Curtly Ambrose never used to say very much when he was a cricketer. It is why he has called his new autobiography Time To Talk, and the early impressions are that not much has changed.
“I’m not a big talker,” he says, a trifle forebodingly, at the start of our interview. “Some guys like to be in the media every day, all the time, talking about themselves. I wasn’t one of those players. Plus, I always preferred to let the ball do the talking for me.”
A tally of 405 Test wickets testifies that cricket balls in the hands of Ambrose did not talk; they shouted. But, as it turns out, Ambrose certainly can talk when the mood takes him, and what animates him most is not talking about the past, but about the present. He sees unresponsive pitches all over the world, the rise of Twenty20, increasingly restrictive regulations on bowlers. And he concludes that cricket is a game becoming dangerously rigged in favour of the batsman.
“I’m not so sure if I would have lasted very long in this modern era,” he says, most alarmingly of all. “Because there are too many things against fast bowlers. I played with a lot of passion. I thrived on competition. And presently, the competition isn’t as fierce. There’s no excitement. That’s one of the reasons why some spectators have stayed away from Test cricket.
“When you look at all the things that are against the bowler, it’s a joke. For instance: in one-day cricket, a fast bowler oversteps the front mark, bowls a no-ball, gets penalised with a free hit. Now, how can that be fair?
“Look at the wide situation as well. Sometimes a ball pitches on the stumps, shifts down the leg side and misses the pads by half an inch. And you call a wide. How can you justify that? The batsman doesn’t get penalised for anything. The bowlers have no margin for error. It’s ridiculous. The game is too one-sided.”
England’s recent Test series against New Zealand was terrific entertainment, breaking records for scoring and run-rate. But it is part of a broader trend in Test cricket that is seeing more runs being scored more quickly than at any point in recent history. Matches like Australia’s three-day win against West Indies in Dominica last week are becoming ever rarer. For Ambrose, it has all gone too far. “There is no better sight in Test cricket, than a great fast bowler versus a great batsman. Spectators love the excitement. If I bowl a bouncer and the batsman smacks you out of the park, that’s excitement. Next thing, you hear from the umpire: ‘That’s one for the over.’ Now the fight is over.
“As a bowler, you want to be convinced that the batsman can do it again. He should be allowed to bowl another bouncer, or even two. I’ve seen someone like Sir Viv Richards versus Dennis Lillee back in the day, and there’s no better sight. Sir Viv will hit a few out of the park, he’ll hop and skip for a few, and that’s excitement. The people who are making these rules are killing Test cricket slowly.”
Ambrose will admit a personal interest. As the West Indies bowling coach, he is trying to rekindle the region’s passion for fast bowling: the same art that saw them dominate world cricket for two decades. In many ways, he was one of the last great custodians of a proud tradition: since he retired in 2000, not a single West Indian bowler has taken 200 Test wickets. Perhaps it is no coincidence that in the same 15-year period, the West Indies have won only four series against teams other than Zimbabwe or Bangladesh. They have not beaten Pakistan in a series since 2000, Australia since 1993, or South Africa ever.
“For the fast bowlers that are playing now, the pitches in the Caribbean are a big, big turn-off,” Ambrose says. “The pitches have become very flat, not good for fast bowling. The guys who are taking wickets in regional competition now are spinners, because the pitches are terrible. Until we get better cricket pitches, we will continue to struggle.”
And yet for all his dire warnings, Ambrose remains an optimist at heart: a true believer in the redemptive qualities of Test cricket. He felt a surge of pride every time he stepped out to represent the West Indies, and in tandem with coach Phil Simmons, he wants to restore that simple pride to the current team.
“Cricket is the only sport that unifies the Caribbean,” he says. “No politicians, no other sport, can unite us. That’s why we, as past cricketers, try to educate the younger generation. They don’t quite understand fully what cricket means to Caribbean people. They figure it’s a sport, it’s a game. But it’s more than that.
“When we were the best team, you could tell. The stadiums were always filled. Everyone had a radio to their ear. That’s all we had: cricket. There was a period when for 15 years we never lost a series. That’s probably unheard of in any sport. So I was very proud to be a part of that. Unfortunately, today we’re not the same team. But given time, we’ll get back.”
(Time to Talk’ by Sir Curtly Ambrose, with Richard Sydenham; Published by Aurum Press)