Sense of sadness as Ambrose departs the scene

The fifth Test at The Oval will stage the cricketing swansong of another legend whose loss to the West Indies underlines their recent painful decline
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With its long tradition of staging the final Test, The Oval has witnessed a few famous farewells over the years.

With its long tradition of staging the final Test, The Oval has witnessed a few famous farewells over the years.

It was where Don Bradman walked to the middle for his last innings in 1948, cheered all the way out and given three, cap-raising cheers on his arrival by Norman Yardley and his England team. In one of the game's greatest anti-climaxes, Eric Hollies then bowled the great man second ball for 0, denying him the four he needed that would have ensured a Test average of a hundred.

A couple of generations on, another legendary batsman, Viv Richards, left The Oval for the last time in 1991 to a similar rapturous ovation, a huge placard on one of the flats on the Harleyford Road proclaiming: "Thanks, Viv. We'll miss you".

Sometime in the coming week, another giant of the game takes his final curtain call at The Oval and the reception for Curtly Ambrose, one of the finest fast bowlers of his time and an unforgettable character, should be the same.

The emotions will be varied. There will be the sense of sadness attached to the end of any great entertainer's career. Opposing batsmen will be relieved they no longer have to cope with the controlled consistency and steep bounce that have earned the game's tallest bowler over 400 Test wickets.

For the West Indies, the prospect of making do without him - and, soon, his perennial partner Courtney Walsh - after 12 years as the spearhead of the attack and the spark in the dressing-room, has already set off alarm bells from Kingston to Georgetown.

Yet, when Ambrose suddenly burst on to the scene in the 1988 domestic season in the Caribbean with a record 35 wickets in five Red Stripe Cup matches, there was widespread scepticism.

He was already 24, had only been cajoled into the conversion fromtennis ball to hard ball cricket well into his teens, previously preferring to act as umpire for his Swetesvillage team in Antigua, and had appeared in one earlier first-class match for the Leeward Islands.

He seemed a reluctant star, a quiet young man unfussed by the glitz of international sport, who would spend his time between Tests still living with his mother, relaxing and shooting hoops with his friends on the Swetes' basketball court.

Further doubts were raised when Ambrose was called for throwing, once, by Test match umpire Clyde Cumberbatch in his second first-class match (a perverse decision on all subsequent evidence) and when, fast-tracked into the 1988 home series against Pakistan, he managed only seven wickets in the three Tests at over 52 runs each.

Above all, there were misgivings over Ambrose's physique. Surely, someone built like what Henry Blofeld once described as "an elongated stork", 6ft 7in tall and not very wide in the areas always considered vital for fast bowling, couldn't stand the pressures of the job.

The stork has proved the doubters wrong. Of all fast bowlers, only Walsh (who becomes the most capped West Indies player with his 122nd Test at The Oval) and the Indian Kapil Dev (110 Tests) have kept going longer. This will be Ambrose's 98th Test and, if he was so inclined, he could soldier on for many more.

"Because I'm all wiry and not bulky, a lot of people didn't believe I would last the distance," he said recently. "I know myself and I know I'm a strong fella."

Yet he acknowledged that he was never inclined to do extra training to keep fit. "I just figure bowling is enough to keep me fit," he explained. "I just bowl, bowl and bowl and that's enough to keep me going. If I get a chance to rest, I rest, recharge my batteries and come again. It never took me too long to get fit."

It is no idle boast. Richards, his fellow Antiguan and captain for his first four years of Test cricket, once described him as "one of the strongest men I know". He and those who have led Ambrose since have demanded a lot from him and he has always been up to it, averaging 37.42 uncomplaining overs a match.

For five years now, he has had to endure the painful decline of West Indies cricket, so powerful when he first came into the team that it had not been beaten in a series for eight years. The lack of commitment in some of the younger players, more so than the lack of talent, has irked him and he recently had some pointed comments to make about the failure of emerging bowlers to take their chances.

He is quitting, he said, because he does not enjoy it as much as he used to and is sticking by his decision in spite of the pleas of those who fear even more difficult times for West Indies cricket without him.

Ambrose has remained unaffected by the fame and relative fortune cricket brings to West Indian stars. He may be persuaded into some coaching in Antigua but his retirement is unlikely to lead to a transfer to the commentary box and into administration, as has been the case with so many of his fellow fast bowlers.

He will be content enjoyinghis treasured island life with some impromptu basketball, a sessionor two with the reggae band heonce strummed guitar for and,most of all, spending more timewith his wife, two youngdaughters and his mother, alwayshis greatest fan, who famouslyrings a bell outside his homewhenever Curtly takes a wicket.

There should be a few more peals in the coming week. Then, after Curtly leaves the scene for the last time to The Oval's customary sendoff, it will finally go silent.