Curtly Ambrose’s Comeback

After a break from the game, Antiguan fast bowler Curtly Ambrose is ready for action. A profile by BC Pires

  • Curtly confused: an appeal during the Third Test against England, 1990.  Photograph by Adrian Murrell/ Allsport
  • -
  • This is how it looks to the batsman. Photograph by David Cannon/Allsport
  • Curtly triumphant: Man of the Match in the Fifth Test against England in 1990. Photograph by Ben Radford/ Allsport
  • Celebrating the fall of Atherton for a duck in the Third Test against England in 1994- England 46 all out. Photograph by Ben Radford/ Allsport
  • People tend to look up to Curtly. Photograph by Chris Cole/AllSport
  • The Nissan Patrol was a prize for being international Cricketer of the Year. Photograph by Joe Mann/Allsport
  • Curtly Ambrose: ready for the Australians. Photograph by Ben Radford/ Allsport

In the small islands of the West Indies, parents sometimes try and help their children find a way in the world by giving them a big name and hoping they grow into it. The smaller your birthplace and the more unlikely it is that you will achieve distinction, the bigger your name tends to be.

Thirty-one years ago, in the small Antiguan village of Swetes, Hillie Ambrose blessed her fourth child with the name of Curtly Elconn Lynwall Ambrose, a very big name by the standards of either island or metropolis. But Hillie Ambrose’s son grew into it so well that he can be recognised today by his first name only; the man is bigger than the name.

Say “Curtly” anywhere in the cricketing world and everyone knows you’re talking about the game’s best pace bowler, the West Indian who almost single-handedly devastated England in the Third Test at the Oval in Trinidad last year, turning imminent English victory into humiliating defeat. For the rest of their lives the English team will live with the memory of 46 all out, the second-lowest English score of all time. Curtly was the man responsible. No one who saw him on that day will forget it. He had figures of six for 26 in the match, and took five of the first six wickets, a performance that won him the Man of the Series award.

England bounced back to win the Fourth Test in Barbados, but even then Curtly was in the limelight, though not in a warm glow. The last man out for the West Indies, and the game lost, he swung his bat at the stumps in self-disgust — and was promptly charged by the match referee with bringing the game into disrepute. In the ensuing hearing he said nothing in his defence and was fined heavily.

Days later in Antigua, at the end of the drawn Fifth Test that will be remembered only for Brian Lara’s record-breaking 375, Curtly made international cricket headlines again by refusing to leave for England and Northampton (the English county team for which he played from 1989 to 1994) in time for Northampton’s first match. Once more, the world cricketing press criticised him, this time for failing to honour his contractual obligations; once more, Curtly remained silent.

In fact, Curtly Ambrose is known for saying nothing. Before this one, he only ever gave two interviews off the playing field; one to Joseph “Reds” Pereira, the long-serving West Indian sports commentator from Guyana (who says Curtly should name his house “Bourda” after the Guyanese cricket ground where he made his regional and international debuts, and where he took his 200th wicket); and one to the regional television programme, Caribbean Sports Digest. Both times he limited questions to matters directly connected to his cricket.

The truth is he just doesn’t like being interviewed. Despite his spectacular successes on the field, Curtly Ambrose genuinely does not like being noticed; he prefers the background and, when he’s off the field, he feels he is entitled to fade away. It’s as “simple as that”, as he often says in conversation.

Curtly Ambrose is a straightforward man. When in Antigua, he lives with his mother and siblings in a small house in Swetes, the village of his birth, and is entirely happy there. If he goes to watch a football match at the Antigua Recreation Ground, he enters by the least conspicuous gate and seeks out the section of the crowd in which he is most likely to disappear. “If I’m standing in a group of people,” he says, “and you don’t know I am me, you wouldn’t know I was me.” He is just not the type to put on dark glasses at night.

He makes a clear distinction in his own mind between Curtly the cricketer and Curtly the ordinary man. On the field, he is the machine, the scowling pace bowler who wants to blow your stumps away; smiles are for the dressing-room (unless he takes a wicket, when he punches the air and grins broadly). As soon as he leaves the field, though, he becomes Curtly the ordinary man and has no interest whatever in the trappings of fame, whether interview or photo opportunity, black-tie dinner or flashy clothes. Off the field, Curtly Ambrose is a jeans and T-shirt man.

The difference between the two Curtlys is most obvious when you consider what motivates them. Curtly the cricketer plays for “the people”, not for himself. To begin with, he was more interested in “fast- moving” basketball (because “I like to be in the game all the time; in cricket, you can be out of the game doing nothing for hours”), and only tried out for cricket because the people of his village pressured him constantly. His immediate success “sort of got in the way” of his plan to become a professional basketball player.

He strives for perfection when playing for the West Indies “because Caribbean people don’t accept anything less.” For Curtly, West Indies cricket is the magical (and the only) thing that unites the English-speaking territories of the archipelago. The West Indies eleven are “the chosen few” who play for the pride and joy of the six million, and what matters most is that the West Indies must win. It doesn’t please Curtly Ambrose if he takes ten wickets but the team loses; it’s better that he takes fewer wickets, or doesn’t play at all, so long as the team wins. Cricket is all the West Indies are known for internationally, he says; it is all “the people” have.

If Curtly is motivated on the field by “the people”, off the field he is motivated by television. How much more ordinary can a man get? “You know there are drug addicts in town” he asks. “Well, I’m a TV addict! I can’t live without my TV. Cable, videos, I got it all. I watch TV all day if I’m not doing anything, I watch for hours; and if I like a movie, I’ll watch it over and over. I’ve seen 48 Hours a million times.”

Clint Eastwood is his favourite actor and something of a role model for Curtly. He admits to being introverted (since primary school days I’ve been a quiet guy, in a corner, watching to see what’s happening — it’s not something that happened now) but prefers to describe himself as a drifter (like Clint, in High Plains Drifter) rather than a loner. “A drifter is always moving around, hard to catch.” He lives the part consciously, to the extent of varying the route he takes to pick up his daughter from school, and it is now second-nature for him to choose a seat with a view of the entrance because “a wise man never sits with his back to the door.”

His other off-the-field role model is actor Eddie Murphy (though he finds Murphy “a little strong on language” – Curtly has to be very, very upset to want to cuss, and when he reaches that stage, he is more likely to become absolutely silent). He can recite streams of dialogue from 48 Hours and other Murphy movies, and will slip into movie characters played by Eddie Murphy) in mid-sentence. If you telephone him at home, he will more likely than not answer the phone in the name of one of Murphy’s screen roles. When you stumble past the familiar-but-unplaceably name and ask to speak to Curtly Ambrose, the same voice says “Speaking.” Curtly can be just a little weird.

It is the distinction he himself draws between his professional and his personal life that allows Curtly to do things like refusing interviews. (Although he doesn’t think interviews necessarily come with the turf. “It’s not part of the job of an international cricketer to give interviews; the captain and the manager, they have to; players can choose not to talk to the press.”)

The same mental separation of roles allows him to remain silent when confronted with professional crises he could easily explain or mitigate by saying the right thing. When he flashed his bat at the stumps in Barbados, for example, he thought the game was over – if it wasn’t, he reasoned, weren’t players and umpires who grabbed souvenir stumps also bringing the game into disrepute? The match referee saw it differently, and his was the opinion that counted; an apology might have saved him a hefty fine, but Curtly chose to say nothing more on the subject, because to go beyond his professional opinion was to venture into his private life. He would prefer to shut up and pay up.

Curtly has the same friends he had before he became an international cricketer. He has strong relationships with Keith “Ballu” Robinson, the man he worked with in the tyre repair shop before he started playing cricket professionally, and Maurice Francis, the man who employed them both. When he is in Antigua, Curtly Ambrose often hangs out at Maurice’s gas station, the Midway Service Center on the All Saints Road — and the world’s best bowler readily strips off his shirt to help repair tyres or unload containers.

“People come by the station and say, ‘Boy, what are you doing? You shouldn’t be fixing tyres.’ And I say, ‘What do you mean? I used to do this before! Not because I’m an international cricketer means I can’t do it. There’s nothing wrong with it, and what those people have done for me, not too many people would have. I’m not ashamed to help them out.”

And just what did those people do for him?

Well, Ballu did postpone his wedding date so that Curtly could attend, a grand gesture which the normally-reticent Curtly returned equally magnificently by making a speech at the reception. Ballu also claims to have taught him how to use the tyre machine, though Curtly insists he only had to watch Ballu at work to pick up all but the finest points of tyre repair. One day in 1983, after watching Ballu carefully for a week, the unemployed would-be basketball-star Curtly walked into the shop in Swetes where Maurice Francis started off in business and challenged Ballu, asserting he could fix a tyre by himself. He did, and started working full-time at the shop from then.

“If you’re honest,” says Ambrose, “ten years down the line, if someone asks you the same question, you can repeat the same answer; if you get caught up in lies, you have to try to remember what you said ten years ago.” Curtly Ambrose, the tyre-repairman, used to put his tips in the till at the tyre-shop. You could not want more honesty than that, says Maurice Francis.

In those days, the business was small enough for Maurice to know everything he had in stock without an inventory, and when things were slow, as they often were, he would revert to his original trade of masonry and build a house somewhere with Curtly and Ballu. He and Ballu built Curtly’s mother’s house and, when the time comes, they will build Curtly’s, too.

When Curtly is away, Ballu takes care of the Nissan Patrol which he won as International Cricketer of the Year; and it is Ballu who picks him up at the airport when he returns. The year he won the vehicle, the Antiguan government arranged a surprise airport reception and limousine motorcade into St John’s for him. The surprise backfired when Curtly shrank away from the pomp and ceremony. Ministers of Government tried to persuade him to take part, but he ignored the line of automobiles in the motorcade and hopped into Ballu’s stationwagon saying, “No limo, Ballu!”

The apple of Curtly’s eye, though, his “heart and soul”, is his four-year-old daughter, Tanya. “My daughter is my blood,” he says. “You can do me anything, but when it comes to her, that’s a different story.” Is she more important than cricket? “Of course” he says, vehemently. “Easily! If I had to give up cricket tomorrow to save her, I’d do it without a second thought. Simple as that.”

He has been tempted to give up cricket recently without Tanya being threatened in any way. The shoulder injury that kept him out of the West Indies’ winter tour of India was “a blessing in disguise”, the only way he could have a badly-needed break from cricket. He had been playing 12 months a year without a rest since his debut in 1988, and his psyche was more badly wounded than his shoulder.

It was exhaustion that prompted him to postpone his departure for Northampton and landed him in trouble with the press last year. “I was ready to go but it would have been like murder for me to leave for England that same night and play the next day. It was too taxing on my body, coming out of a Test series. It was a late decision, yes, but it was the feeling I had at the time and I act on my instincts.”

And his instincts tell him that he is going to feel revived and refreshed for the Australian tour of the Caribbean this year – which is bad news for Australia’s batsmen, just as his absence was good news for the Indians. The depleted West Indies team had a hard time in India, and Curtly will be looking for vengeance if he is properly reinvigorated.

He certainly will not have lost form due to drinking. Curtly Ambrose drinks three beers a year, about one every four months and doesn’t touch liquor at all. Ballu has never seen him drink a beer. “I don’t like the strong stuff. I watch guys drink beer after beer and can’t figure out why they would want to do that. Some get drunk! How can they do it? The taste! I struggle to drink one beer, I drink a beer for hours.”

The other thing Curtly does when he is not training or playing, or watching 48 Hours for the million and oneth time, is listen to music. He loves calypso (“I like the bounce of soca music”) and reggae (“Bob Marley, Peter Tosh type of stuff, conscious music, not this crazy dance hall thing people listen to nowadays”). He owns several guitars (he actually made himself a rough but functional banjo as a child) and plays the bass for the West Indies Ensemble, probably the least well-known pop group in the world, despite having West Indies captain Richie Richardson on lead guitar and the West Indies slip fielders on vocals. When he is finished with cricket, he would like to learn to play guitar and even become a professional musician because, “unlike cricket, you could be any age and still use music. ”

Maurice Francis, though, has other, more sentimental, post-retirement plans for Curtly. “I don’t want to have Curtly back working for me, selling tyres,” he says, “that would be a backward step. But, having said that, I look forward to the day, after his retirement, when he, me and Ballu could fix a flat tyre or two and, I don’t know, maybe build a house somewhere together.”