HomePlayers CareerCurtly Ambrose: The Deadliest Fast Bowler of his Era

Curtly Ambrose: The Deadliest Fast Bowler of his Era

There could be fewer menacing sights on a cricket field than witnessing 6ft 7 inches tall Curtly Ambrose thundering to the bowling mark in full cry. His intensity and aggression transcended regions few cricketers ever did, reminiscent of a Tsunami.

There may have been faster and more versatile pace bowlers, but none surpassed Curtly’s accuracy. In full flow, he was as intimidating as Jeff Thomson, and he had no equal on a bad wicket. 

On his day, he could rip the flesh of a batting line like no pace bowler could, exploding like dynamite. The perfect man for executing a demolition job. His relentless spirit was rarely surpassed on his day., sending shivers down the spine of the best batsmen. 

At his best, I doubt any fast bowler was more lethal than Curtly or as effective in delivering a thunderbolt.

In all conditions, he extracted almost vertical bounce. Ambrose was a medley of the pace of Holding, Garner’s accuracy, and Roberts’s skill. Ambrose could tantalise batsmen with a ball moving away from the off-stump. 

No pace bowler produced such a disconcerting bounce or made a ball rise steeply from a good length. His length and line were more impeccable than anyone.

Ambrose’s wrist typically snapped forward during the release, giving a dynamic thrust to the ball before it began its journey at a high pace. In characteristic style, half bounced, half glided to the wicket. 

When celebrating a wicket fall, few bowlers expressed ecstasy in such volumes as Curtly when raising his fists up in the air.

As a human being, Curtly is a 360-degree different person when away from the cricket field, striking his guitar strings with grace and harmony. His expressions remind one of sliced watermelon, with a most natural smile. A very lovable person.

Surprisingly, he showed little interest in cricket as a boy, having been born in Swetes village in Antigua. His cricket-mad mother was the driving force behind his entry into the game. 

First, Curtly gave a shot at basketball. He gained his baptism into cricket relatively late, at age 25, through playing league cricket in Lancashire. He made a mark in Red Stripe tournament cricket in 1988, taking 35 scalps at 15 runs apiece.

Ambrose as Match-Winner in Test Cricket

It is unforgettable the manner in which Ambrose’s blistering spells made his team rise like a phoenix from the Ashes, with his team staring defeat in the face. He put batsmen at the other end of the jail, leaving them clueless. His best spells gave vibrations of a Hollywood script. 

In 1992, in Barbados, South Africa looked cruising home at  122-2, chasing a target of 201. Ambrose struck lethal blows like a blue bolt on the final day to send the opponents folding for a mere 152, capturing 6-34.

History repeated itself at Trinidad in 1994 against England. Ambrose, like a Blitzkrieg arriving from nowhere, skittled out Six English batsmen for a mere 24 runs, who were chasing a target of 192. Never has one witnessed batsmen as mesmerised or perplexed. One got vibrations of a magician casting a spell. Rarely has the batting lineup been so bamboozled or reduced to submission to such an extent. It’s reminiscent of a combing operation.

Mike Atherton was trapped in the front first ball by a vicious ball that cut back in. Smith played forward to Ambrose — only for the ball to crash into the off-stump. Stewart’s timber was rattled. A delivery alarmingly flew to have Russell caught in the slips. Finally, he uprooted Graham Thorpe’s off-stump to complete the final rites. The deliveries bowled that day were worth preserving in a cricket museum.

Earlier against England in Barbados in 1990, the game looked like petering into a draw. Like thunder breaking a hot day, Ambrose broke the backbone of the English batting within the last hour, with final figures of 8-45. Ambrose’s dismissals of Alec Stewart, Jack Russell, and Alan Lamb illustrated excellent fast bowling skills. Stewart and Lamb were caught behind with deliveries viciously jagging, and Russell bowled. Ambrose removed the rest like a pack of cards. All the last 5 victims were lbw, with each man being forced back onto his stumps before the gun was finally fired.

Ambrose took cricketing skill to scales rarely traversed in Perth in 1992-93, with the wicket having more than its fair share of juice. He had figures of 7-25, capturing 7 wickets for a single run in a post-lunch spell in 32 balls. His balls rearing or jagging from a good length were unplayable and sent tremors down the hearts of the Australians, with every batsman floundering and going into a trance.

Never on a bouncy or green top has there been a performance that was more an embodiment of the art of fast bowling-blending speed, control, and bounce. One was reminded of a bulldozer performing wreckage or a cowboy mowing down his rivals. Arguably, never have Australian batsmen been so shell-shocked.

Ambrose lit the spark after lunch with a score of 85 for 2. David Boon and Mark Waugh were dislodged with two gems. Both deliveries alarmingly reared from a good length, compelling the batsmen to play forward, with the ball darting to the wicketkeeper. Rarely could one witness deliveries of such impeccable length. Allan Border got a peach of a delivery, drawing him into the stroke, with the ball rocketing to first slip. The best batsmen could not have evaded that ball.

Ian Healy saved the hat-trick but edged one soon; Hughes was caught at the cover. Ironically, Ambrose’s only wicket was caught in front of the stumps. Damien Martyn and Jo Angel edged deliveries to the keeper.

Ambrose also produced classical spells at Melbourne in 1988-9, Perth in 1996-97, Trinidad in 1995, Antigua in 1999, and Adelaide in 1992-93. In 1993, Frank Worrall’s trophy, his bowling turned the pendulum in his side’s favour from the depths of despair. 

In 1988-89, his 26 wickets at the cost of 21, 46 runs apiece enabled West Indies to retain the Frank Worrall Trophy. At Perth in the 2nd test, taking 5-72 and 3-66, Ambrose tantalised the Aussie batsmen with his bouncers, which the batsmen found almost impossible to evade. Geoff Lawson was felled by such a snorter.

In 1995 at Trinidad, his 5-45 and 4-20 rattled the Aussies to level the series before the decider at Barbados. His deliveries to have both Mark Taylor and Mark Waugh caught behind in the first innings were as close to perfection as they could be.

In 1996-97 at Melbourne, he had Matthew Hayden caught at second slip. Taylor tried to move away, but the ball kept coming, hitting him on the solar plexus and then ricocheting onto the stumps. Mark Waugh was trapped leg before the next ball. Ian Healy was caught in the slips, and finally, McGrath was removed. 

He returned figures of 5 for 55, with the Aussies bowled out for 219. On his last tour of Australia in a losing cause, Ambrose finished with 24 wickets at the ground at 12.91 from 3 Tests — still the most wickets by an overseas player by a distance.

In 1990, he was economy personified in Pakistan, averaging around 17 with 14 wickets. 

In England, his haul of wickets did not surpass the best of Marshall, Roberts or Holding in a single series, but his overall average was still outstanding. In his first series in 1988 on English soil, he took 22 wickets at an average of 20 runs. In 1991 in England, Ambrose’s figures read 28 wickets at 20.00. It was evident that he would fill the vacuum of Marshall’s retirement. 

At Headingley, where Gooch carved out his epic, Ambrose made crucial breakthroughs in the England batting lineup. He picked up the first 6 wickets; a 98-run partnership between Gooch and Derek Pringle helped England out of the pit. He picked up 4 for 87 in the rain-washed Lord’s Test and followed it with 5 for 74 and 3 for 61 at Trent Bridge. In all, Ambrose finished the tour with 51 wickets at 17.03. He was selected as Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1975.

At 34, Ambrose exhibited that he had lost none of his old fire. He had his best home series against England, picking up 30 wickets at a ridiculous 14.26. I recall his exemplary craftsmanship against a solid English batting lineup. He picked up 13 more at 23.76 when West Indies were whitewashed in South Africa the next season; this included an excellent spell of 6 for 51 at St George’s Park.

Sensations in the Career of Ambrose

Ambrose often invited the wrath of his opponents, even if he never indulged in sledging. His body mannerisms said it all. He had an unforgettable alteration with Steve Waugh at Trinidad in 1995, with Australia tottering at 26-3. Waugh wrote later in his West Indian Tour Diary that Ambrose “followed through to within two metres away from me and gave me the regulation Clint Eastwood stare. I thought he went on with the silent assassin-style interrogation for longer (than) was necessary, so I came back with, ‘What the f*** are you looking at?'”.

Ambrose walked towards Waugh, saying, “Don’t cuss me, man.”

Waugh wrote later: “His eyeballs were spinning, and as he edged to within a metre, it seemed he was ready to erupt.” Richardson, the veteran of many a battle, hurried to the spot; he had probably realised that a murder or something equivalent was on the cards; he conjured whatever strength he could muster and tried to pull the giant away from the scenario’.

Ironically, he bowled the only 15-ball over in test cricket at Perth in 1996-97. Amazingly, it was amidst a magnificent bowling spell. His ninth over—the last he would bowl at WACA—contained 9 no-balls; he ended up bowling a 15-ball over in 12 minutes—the longest in test history. “This is getting a bit farcical,” announced Holding’s baritone on the microphone, as Ambrose extracted every ounce of his energy to complete the final rites.

Impact of Ambrose in ODI Cricket

Ambrose was an all-time great in ODIS, bettering the haul of every West Indies paceman. His thundering opening spell at Chandigarh in the 1996 World Cup semi-final is permanently embedded in my memories. Ambrose was the epitome of aggression when dismissing the likes of Mark Waugh, Mark Taylor and Ricky Ponting. I can’t name a more lethal ODI opening spell, with the batsmen completely tantalised. Ambrose was simply the manifestation of lightning that day. 

He played an essential role in his team’s ODI win in Australia in the triangular tournaments in 1988-89 and 1992-93 and in South Africa in 1993. The failure of backing from batting prevented him from winning finals in India in 1993 and the 1996 World Cup semi-final. It was the same case in many matches in Sharjah.

Ambrose had 225 ODI scalps at an average of 24.13 in 176 games. He averaged a remarkable 19.79 in Australia, with 69 scalps, 29 in UAE at 21.55 and 19 in India at 25.84. At home, he had 65 scalps at 24.87. He had a remarkable tally of 125 wickets in games won at 21.40. His 5-17 at Melbourne in 1988-89 left Aussie batsmen spellbound. Surprisingly, his economy rate and average are not as good as Garner, Roberts or Holding in ODI cricket.

On bouncy wickets, Ambrose would be a strong candidate to join Wasim Akram and Joel Garner, who I rate ahead of him, in limited-overs cricket.

Assessment of Where Ambrose Stood amongst the Greats

Ambrose concluded his test career with 405 wickets in 99 test matches, averaging 20.99 and 22 5-wicket hauls. 

Curtly had the best average in his era in test matches won by his team (16.86), with 229 scalps in winning causes and the best percentage of wickets in test wins. No paceman won more matches in the 4th innings. 

His bowling average was the most economical by any bowler of his time, at 20.99. It was better than that of Dennis Lillee, Imran Khan, Richard Hadlee, Glenn McGrath, Allan Donald, and Dale Steyn. 

It is remarkable that despite his team’s losing streak and comparatively weak batting, Ambrose never let his average touch 21. With West Indies cricket declining from 1995, his bowling lost none of its stings. 

Glenn McGrath had more control and bowling intelligence but was not as effective in performing a demolition job or as hard to score off as Curtly. I can hardly name a better one-man machine for creating a 360-degree turn in the plot than Ambrose. Curtly may not have had an equal in a single spell at his best.

Remarkably, 24% of his victims were caught by the wicketkeeper, 13% were LBW, and 20% were bowled.

His partnership with Courtney Walsh was one of the best ever, only behind Lillee Thomson or Wasim-Waqar, and arguably on par with Roberts–Holding. It is a possibility that a Marshall-Ambrose combination would have been as lethal as Lillee-Thomson. Wasim Akram and Curtly Ambrose rolled into one could make the perfect pace bowler.

Except for James Anderson and Stuart Broad (997 from 132 Tests), no fast bowling pair has taken more wickets than Ambrose and Walsh (762 from 95 Tests).

On Australian pitches, he overshadowed the great Malcolm Marshall. It is notable that in 1988-89, he had a higher haul of scalps than Marshall. I doubt even bowlers of the stature of Hadlee, Wasim, or Marshall were as lethal with a new ball on Australian surfaces. 

He holds the series record of 33 in 1992-93 for a West Indies bowler in a series in Australia. I would rank Ambrose with Hadlee as the best overseas fast bowler in Australia. 

Ambrose had gathered up 78 wickets in Australia at 19.79 from 14 tests; this remains the most wickets picked up by an overseas bowler in Australia. 

His tally of  88 wickets in England, at 20.77 from 20 Tests, ranks only behind Shane Warne, Dennis Lillee, and Marshall. This plays a vital role in Curtly’s better bowling overseas than at home.

Notable that Ambrose improved his performances with his team on the decline after 1995. In his final 51 tests, he averaged less than 21.05 when he played his first 54 test matches. Few pace bowlers had such an outstanding average in many losing series.

It must be stated that Ambrose did not prove his prowess on flat tracks in the subcontinent. He was not fruitful in 1997 in Pakistan, averaging over 40. Strangely, he averaged over 38 bowling against India. 

His bowling could appear mechanical when the shine was lost from the ball or when the pitch had flattened. Unlike a Marshall, Wasim, or Lillee, he did not possess an effective leg-cutter, slower ball, movement, or variations. 

He could not match Glenn McGrath’s sheer craft or application in unhelpful conditions. In that light, Ambrose was very similar to Richard Hadlee in impact. 

Without hesitation, I would choose Ambrose above any pace bowler on a bad wicket, but on a batting pitch or on a true wicket, I would prefer to deploy the all-around skills of Wasim, Marshall, or McGrath. 

It is pertinent that the top Australian batsmen rated Ambrose the hardest to face with Wasim, but in general, batsmen felt the likes of Wasim and McGrath were more daunting to face. 

Notable that Hadlee was better statistically in terms of strike rate and 5 wicket scalps, with Ambrose failing to think enough about his bowling or calculating the weakness of opponents in the manner of Richard.

In my all-time Test XI, Ambrose would miss out on Wasim, Marshall, McGrath, Hadlee or Lillee.

Ambrose’s strike rate was not as comparatively impressive at 54.5, compared to Malcolm Marshall at 46.7, Allan Donald at 47, Glenn McGrath at 51.9, Dennis Lillee at 52, Waqar Younis at 43.6, Richard Hadlee at 50.9 and Michael Holding at 50.7. 

In terms of 5 and 10-wicket hauls, Ambrose was eclipsed by Richard Hadlee, Dennis Lillee, and Wasim Akram. Still, I feel Ambrose would have had a better strike rate if he played for a champion team like Australia.

Ambrose is rated 51st among the all-time great cricketers by Cristopher Martin Jenkins, while Geoff Armstrong ranks him 42nd. 

Both rank him behind Wasim Akram and Kapil Dev, but Armstrong, unlike Jenkins, places him above Lindwall. David Gower rated Ambrose 32nd, just behind Wasim and Mcgrath. 

Amongst the all-time great fast bowlers, I would rank Ambrose at 7th place, behind Sydney Barnes, Malcolm Marshall, Wasim Akram, Dennis Lillee, Glenn McGrath and Richard Hadlee. Barnes, McGrath and Hadlee’s figures spoke for themselves, while Wasim, Marshall and Lillee were more diverse. 

Ambrose did not prove his prowess on flat tracks like Wasim and Marshall or single-handedly bore the brunt of the pace attack as Hadlee. 

Ambrose would rank among the great match-winners of all time. Without hesitation, he would win my vote to be among the 40 best cricketers and 10 best pace bowlers of all time.


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