour early and in his two matches in the domestic President's Cup over the past two weekends he has been a shadow of the assassin who has so often demolished England.
His problems were starkly in evidence in his latest match for the Leeward Islands against Barbados at Kensington Oval, scene of some of his most memorable performances, such as his match-winning 8 for 45 in 1991 against England. Throughout, he confined himself to a shorter run and, apart from one typically testing spell at the start of the second day, lacked his old zip.
With Barbados five short of a first-innings lead and with Patterson Thompson, the burly fast bowler who is one of the game's more authentic No 11s, at the crease, Ambrose was given the second new ball to polish things off. Instead, he was twice smashed to the cover-boundary by Thompson and sprayed the ball down the leg side for four byes that levelled the scores. He also repeatedly overstepped the front crease.
Never previously bothered by no-balls, Ambrose has now delivered 49 in his 47 overs this season. It is a clear sign that his rhythm, such an essential element in a fast bowler's action, especially his own, is defective at present.
He still has one more President's Cup match, against Lara's Trinidad and Tobago, to get things right and England have enough respect for him not to take anything for granted. For West Indians, his recent decline - he managed one wicket from 44 overs in the Tests in Pakistan and has taken only five wickets so far this season - is unnerving.
While Ambrose has struggled, his long-time accomplices, Courtney Walsh and Ian Bishop, have been among the wickets in the President's Cup. Three of the new generation of speed men, Franklyn Rose, Nixon McLean and the left-armer Pedro Collins, have also strutted their stuff impressively and another, Merv Dillon, has recovered from a strained elbow and plays for Trinidad and Tobago against the Leewards this weekend.
So the selectors have options among the bowlers, though they are unlikely to take them up just yet. In the batting, they have few and are likely to stick with an order that is well-known to Mike Atherton and his men.
WEST INDIES (Probable Test squad): B Lara (capt), S Campbell, S Williams, C Hooper, S Chanderpaul, J Adams, D Williams (wkt), I Bishop, C Ambrose, F Rose, C Walsh, R Holder, R Lewis.Reuse content