“To me, Curtly Ambrose was the supreme fast-bowling machine. He moved, with the ease and grace of a champion athlete across the ground, was beautifully balanced and coordinated, and could blast you out with pace if needed or revert to strategic assault. As well, he owned the trait everyone wants but few possess : the gift of being able to shift that extra gear when needed. His calling card when he thought he had you plumb lbw was a double clap of the hands that was as reliable as the umpire’s finger going up. He detested singles off his bowling, believing the prey had escaped his clutches.
The icing on the cake for Amby was his imposing physical presence – legs like stilts, arms that never seemed to end and pouting lips that looked like they’d been stung by a swarm of bees. When he stood couple of feet away giving me his Clint Eastwood glare, I had the feeling he could take me down at any stage but still wasn’t sure which of his weapons he would employ to do the job.”
As Australia headed into the third Test in Port of Spain, they had a 1-0 lead – meaning they were on the edge of winning their first series in West Indies for two decades. None of the West Indians was feeling grimmer than big Curtly Ambrose, the fearsome fast bowler who had shown up in batsmen’s worst nightmares from London to Lahore, Sydney to Sri Lanka. Ambrose was an enormous man who always looked a little aggrieved, and as if someone was going to pay for it. He had been treated rather cavalierly by the Australian batsmen in the series to date, and some were even whispering insultingly that maybe it was time for him to retire.
Here at Port-of-Spain though, by God, Curtly’s view was that things wre going to be different. Here the slippery and treacherous green-top pitch was perfect for the likes of him, and hell on earth for the wretched Australians who had been so uppity of late. After just a few overs the tourists were reeling at 3/14, when that punk Steve Waugh comes in. You have to imagine the scene…
As the Australian makes his way to the centre, amid all the searing heat and the West Indian whistling and so forth Curtly stands at the bowler’s mark, glowering, waiting for Waugh to come and get his medicine. The ground settles down, focusing on the two principal combatants. By an uncanny coincidence, Waugh’s physical dimensions are almost a dead ringer for the dimensions of Curtly’s left leg, and it hardly seems fair as the enormous West Indian powers in and begins peppering Waugh with an extraordinary array of bouncers.
But Waugh isn’t playing that game any more. He just isn’t interested in swatting at bouncers and is quite happy to simply defend his wicket and wait for the loose balls, which he knows must inevitably come. Many times the ball crashes into Waugh’s body, onto his torso, arms and hands, but he neither winces nor whinges…..
Nothing could have infuriated the mighty Ambrose more. After such a good beginning for the Windies, it was outrageous that Waugh just shut shop like that and before long Big Curtly has simply had enough.
“As soon as quicks see encouragement from a pitch, the intensity levels immediately lift, and on this minefield we were trying to avoid being detonated. For a batsman to survive and ultimately score runs on this type of pitch he must have a component of luck because it is only a matter of time before a ball either beats the outside edge or brushes against it.Luck favoured me early on, especially against Ambrose, who cut me in half with one delivery and forced me to jab at the next ball as it deviated away from the outside edge. With each play and miss, he would pull up just in front of me and glare; it was as if he thought I was purposely taunting his efforts.
For me, a volcano of emotions was brewing : frustration at my inability to get on top of the situation, anger at the booing that had greeted my arrival at the crease, irritation after a restless night’s sleep and now Amby’s bloody stare. A steepling bouncer that flew harmlessly over the top of my head was almost a relief, because it didn’t pose a danger, so when I saw Ambrose staring intently at close quarters, I snapped back at him :
“What the fuck are you looking at ?”
This was a clear case of the mouth beating the brain to the punch. It was what I was thinking, but saying it took even me by surprise. It was pure instinct, as my survival mechanism took over. I wasn’t going to stand there and cop physical intimidation while he was making a mockery of me with the ball and his gestures. It was fightback time. It was also, realistically, my last resort to get some impetus into my innings.
Ambrose was clearly stunned, most likely because no one had ever been stupid enough to employ such aggressive measures against him. Furthermore, respect is very important in the Caribbean, and when you swear directly at someone you are not showing them respect. In this culture, profanities are rarely heard.
Amby countered my bar-talk bluff by saying, “Don’t cuss me, man.”
Commonsense should have told me to leave it at that. But I needed to have the last say, to get all the anger out, clear my thoughts and start afresh. Unfortunately, nothing inventive or witty came to mind, rather another piece of personal abuse: “Why don’t you go and get fucked.”
Curtly’s eyes were spinning and the situation had rapidly escalated to the point of total ugliness. Thankfully Richie Richardson stepped in, grabbed his great bowler by the wrist with both hands, and tried to yank him away ‘tug of war’ style.
Of course, Amby didn’t want to back down and and walk away, and I was also past the point of no return. We needed to show the Windies it was our turn to dictate proceedings, and that we weren’t afraid to get in their faces and get our hands dirty. Ego plays a healthy role in this type of stand-off situation; neither of us was willing to lose face by backing away. I was totally unsure what to do if he lunged at me, because I am certain he would have made light work of me even though I had a bat in my hands. I kept saying to myself, Don’t move, don’t move. Look tough, stay focussed. He’ll have to go away.
Eventually he did. However, as he ran in to deliver his next ball, I braced myself for an Exocet missile at the throat. That would be his way of winning the battle. He put in the big ones, striding out to full pace before letting go an absolute scorcher of a bouncer that reared alarmingly off a shortish length and crushed my top hand against the handle of the bat, directly in front of my grill. Such was the venom in the execution that I was a foot of the ground at the time of impact. Again Amby was there, menacingly staring me down but this time my lips were sealed. I’d already smashed the wasp nest open. There was no need t go back and trample on it.
For many players, getting involved in a confrontation is a death sentence for their performance as it consumes their thoughts. The guilt and embarrassment often lead to a loss of clarity, as most players can’t compartmentalise and move on. I didn’t mind this clash with Amby because I knew I could forget about this after using the altercation as motivation to do well. I never minded being the villain, because it set me up against the rest – a scenario that turned me on. Obviously, being the bad guy had the same effect on Curtly, because he finished this innings with 5/45 from 16 overs, while I scrapped, slogged, scampered and stroked my way to one of my finest Test knocks : 63 not out in a team total of 128.
At the end of two and a half days, the game was over. We had been crushed by a proud cricketing dynasty, but at least I could console myself with the fact that I’d scored the only 50 in a game totally dominated by the bowlers …”