West Indies fast bowling great Curtly Ambrose feels slow pitches have contributed a lot to the decline of pacers in the Caribbean. Ambrose, who took 405 wickets in 98 Tests at an outstanding average of 20.99, said that of the current lot of pacers, Jasprit Bumrah has impressed him the most.
In a chat with Sportstar, Ambrose delves into the state of cricket in the West Indies, how the sport has increasingly become a batter’s game, and why he found Sachin Tendulkar one of the hardest to bowl to.
Clive Lloyd has said that cricket is the instrument of Caribbean cohesion and that it has brought together the Caribbean islands. With cricket currently struggling in the West Indies, do you think the concept is a thing of the past?
I wouldn’t say it’s a thing of the past. He is quite right when he says that cricket unites us as Caribbean people. And I’ve said many times over the years that it’s the only sport that unites the West Indies. Even different countries... with athletics, for instance, we’ve got Usain Bolt of Jamaica. Jamaica produces a lot of world-class athletes, and we support them.
But cricket is a unifying force. Back in the day, when we were the number one team in the world, everyone wanted to follow the West Indies. Nowadays, we’re not playing as well. It’s a bit of a turn-off for some spectators.
But we still have some talent here. I firmly believe that once we put a couple of structures in place, we will see a resurgence of West Indies cricket. It has taken a long time to get to this point, but the talent is there.
With the youngsters now focusing more on track and field, basketball, and other sports, what can the Caribbean nations do to entice them to pursue cricket?
The thing is, cricket is an expensive sport. They can play basketball. Football is the same thing. You need a ball, a shoe, and a goalpost; they’re good to go. As I mentioned, when we were the best team, every youngster wanted to play cricket. Now that we’re not doing as well, some youngsters are turning to football and basketball. Cricket has now become a very lucrative game. But we need proper structures in place. However, it’s about finance. We don’t have the money, unlike India or Australia. It’s very difficult for us at the moment. But as long as we can get proper structures and financing, cricket will come back.
In the first Test match in Dominica, the crowd was quite sparse. When a team is struggling, fans do not want to come. What can be done to get the crowd back inside the stadium?
We have been struggling for quite some time. Many of our spectators are a bit disappointed with our team’s performances. In their minds, they’re saying that we are not going to be too bothered to go to support. They want us to win. But sometimes the game starts like the one [first Test against India] in Dominica; it started on a Wednesday, which is midweek, during working hours. Back in the day, when we were the best team, spectators would probably take a day or two off from work to see the cricket because they knew they’d be entertained and probably win. Now, it’s not so. So, spectators are thinking twice. ‘Should I take a day off? Should I take two days off to be disappointed?’ It’s a fine line. It is difficult. I can understand how they feel because I feel the same way. I’ve always said to spectators that we were spoiled by the great teams. We were so accustomed to winning just about everything. It is hard to accept losing now.
Back in your day, when the West Indies were playing, it was a foregone conclusion that the West Indies were going to win.
Well, not exactly. Maybe before my time, in the Clive Lloyd era, everyone expected them to win. When I came in, we were still number one under Viv Richards, and they expected us to win. But we have lost games along the way as well. So I want to say we won, but not all of it.
Fast bowlers and the West Indians were almost synonymous. If you look at the last decade, those fearsome performances have become a thing of the past. What do you attribute as the main reasons for the decline in that particular department of the West Indies team?
The fast bowlers are still big. But I’ve said it many times before, and I will continue to say that it will require the groundsmen in the Caribbean to change. It starts with the poor surfaces we’re playing on. When you look at all the regional teams, you may have two fast bowlers and maybe three spinners. Two fast bowlers: you bowl a few overs, four or five overs in a spell, and then the spinners will take over. If there is a second new ball, then maybe the fast bowlers come back and go for a couple of overs again, and then the spinners come on. It’s been spin-dominated for many years. So, it’s a bit of a turn off. The fast bowlers are there, but they don’t do a lot of bowling because the nature of the surface is too low and slow. We need to prepare better cricket pitches with help for the fast bowlers. The spinners will come into play later on. St. Lucia has the best pitch in the Caribbean, with bounce and pace; that is good. And if you’re a good enough batter, you can score runs. Antigua has produced some good pitches from time to time as well.
What you said about the pitches is so true. In the first Test in Dominica, we saw Ravichandran Ashwin come in and start spinning the ball on the first day.
I can’t recall ever playing in a Test match or seeing a Test where a spinner was introduced within 10 overs. I think in Dominica, Ashwin came in maybe ninth. Between the two India spinners, I think they took 17 of the 20 wickets. That tells the story.
Now, talking about cricket leagues, The Major League Cricket (MLC)) was launched at the Grand Prairie cricket stadium. And there are other Leagues all around: the Big Bash, the Hundred, the Indian Premier League, the Lanka Premier League, etc. What are your thoughts regarding these leagues?
I’ve always preferred Test cricket. And you know why? The word says it all: Test. It is played over five days. It tests your skills and your temperament. It is exciting. Anyone can win on a given day. T20 now is extremely exciting. Everyone seems to be gravitating towards T20. I have no problems with T20s or one-day internationals. Because it brings people through the gates. You can go watch the match after work with your family. I love to play Test cricket. But then T20 is here. We all enjoy it. It’s very lucrative as well. But a lot of young players gravitate towards T20. Why? It’s a very short game. I have no problem with guys looking to set themselves up financially for the future. In cricket, one injury and it could be all over for you. But a lot of youngsters don’t quite learn the fundamentals of cricket. So, I believe if you can play the longer format of cricket, then you can always transpose that to T20. When you look at some of these great players who are playing T20 cricket and are doing well, they can play the longer format properly. A lot of young players can’t. When they leave T20 cricket and go to First-Class cricket, they struggle because they don’t have the understanding of how to construct an innings and back it up. I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t play T20, but if you get a chance to play First-Class cricket, for starters, you can learn the basics of batsmanship, and then you can come to the T20.
Is it tough to be a bowler in the modern era of cricket?
Cricket is now primarily for the batter. I am not happy with it. Not because I was a former bowler, but cricket has to be an even contest between bat and ball. At the moment, it’s very one-sided. 80 per cent of it favours the batter. Now, that, to me, is not good competition. And I’ve said it before, and I’ll consciously say it again: there’s no greater spectacle than that between a great fast bowler and a great batter. But too many rules and regulations have come into the game, and it cripples the fast-bowling department. For instance, if you’re a fast bowler and you bowl a short ball and the batter pulls it away for a six or a four, now you want to be able to come back and let the batter prove that he can do it again. Nowadays, if you bowl a short ball, it’s one for the over. So as a fast bowler, you have to think, ‘Should I bowl my second one and then the contest is over, or should I wait?’ So, you take that contest away, right away. I reckon the bouncer rule is just a waste. There’s no competition. I’m not saying go overboard, but a bowler should be able to bowl a little bit more. But nowadays, it’s difficult. Sometimes the person may miss the ball an inch on the left side, and we’re calling it wide. Now, I mean, whenever I do commentary, I usually really complain about it. How could you miss a delivery on the leg side by an inch and call it wide? Then on the offside, you could go very wide just inside that white line, which you will call the wide. All those simple things, to me, are what make it difficult for bowlers. A bowler oversteps the front crease, and it is a no-ball, and you get a free hit. How could that be right? Everything has gotten worse for the bowlers.
In the short format, especially, there have been a lot of innovations in stroke play (reverse sweep, paddle sweep, switch hit, etc.). What are your thoughts on that?
The times have changed. The game has changed. And again, it’s like I said, everything’s tailored towards the batsmen. Bowlers don’t have many weapons in their arsenal. Back in the day, you could bowl a couple of bouncers to answer the batsman. So, they would not take a chance on all those fancy shots. Because then they knew that if they did that, they could get a couple of short ones. They were more cautious.
We have to give credit to the batters also because, to be able to come up with these kinds of shots, they are also innovating their strategy. Just like the bowlers are coming up with different deliveries as time has evolved.
Yes, I must give credit to the batsmen because there’s a lot of innovation we’ve seen, and it makes it so exciting when it comes off. The spectators love that, and I have no problems with that. The guy has been innovative and tried things, but my only issue is that it’s totally in favour of batsmen.
There is so much talk about Bazball. The English have come up with the term. Do you think that if you were the captain of a nation playing Test cricket, that is the way to play Test cricket right now?
I’m not a big fan of names and all that stuff. To me, the contest is bat versus ball, and that is the key. Whatever names they’re calling them, I’m not too interested in all of that. I like to watch aggressive cricket, but smart cricket as well. Nothing reckless. I don’t like to see Test match cricket just played on a boring level where guys look at you and maybe just survive. I believe when you start a Test match, you have to start thinking about winning first. So, you play aggressively, you play smart cricket, you look to attack, and you look to win. Then, if the game has progressed to the fourth or fifth day and you realise that there is no chance of winning, you try to save the game. But I find too many teams will come out, and they’re thinking about looking to save the game first and then the chance of winning later. You have got to look to win first. And then, if you can’t win, you try to save it.
Recently, we’ve seen many examples where England is batting, they’re nine down, they put up 300 or so, and there is about half an hour to play for the day’s play to go. And then they declare because they want to have a crack at the opposition. In retrospect, you could continue batting, add a few more runs, and then perhaps get that cushion at the tail end, which is what recently happened as well in the Ashes.
Yeah. Well, that first Test match, the Ashes, when England declared inside the first day, less than 300, 290, I think it was. I didn’t agree with it. I thought that was madness because you’re talking about the first day of a Test match. First day of a match. We know how important the Ashes series has always been between the two nations. In my opinion, they should have put it on until the next day, accumulated as many runs as they could, and then taken it from here. Now, even if England had gone on to win that game, my opinion would remain the same. It was a bad declaration. They lost again.
What is your overall view of the state of international cricket? I’m talking about T20, ODI, and Test cricket. Your overall views of international cricket?
I’ve heard people say that Test cricket is dying. I’ve been hearing that for many years. Test cricket is going nowhere. Yes, some nations are far ahead of the rest. But I still believe Test cricket will survive. I just believe maybe for the lesser nations, whether that’s with some of the bigger nations, we need to do something to make it more attractive, make some incentives, something to spark that growth again.
But Test cricket is not going anywhere. Cricket, in general, is very strong. Even though T20 seems to be getting most of the year, except for series like The Ashes, and that’s a big one. But I think cricket is in good hands.
You’ve been to India to play cricket for the West Indies. What are your best memories of your trips to India and cricket there? What did you enjoy the most?
Unfortunately, I’ve never played a Test match in India. But I’ve played one-day games. I’ve been there quite a few times. And one thing I can say about India is that I don’t think any other nation is as passionate about cricket as India. All over the world, everyone is passionate about and loves the game of cricket, but there’s something about India. They have the numbers, obviously, but they’re passionate about cricket. I’ve always enjoyed my time in India, with no issues whatsoever.
What about Indian food?
Well, that’s a different story altogether. Coming from Antigua and the Caribbean, our food is different from the food in India. I’m not big on spicy food. When I go to India, it’s a little bit of a struggle for me to eat because there are a lot of spices and all that stuff. Curry and all that — I’m not big on that.
Do good cricketers, whether batters, bowlers, wicketkeepers, or fielders, become good coaches?
Well, first of all, a classic question. Not every great cricketer can become a great coach. And I’ll tell you why. Some of these great players of the past were so naturally gifted that things seemed to come relatively easily for them. Coaching is a different thing altogether. You have to understand the players. You have to exercise a lot of patience and man management as well. Some of these great players who are so naturally gifted probably wouldn’t understand that a cricketer of lesser talent will take a lot more time to develop. But because you’re so supremely talented and things come to you easily, you tend to get upset when the player is not measuring up the way you expect them to in a short space of time. So, some great players may not be good coaches. That’s one thing. But yes, I believe that to be a great coach as well, you have to play the game at some level, at some high standard, to understand. You have to be in it. Because if you never play the game and you want to explain something to a player or players, it may be guesswork. You might think this may work, but that may not work. But if you play the game at a high level, then you play through the thick and the thin, and you can find ways to get above the rocks that way. I think it’s important to be able to play the game at a high standard to be able to have a good coach.
Is it necessary or required, in your opinion, to get a coach from the same country that you belong to, or is it better to bring a coach from another country?
I believe that any team that wants to succeed and be the best should always look for the best possible coaches, whether it’s locally or overseas. I don’t discriminate because if I have a team, I’m going to look for the best coaches possible, whether they’re local or overseas. But the thing is, sometimes when a coach comes from overseas and doesn’t quite understand the culture, like, for instance, in the West Indies, and they bring their culture here, there are conflicts because they don’t quite understand our culture in the Caribbean. So sometimes players may rebel a little bit. If you’re bringing a foreign coach, I think it’s very important that the foreign coach learn the culture to know how to deal with certain players. You should not just come up with your way and say, ‘This is the way.’ It doesn’t work. If I were a coach, let’s say for the Indian team or a foreign team, I could not just go and say, ‘Okay, you know what? I’m from the Caribbean; I’m from the West Indies, so this is how we’re going to go.’ No. I have to learn the culture, know what works and what doesn’t, and then go along.
In your career, you’ve seen many coaches coach different teams. Do you have one or two that stand out?
Well, it’s difficult to tell because I haven’t done any work outside the West Indies. The coaches I’ve worked with in the West Indies are guys I played with. I know them, and they know me. It’s very easy to work alongside them. So, it’s difficult to say about other coaches.
You bowled to a lot of batters. You bruised them badly. Who is the best batter, in your opinion, that you’ve bowled at, and why?
I’ve been asked that question many, many times. It’s very difficult to pinpoint just one particular player.
I’ve had the privilege of playing against some great batters in my time. Some days you just can’t get them out, and it’s good. On other days, you get them cheaply. Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting — those two guys come to mind. Steve Waugh is the other one. He may not be as talented as Sachin or Ponting. But in terms of sheer heart and sheer guts, he was a stubborn cricketer. You’ll have to knock him out to get him out. Those guys I always have a lot of respect for. But there are others, of course. But when I’m talking about great players, those guys come to mind.
What is it about Sachin Tendulkar that makes it difficult for bowlers?
Sachin is one of those players. It doesn’t matter what you throw at him. He hardly ever shows any emotions. He hardly ever looks baffled. If a bowler could go past his edge a couple of times, some batters would get frustrated and slam the bat in the corner. With Sachin, you’ll never see the man searching. Sachin may go towards square leg and maybe tap his bat a couple of times. Again, he would regain his composure. He doesn’t give you a chance. He’s very compact. You have to get him out. Steve Waugh is a fighter. He will take blows. He will hop and skip and look out of sorts, but he’s never going to give his wicket. You have to get him out. Ponting is a wonderful talent, and he has all the shots. He will give you a little bit of a chance. He’ll come after you. But Sachin was just different. Even if he knew he was struggling, he never showed it; he kept it to himself. He achieved everything in cricket. I played against guys with huge egos. Sachin was different. His humility was his strongest asset.
Have you met him recently?
The last time I saw him could have been the 2016 T20 World Cup in India, when I was part of the coaching staff. We played together in a tournament in the USA.
Back in the day, and I’m sure you can correct me if I’m wrong, you didn’t have that much advanced video analysis to figure out which ball was most likely to get Ricky Ponting, Sachin Tendulkar, or Steve Waugh out. It was all you.
That’s something that, whenever I’m coaching, I keep telling the players that when I played and before my time as well, there was no video analysis. We will have memories. If a guy scored a hundred against us, you go to a team meeting, and then you say, ‘Okay, he scored most of his runs this way. He didn’t look comfortable this way.’ It’s a memory. So, if we don’t remember, we have to try to work things out in the game. All about memory.
You took 405 Test wickets. Is there one wicket that you would say you cherish?
No. For me personally, in every team, basically, the top six batters or so are usually the best in the team.
So as an opening bowler, if I could strike out two or three of those top five or six, I would feel satisfied. It gives me more satisfaction than if I get nine, 10, or 11. I mean, they all add up in the end. It’s a number. Yes, but those top five or six always gave me the most pleasure.
Of the current lot in international cricket, in your opinion, who is the best batter?
Well, for the last few years, I think Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson, Joe Root, and Steve Smith. For me, those four, for the last decade or so, are the top four.
Steve Smith is in the form of his life. But he’s not stable like a Tendulkar. He’s moving around. Would that play on the bowler’s mind?
It probably could because, as bowlers, you’re accustomed to batsmen standing still and tapping the ground while batting. Well, nowadays, most of them keep their bats up in the air, but they’re still. But Smith is very fidgety, and he’s not the most attractive-looking player. He’s a run machine.
That tells us that all this theory about you having to be in a certain position and have your elbow point in this direction is just talk. Every player has their style. Shiv Chanderpaul, for instance, had a very open stance, and people said that he had an awkward stance. Brian Lara had such a high backlift, and people said you could york him. But it is all individual style.
Who is the best fast bowler in the current lot?
That’s a good question. It’s a tough one. In the Indian team, you have (Mohammed) Shami and (Jasprit) Bumrah. Bumrah is not here for the series in the Caribbean, because of an injury, I think.
He’s different. I’ve never seen a bowler like that before, and he’s highly effective. I do like Bumrah. I mean, yeah, but there are quite a few good boys.
But I must admit, even though I watch cricket a bit, I don’t watch it as much as most people do. Even when I was playing, I didn’t watch it much. I take a little peek to see what’s happening, and I go to a corner, play some music in my ears, and I just relax because I find watching cricket for an extended period makes me tired. I don’t watch it a lot. When I’m coaching or commentating,
I have no choice. Outside of that, I don’t watch a lot. Pat Cummins of Australia is a decent bowler. He does not have any extra pace, but he bowls well.
I want to take you back to February 1, 1993. The third day of the fifth Test match between Australia and the West Indies. Curtly Ambrose, 7 for 25, with one unforgettable deadly spell of seven wickets for one run. Australia was all out for 119. Your current co-commentator, Ian Bishop, took the wickets of Justin Langer and Steve Waugh. Shane Warne was run out. And the rest of the seven batters — what did you do to them?
I remember clearly that after we won that game in Adelaide by 1-1 to level the series, we won a piece with one to go. And truth be told, everyone who has seen the game feels we should have won the game long before that.
Some questionable, unfair decisions went against us, but that’s part of the game. So, we won the game.
But anyway, we left for Perth, and history was on our side because we had never lost a Test in Perth.
Even when we went to Australia in 1975-76 and lost 5-1, the single game we won was in Perth. We were confident that we could win that game.
We got to Perth, and the morning of the game, when I saw the pitch, I remember saying to Richie Richardson, our captain, ‘If you win the toss, we’ll win the Test match.’
The pitch looked conducive to fast bowling. It looked really good, with pace. The great Allan Border won the toss.
To our surprise, he decided to bat first. I was like, ‘What? Are you sure?’ We were really happy because we wanted to bowl first. However, in the morning session, it didn’t go very well for me. It was a little bit offline and a little bit short. I didn’t go very well.
As you mentioned, Bishop took two wickets before lunch. I was disappointed in myself. We went into lunch thinking, ‘How did you mess up on this surface?’ I was itching to get back out after lunch.
I remember Richie asking me, ‘Big fellow, how are you feeling?’ I said, ‘Just get ready to go because I want to make amends for wasting that early morning session.’ I went out, and then I was focused on getting it right.
Then I got back behind, and that was it. After that, I think I got Boon caught by Richie, and then everything else fell into place. I just couldn’t do anything wrong. Everything was right there, keeping them on the edge.
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