Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose, 2001

Brothers in arms

Mike Atherton, Vic Marks


© Getty Images


A cricketer's retirement, in both its timing and manner, can often tell you as much as you need to know about that player's career. In Curtly Ambrose's case, the timing, like his approach to the crease, was near perfect. He was still at the top of his game, as the 2000 series in England showed. Yet, some of his trademark pace and fire was beginning to wane, and in his final spell the aging legs seemed to be sending him a message. Rather than risk a trip too far to Australia, which with its unremitting heat, big grounds and flat wickets is no place for old bones, he decided enough was enough and left us with memories of how great he is, rather than was.

The manner of his retirement, too, was typically Ambrose-like. He announced at the beginning of the summer, with no histrionics, that the series against England would be his last, and, with little or no fuss from the big man himself, he was true to his word. There were precious few titbits for the media to scrap over, although he did give his old pal Michael Holding one interview to ruin that oft-quoted phrase, "Curtly talks to no one." In this modern age of image and spin, with the accent on style rather than substance, he has been a refreshing change. He went, as he came and then conquered, with little to say. And yet, despite the low-key approach to retirement from Ambrose himself, rarely can a crowd or an opposition team have acknowledged a cricketer's leaving in such a fashion, an indication, if one were needed, of the high esteem in which he is held. It was one of the most touching moments I have seen on a field, when the Oval crowd rose to Ambrose and his great mate, Courtney Walsh, to applaud them off the field for an assumed last time. They left, arm-in-arm, one sensed close to tears, and halfway up the pavilion steps Ambrose symbolically removed his famous white armbands, safe in the knowledge that his legs would have to do no more pounding.

The next day, as he walked to the crease with West Indies on the brink of a famous defeat, the England team lined up and applauded him all the way to the wicket. It was a fitting mark of respect and, no doubt, a private thank you that their tormentor was finally on his way. (A few of us had remembered his wave to the Oval crowd five years before, hoping we wouldn't see him again.) In the middle of the salute he mumbled "Thanks, lads," which is about as much as I've heard him say. In cricket, even when you are losing, you can sometimes be a winner.

In statistical terms, Ambrose's career ranks amongst the very best the modern game has to offer. He took 405 Test wickets at a shade under 21, with a strike-rate of a wicket every 54 balls. Testimony to his parsimony is the 1,000th maiden in Test cricket that he notched up during last summer's series. As someone he dismissed more times than anybody else, I think I am reasonably well qualified to comment and compare him with the other fast bowlers from the last decade of the last millennium.

At his best, there is no doubt he moved beyond the fine line that separates the great from the very good. Quality bowlers essentially need two of three things: pace, movement and accuracy. Ambrose had all three. He was certainly quick, especially in the mid-1990s, and the extra bounce he generated from his beanpole frame made life even more awkward for the batsman. More than anything, though, he was a mean bowler: he hated giving runs away. Twice during last summer's series it took me half an hour to get off the mark, and then it was only a nudge off the inside edge through square leg for one. But each time Ambrose was livid with himself for offering even this measly morsel.

His best spell against England was undoubtedly at Trinidad's Queen's Park Oval in 1994. On a wearing fourth-innings pitch, we needed 194 to win. But from the very first ball, which he nipped back to trap me lbw, it looked a distant target. For the final frenetic hour on the fourth evening Ambrose steamed in, reducing the England innings to tatters (40 for eight) with as good a display of hostile and aggressive fast bowling as you will see. One look at Graham Thorpe's eyes as he walked off that evening told you everything. Ambrose's performance prompted Lord Kitchener to pen a calypso about him and about that extraordinary hour, and for the remainder of the tour the whole of the West Indies could be seen dancing to its beat. Lest you think it was only the English he harassed, his spell at Perth in 1993, when on the first day he took seven wickets for one run in 32 balls on a trampoline of a pitch, was apparently even more devastating. One can only be glad not to have been 22 yards away at the time.

As West Indies became more fragile during the second half of the 1990s, they came to rely on their fast bowlers more and more. So often defeat seemed inevitable, and yet somehow Ambrose and Walsh responded to the call. They always had. Their classic comeback was probably in the inaugural post-apartheid Test against South Africa at Bridgetown, where the West Indians, outplayed for four days, roused themselves through Walsh and Ambrose to an astonishing victory on the last day in front of a deserted Kensington Oval. With South Africa, eight wickets in hand, requiring another 79 runs, Ambrose took four for 16 and Walsh four for eight.

In spite, or maybe because, of the hostility of his bowling, there was never a battle of words with Ambrose. There was no need. In the truest sense, he let his cricket do the talking. The most I ever heard him say was "Morning, skipper," and there were never any verbals during our frequent battles in the middle. Over time, however, there was a little more animation, to add spice to the contest. Before the first ball of the innings, he came to have a habit of walking down the wicket, yards from the batsman, and looking at that area of the pitch he deemed to be the "business area". He would rub his hands with anticipation, and invariably at the end of the day there would be a cluster of ball marks worrying the patch.

This discipline and professionalism typified his bowling throughout his career. With his going, and the imminent departure of Courtney Walsh, West Indies have lost the last link with their great teams of the 1980s and early 1990s. Thankfully, for batsmen, there will no longer be the sight of Ambrose stood in mid-pitch after another wicket, pumping his arms skywards. He has been a magnificent servant to West Indies cricket, playing his part fully in carrying forward the famous fast-bowling legacy. He leaves an enormous hole to fill.

In 2000, Mike Atherton (Cambridge University, Lancashire and England) made his 100th Test appearance in the Third Test against West Indies, having captained England a record 52 times from 1993 to 1998. He writes for Wisden Cricket Monthly and the Sunday Telegraph.


As Courtney Walsh left the field in the final Test at The Oval, Viv Richards stood up in the BBC commentary box and clapped. He didn't say a word: I daresay that there was a great lump in his throat that prevented speech. For the six others in the box, this was as eloquent a tribute to Walsh as any man could muster. Quite what the millions of listeners made of the ensuing silence, I don't know.

Understand that old cricketers can be an unsentimental, cynical lot, and that clapping in press boxes is as frowned upon as cheering a missed putt at St Andrews. But there was a tear in the Richards eye as his old colleague and friend bade farewell to his English fans after 16 years of devoted international service. Richards knew better than most what a staggering contribution Walsh had made to West Indian cricket. The captor of the most Test wickets in history, he may not have been the greatest fast bowler to emerge from the Caribbean in the modern era. Even so, it is odd that when Wisden conducted a poll of 100 cricketers and writers, to establish the Five Cricketers of the Century, Walsh did not receive a single vote. For there has never been a more durable pace man, or a more wholehearted one.

He did not possess the grace of Michael Holding or the swinging guile of Malcolm Marshall, but he just kept going. The gnarled Australian, Dennis Waight, his physio with West Indies for more than a decade, said in 1997: "I've got a feeling that if Courtney stops playing, he'll never get started again." Sometimes he would exasperate Waight. Between Tests, he would pop back to his home club - Melbourne in Kingston, Jamaica - and, discovering they were short, agree to turn out. There, he would at least be fortified by some of the sumptuous Caribbean dishes provided by his mother, Joan, another stalwart of the club.

So he kept playing. When he came out for his final innings of the 2000 Test series, the England players formed a guard of honour. Alec Stewart and Mike Atherton were there, long-time adversaries who had been damned sure they had seen the last of him after the Antigua Test of 1998. They were wrong. But this time they could be certain that he would torment them no more in Test cricket. After all, England were not scheduled to play against West Indies until 2004; Courtney would be 41 by then.

His one regret must be that, when his Test career was coming to a close, West Indies appeared to be in freefall. (When it began, with an innings victory in Australia in November 1984, they were invincible.) Hence the pleas for Walsh and his great friend and partner, Curtly Ambrose, to keep going beyond their natural lifespan as fast bowlers. Walsh, as ever, succumbed to those pleas and undertook yet another tour to Australia.

In the early days, Walsh was the general dogsbody of the West Indian attack. Bowling with the new ball was denied him; Holding, Marshall or Garner had earned that privilege. If there was a wind, Courtney would bowl into it. If there was a long partnership on a hot afternoon - admittedly a rare occurrence in that era - he would inevitably be tossed the ball, and he would receive it gratefully. So it took him 12 matches to acquire his first five-wicket haul in Test cricket.

However, dispel the notion that facing Walsh was the soft option when playing against West Indies in the 1980s. His gangling, slightly uncoordinated method of delivery suggested, treacherously, that the ball was coming in to the right-handed batsman. This was not always the case and led to scores of victims in the slip cordon. That distinctive, open-chested action as he glided through the crease - like many West Indian pace men raised on hard grounds, he did not bang his front foot into the turf, which may in part account for his freedom from serious injuries - made the ball hard to pick up. At least Holding had the decency to employ the perfect, classical action, which enabled an early sight of the ball.

Walsh changed his pace devilishly without any discernible change of action. As a result, he hit countless batsmen over the years, far more than Holding or Ambrose. From nowhere a lethal bouncer would appear; in his later days, he developed a brilliant slower ball that could rarely be spotted, either - especially when Graham Thorpe was at the crease. And as he grew older, he grew meaner. The inadequacies of the next generation of West Indian fast bowlers were exaggerated by the fact that Walsh and Ambrose in their final years gave the batsmen nothing to hit.

But it is his stamina and loyalty that single out Walsh, and examples abound of both qualities. In Perth in 1997, when he was leading the West Indian team, he tore a hamstring. "The doctor said he was finished," remembers Dennis Waight. "I iced him down all night and we did some static stretching the following morning. He took the field to give it a try and hobbled in off a short run. I thought he might last four or five overs; in the end he bowled 20 in a row and only stopped when the match was won. He didn't walk properly for another two weeks after that, but for Courtney the pain had all been worthwhile. That's special."

His reaction to his sacking as West Indian captain, when he was replaced by Brian Lara in 1998, is also instructive. In modern times, with the exception of Gerry Alexander and Garry Sobers, no West Indian captain, once removed from the job, had continued to play in the team. Walsh instinctively agreed to keep going and gave the new captain his public backing, which was much-needed as Lara's first match in charge was in Walsh's backyard in Kingston. Mike Atherton has recalled the scene at the start of the shortest Test in history (the match was abandoned because the Sabina Park pitch was dangerous): "As Brian led out his team, he did so with Courtney at his side, arm-in-arm, in an attempt to ease the transition and implore the Jamaicans to back the captain and West Indies. It was a gesture that showed you didn't have to be captain to be a leader of men."

His small ego and big heart dictated that this should be so, which surprised no one in Kingston or his adopted home of Bristol. For Walsh was no less loyal when playing for Gloucestershire. Over a period of 15 years, he was their overseas player. He never shirked, and several times he put the county in contention for the Championship almost single-handedly. In 1986 he took 118 wickets for them; in 1998 he was still at it, taking 106. The only significant spat came at the end, when there was confusion and some bitterness as it was decided later in 1998 that his services should not be retained. He wrote an open letter to his Gloucestershire supporters to explain his side of the dispute, just in case they thought he was deserting them.

Yet before we get too misty-eyed about Courtney, the man with the ever-ready smile off the field and the hilarious pantomime antics when taking guard, we should also bear in mind that, with ball in hand, he remained the most ruthless of operators. There were times when he was prepared to explore the limits of fair play. In 1994 in Jamaica, he launched a madcap assault on England's hopeless No. 11, Devon Malcolm, which could not be justified. Umpire Ian Robinson from Zimbabwe, in a shocking abnegation of his responsibilities, looked on without saying a dicky-bird. Walsh peppered Malcolm with a succession of vicious, needless bouncers. He showed no remorse for that spell.

Equally memorable, though more acceptable, was his assault on Mike Atherton in the same game. Walsh, a keen adherent of the West Indian "cut off the head and the rest will follow" philosophy, targeted Atherton with bouncers from around the wicket and refused to rest until England's captain was removed. He had given the same treatment to David Gower a decade earlier. In this instance, the cricket was awesome; with Malcolm on strike, it was just plain awful.

However, Walsh will be remembered as a gentleman of the game; one who basically kept playing because he loved it. He is also one of its greatest ambassadors. Indeed, he is now an official ambassador for Jamaica and carries a diplomatic passport. He has served West Indies proud. Just occasionally, he had some argument with his cricket board, most notably during the threat of strike action prior to the disastrous tour of South Africa in 1998-99. Then, his seniority demanded that he should be a key spokesman for the players. But once he has rested himself from the rigours of almost two decades of continuous cricket, he could easily re-emerge as a key figure on that board. They could do with his experience and common sense. And, in the knowledge that they no longer have to face him, his smiling face would be greeted without reservation by cricketers in every corner of the globe.

Vic Marks (Oxford University, Somerset, Western Australia and England) is cricket correspondent of The Observer and author of The Wisden Illustrated History of Cricket.

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