The cracks on the pitch at WACA were wide. Perhaps not as wide as the cracks in England’s batting, but enough to cause deliveries to shoot up, down and sideways in a fashion that would have done no good to England’s already disintegrating morale in the third Ashes Test. They were wide enough for television producers to pull out footage of what could happen when a pitch resembled an earthquake-hit zone.
There was the image of Curtly Ambrose, bat in hand, run out after it had got stuck in one of the cracks and he couldn’t dislodge it and get it over the crease in time to beat Ian Healy’s nonchalant, backhanded flick to whip off the bails.
Of course, when you mention Ambrose and WACA, you picture him with a ball in hand, not a bat. A ball held in a large, menacing palm. A ball that would leap at batsmen from unexpected lengths even on a pitch that was made for vaulting more than batting. A ball that would land on that perfect spot – it was on a good length but even within that narrow area, it found the bull’s eye. A ball delivered from about ten feet above the ground, with the white wristbands gleaming before the point of release, and flashing when the arms were pumped because yet another batsman had found Curtly Ambrose too hot to handle. When the elements all came together for Ambrose, as they did on an unforgettable day at WACA four years before the run-out incident, the results were frighteningly devastating. In 32 balls in January 1993, Ambrose took out seven Australian batsmen while giving up a solitary run to seal the deciding fifth Test, giving West Indies a 2-1 series scoreline.
The entire experience of watching Ambrose from start to finish was a thing of beauty. It began with the run-up, smooth and easy when viewed with the eye of the biomechanist or the bowling coach. Like a jaguar stalking its prey when viewed through the eyes of the spectator. And, from the batsman’s point of view, like an advancing battalion armed with howitzers to shoot down a log cabin. It’s a batsman’s game, and even Ambrose said so on occasion during his later years, but tell that to the man armed with that small piece of wood, trying to protect life and limb – not to mention his stumps – when facing up to the giant with long strides who could bang down thunderbolts with the precision of a sharpshooter.
The ball itself never failed to be anything less than compelling. Whether it was in 1988 when he began or in 2000 when he quit, whether it was the first over of an ODI or the last over of a hard day’s Test cricket, you knew he wouldn’t be trundling in. And the batsmen knew that even better. No relaxed looseners when ‘Amby’ was loping in. Mark Waugh once asked after an ODI innings, “Does he ever bowl a bad first over?” When Matthew Hayden quoted Waugh in his autobiography, he went one further and asked, “Did he bowl a bad over … ever? A bad ball? A full toss? I’m sure he did, but it never seemed that way when you were facing him.”
I don’t recall banana swing or viciously cutting deliveries from Ambrose, though he doubtless would have bowled his share of those too. But for the most part, it was an inexorable homing in of the ball on a length and in a channel that was never comfortable, made more so by the bounce generated because of his height. Most of all, there was the aura he exuded. When Ambrose was in action, you had the full fast-bowler package to look forward to. Visceral thrill at sheer speed and bounce, connoisseur’s delight at the batsmen facing examination by a master of the craft, and body language that rippled across grounds and television screens and made words redundant.
Just as Ambrose preferred the basilisk death-stare to the spoken sledge on the pitch, he was equally reticent off it. The story goes that a journalist who wanted a chat with the big fast bowler couldn’t get through to him, and asked Viv Richards to help out. When Ambrose duly appeared, the reporter was asked, “You want to talk to Curtly?” After receiving an affirmative reply, Ambrose responded with, “You want to talk to Viv, you ask Viv. You want to talk to Curtly, you ask Curtly.” The reporter, naturally enough, then asked if he could “talk to Curtly”, only to receive the now legendary, “No. Curtly talks to no man.”
In later years, the no-talking rule was relaxed sometimes, even to the extent of viewers getting a rare glimpse of a peaceful Curtly smile, and not one that only made an appearance as the accompaniment to another batsman’s demise. In a recent interview, Ambrose grinned, and even laughed, while explaining that he took up cricket by accident almost, goaded by a cricket-loving mother who wanted one of three sons at least to be an international cricketer. Basketball, the first love, and football, the second, were given up when the cricketing train sped away with Ambrose on it. “Before I knew it I was a West Indies player,” is how he describes it, before revealing that after having retired, he rarely ever played the sport anymore. There’s a lot more basketball and football though, which are sports he loves with a passion. “Cricket? I don’t care to play cricket any more.”
It almost sounds as if cricketing destiny intertwined with Ambrose’s to produce a bowler capable of taking 405 wickets in 98 Tests at an average of 20.99, while striking once every nine overs. And then, when his career was done, the twain abruptly parted, to hardly ever meet again. But in the decade and half that the two roads collided, they produced a cricketing narrative that made you root for West Indies even when they were playing your own nation.
Curtly may have talked to no man. But he spoke to millions nonetheless.