Sir Curtly Ambrose was a giant of a cricketer in every sense of the word. Standing 6 feet 7 inches tall in his socks, he strode the international cricket arena like a colossus picking up 405 test wickets from 98 test matches at an average of 20.99 runs per wicket. More than the number of wickets he took was the number of match winning spells he had bowled, which together with the image of sheer menace and aggression that he projected made him one of the most feared fast bowlers of his generation. He was born in Antigua, a small island in the Carribean that was home to Andy Roberts, another fast bowler from an earlier generation, who incidentally was the first Antiguan to play for West Indies. Ambrose broke into the West Indies test match side in 1988 when they were still the champion side and played test match cricket till 2000, by which time they had been toppled from that exalted pedestal by Australia.
One of the interesting facets of Ambrose was that he avoided speaking to the media during his playing days. There would not be a cricketer in the present day and age who had turned down more requests for interviews than he did. The line “Curtly talks to no man” summed up his attitude towards press persons. Many would say that this approach added to the enigma surrounding his persona and increased the intimidation quotient that he projected. Hence his decision to pen his cricketing autobiography, with the help of Richard Sydenham, almost 15 years after his retirement from test cricket came as a huge surprise to cricket lovers. Titled “Time to Talk”, this book boasts of forewords from two all time greats of the game from Australia- Richie Benaud and Steve Waugh.
Divided into 23 chapters, the book traces the growth of Ambrose from the community of Swetes , located inside St John, the capital of Antigua. The biggest influence on him in his early years was his mother whose passion for cricket extended to he being named Curtly Elconn Lynwall Ambrose, where Lynwall was after the great Australian fast bowler Ray Lindwall, who she adored. His mother also convinced him to remain a non smoker and non drinker all his life. He began his career with Swetes village side where his prodigious talent got noticed quickly and won him selection first to the Antigua team and then to Leeward Islands squad, then led by the great Viv Richards. This saved the way for his entry to the West Indies squad in 1988, where he became part of a attack led by another all time great, Malcolm Marshall.
Ambrose describes nostalgically about his entry into the dressing room of the what has been described as one the best ever sides in the history of test cricket and the pride that each player carried for being part of that elite team. He established himself quickly in the side and took over the mantle of heading the bowling attack after the retirement of Marshall. Though crippled by the departure of Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Malcolm Marshall and Jeff Dujon, West Indies managed to remain as the top test team till the mid 1990’s on the strength of performances of a new comer with prodigious talent named Brian Lara, their captain Richie Richardson and the fast bowling duo of Ambrose and Walsh. Ambrose has written in detail about their first series loss in 19 years in West Indies- to Australia in 1995- which saw them lose their status as top test match side as well as the Frank Worrell Trophy. This was also the series where he had the infamous confrontation with Steve Waugh at Bridgetown, Barbados, the closest two top class cricketers had come to getting physical on the field of test match cricket. Ambrose has written his side of what happened, without concealing the admiration and respect he had for the cricketing skills and fighting spirit of his adversary.
Two memorable spells of Ambrose have been detailed in the book. The first is the magical spell he delivered at Perth in February 1993 when he took seven Aussie wickets conceding just one run. “There was no one in world cricket at that time who could have subdued me. Not Sir Donald Bradman in his pomp or Sir Viv Richards or Sir Garfield Sobers. I was unstoppable” This is how Ambrose remembers his exploits of that day. The second is the spell against England at Port of Spain, Trinidad in 1994 when he took six wickets in a session during the final innings to have that side dismissed for 46.
There are chapters devoted to county cricket where Ambrose makes no secret of his anger at the way he was treated by the officialdom at Northamptonshire, where he played for six seasons. He has also dwelt upon the disputes between players and officials of West Indies Cricket Board. In fact respect is a word which keeps coming up repeatedly in both these chapters. The lack of respect perceived by him while dealing with both sets of officials has left behind a deep bitterness which comes to the fore despite the passage of more than a decade and a half after the incidents took place. Ambrose makes no secrets about his annoyance with the attitude displayed by Brian Lara on many occasions, even while underscoring the respect the two of them had for the abilities of each other. There is also a chapter devoted to comparing the skills and genius of Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara as well as one where he has chosen the greatest cricketers of his generation. It might interest cricket lovers in India to know that Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar figure in that list of 13 that Ambrose has picked from amongst those he had seen or played against. He has dwelt with his life after retirement, his love for music and the thrill he felt on being knighted in 2014.
In the final analysis, this book throws insights into the making of one of the most complete fast bowlers of all times. Ambrose makes no secrets of the fact that he was a natural athlete who did not have to spend too many hours slogging in the gym, but he maintained excellent work ethics, took tremendous pride in his performances and capitalised to the maximum the physical attributes that he was blessed with. There have not been too many books written by cricketers from the Caribbean and it is indeed remarkable that this trend has been broken by one who has stayed away from the media during his playing days. This book would definitely be a worthwhile addition to the library of cricket lovers, particularly those who remember the exploits of the champion West Indies side of the 1980’s and 1990’s.
( The author is the Customs Commissioner, Kochi)