Ambrose remains ambivalent about finale

West Indies desperate to talk supreme pace bowler into postponing his planned retirement after England series

Five years ago, at the end of the last West Indies' tour of England, Curtly Ambrose left The Oval with a wave that was generally taken as a signal of farewell to Test cricket. Herepeated the gesture at the WACA in Perth three years later and, more recently - and, he insists, conclusively - at the Recreation Ground in his native Antigua after the last Test against Pakistan in May.

Five years ago, at the end of the last West Indies' tour of England, Curtly Ambrose left The Oval with a wave that was generally taken as a signal of farewell to Test cricket. Herepeated the gesture at the WACA in Perth three years later and, more recently - and, he insists, conclusively - at the Recreation Ground in his native Antigua after the last Test against Pakistan in May.

"It's time for me to pack it in," he said at the time. "After the England series, I'm calling it a day. I've thought about it long and hard. A man has got to know his limitations."

It would mean that Ambrose, the meanest fast bowler of his time, has another three weeks and three Tests before he returns home to his mother, his young daughter and the relaxed island life in the village of Swetes where he was born.

Before the world's batsmen start counting their blessings though, they should know that there is a concerted campaign by his team-mates, past and present, to have Ambrose change his mind. Introducing him at the National Sporting Club lunch in Manchester yesterday, his captain Jimmy Adams referred to Ambrose's announced intention, then added: "We're doing our best to talk him out of it."

Brian Lara and Viv Richards are other influential voices in on the effort. "I'm hoping that the enticement of a final tour to Australia this winter will persuade Curtly to give us one last series," Lara said, hinting that Ambrose might yet reconsider.

"Even during this series, Curtly has talked with obvious relish almost every day about the prospect of bowling during the first session in a Test in Brisbane and about the carry he gets to the wicketkeeper in Perth," Lara revealed.

Richards, his fellow Antiguan and his captain when he burst into the Test team in his first full season of first-class cricket in 1988, once described Ambrose as the strongest cricketer he had come across. He sees no reason for him to stop now. "He's more than holding his own still and he's fit enough," Richards said. "He remains one of the best bowlers in the game."

There are other reasons for Ambrose to keep going. One is that none of the potential successors tried in the last decade - a dozen in all - has yet measured up to the requirements. Another is Ambrose's general influence within the team.

He not only ranks in the company of the many eminent fast bowlers the West Indies have produced since the fiery "Float" Woods terrified the batsmen in their first tour of England 100 years ago but, for all his public persona as the brooding, quiet assassin, he is an inspiring presence. While the West Indies were struggling in the triangular one-day NatWest Series without either Ambrose, on an officially approved period of rest back inAntigua, or his perennial partner, Courtney Walsh, nursing a sore instep, their manager, Ricky Skerritt, observed that "it was impossible to overstate the effect of Ambi's absence".

Ambrose can lift a depressed dressing-room, or a silent coach ride, with his impish sense of humour and can galvanise team-mates with the broadest smile in the game after a wicket. Just as effectively, he pulls an errant fielder or a late arrival into line with one of his withering stares.

For a 36-year-old fast bowler who starts his 96th Test at Old Trafford on Thursday and who has played non-stop cricket for the West Indies, the Leeward Islands and, for six seasons, Northamptonshire since his belated start in 1988, Ambrose remains in good shape. Compare footage of him on his first tour of England in 1988 and those of him now and the hairstyle is the only difference.

His pace is understandably not what it used to be and he seldom uses the "throat ball" these days, more in deference to his reduced velocity than to the legal limitation of two bouncers an over. But now his continuing success is achieved through his impeccable control and the steep bounce gained from his elevated delivery.

Among his 394 wickets in 95 Tests have been a host of spells that are etched in the memory forever. They have been mainly against England and some of the most stirring have involved Mike Atherton, not least the most recent on the final morning of the Lord's Test in June when the Lancastrian rode his luck against Ambrose to such an extent that the tall Antiguan pulled a white towel from his pocket and tossed it in the air.

They will confront each other again on Thursday. Atherton will hope for an easier time in his 100th Test and on his home ground. Ambrose might just greet him with a barely perceptible nod of congratulations, but he will follow with the determination that has brought him 155 wickets in his 31 Tests against England, second only to Dennis Lillee, who took 167.

There were other statistically more imposing performances but Ambrose rates his dramatic demolition of England at Port of Spain's Queen's Park Oval in 1994 as his finest. It started with Atherton, lbw first ball, and ended the next morning with England all out 46. "That was sheer determination," he said. "England had a modest target and plenty of time. Yes, just sheer determination."

His final figures were a mere 6 for 24, one of the 22 times he has collected more than half the opposition wickets in a Test innings. There was an overall return of 8 for 45 in the 1990 Test against England at Bridgetown's Kensington Oval that ended with a five-wicket burst that turned a seemingly certain draw into victory. England have not been alone in succumbing to the executioner's axe.

Ambrose scythed through Australia at Perth in 1993 with a spell of seven wickets for the cost of a solitary, scrambled run but, while he does not discount it, he points out that "the pitch was bouncy and conducive to fast bowling". There were other miraculous victories against South Africa in 1992, India in 1997 and Zimbabwe last March.

Like Hall and Griffith, Lillee and Thomson, Ambrose will always be paired with Walsh, a year his senior in age, four years his senior in Test experience. They are not only fast bowling partners but friends, yet their method is so different.

"Ambrose is so consistent. He puts the ball there and invites batsmen to make mistakes," is the assessment of Reon King, the latest West Indian fast bowler to be called to support the two and learn from them. "Walsh tries more things. With Ambrose, if you want him, you have to come and get him."

At 23, King is the one most likely to step forward when he does go. Franklyn Rose, Nixon McLean and Corey Collymore are the other fast bowlers on this tour. Others wait expectantly back in the Caribbean.

"Maybe when I do leave, when they realise I'm not around any more, that might be exactly what they need to lift their game,"Ambrose said in announcing his retirement plans. "I'm sure the boys will do well." That maybe so, but for the time being, the West Indies cannot contemplate life without Ambrose.

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