The last hurrah for quiet king of mean

Any inquiry about Curtly Ambrose's chief merit as a fast bowler yields a common response. He gives his adversaries nothing to hit. For over after over after metronomic over, Ambrose has them wondering whether to come forward or go back, and scoring is hardly an option.

Any inquiry about Curtly Ambrose's chief merit as a fast bowler yields a common response. He gives his adversaries nothing to hit. For over after over after metronomic over, Ambrose has them wondering whether to come forward or go back, and scoring is hardly an option.

The economy-rate column against his name bears this out. Of all those modern fast bowlers who have taken huge hauls of wickets, the gangly Antiguan has been the most miserly. He has allowed under 40 runs per 100 balls to be scored from him. That is three runs fewer than the next lowest, Imran Khan, four fewer than Sir Richard Hadlee, whose reputation for rigid accuracy was no less deserved. It may not be a large gap, but over a long career it counts, and it demonstrates the unique hardship that batsmen have faced these past 12 years against Ambrose.

There is another particular quality mentioned by those who have played with or against him. His silence. He has taunted batsmen by his menace as a bowler rather than by any verbal terrorism. Occasionally he has stared, his elbows on his hips above his endless legs. But not for long. He has then maybe shaken his head incredulously and walked back. Not a word has emanated from him. Contrast that with other speed merchants of recent vintage.

The West Indian fast men have never gone in for verbals - their intimidation often hardly needed it - but Ambrose has been quiet by their standards as well. A brooding presence, some would say.

He has been strict in keeping his own counsel. His outburst a couple of weeks ago to his former opening partner Ian Bishop, now almost as perceptive a television commentator as he was a bowler, was the more compelling for its rarity. Ambrose merely made the point that some of the younger bowlers might be doing more to ease his burden.

His career has been as seamless as it has been long. Most players have peaks and troughs. Ambrose has always seemed to be on top of his game. The accuracy was there from the start, the wickets started immediately, the action was simple and easy.

He was not a prodigy. When he was first capped, against Pakistan in Guyana, he was six months past his 24th birthday. But he had been allowed to mature, so that when he was selected he was ready. That was in early 1988, and that summer he came to England for the first time. He made an immediate impression. It was Malcolm Marshall's series with 35 wickets, but Ambrose had 22 in West Indies' 4-0 victory and never looked back. A sure indication of his effect was that he was already known to a wider public as, simply, Curtly. No further explanation was necessary.

Curtly saved his very best for Australia, when it was needed, and England, when sometimes something less might have done. Not this time, not at The Oval when he gangles on to the field for the final time.

He has taken 128 wickets against the Aussies at 21.23, 161 against England at 18.68. For West Indies to retain their magnificent record against England, unbeaten for 31 years, a record which Ambrose has helped sustain in seven series, he will have to roll back the years, and the eyes, one more time.

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