by Zaheer E. Clarke
Published April 20, 2015
It’s a little past midnight and Hillie is up listening to her transistor radio with her bell nearby. Her neighbours in this small village, called Swetes, are fast asleep, unaware of the thunderous awakening they are about to receive. On the other hand, Hillie’s son is halfway around the world, at Perth, and is bitterly upset with his performance in the previous two hours before lunch. What transpired thereafter is described by many as “seventh heaven.”
Hillie’s boy, like an unrelenting torrent from the Swan river end, produced a deadly spell. He took seven wickets while conceding one run in this winner-takes-all finale against Australia in 1993. Seven times Hillie jumped for joy and rang her bell fanatically. Seven times Australia batsmen walked to the pavilion, bemused at how they returned so quickly. Seven times Hillie’s boy raised his hands, with index fingers to the sky, in celebration of another victim. Regrettably, the Perth curator and Hillie’s neighbours were also victims. The curator lost his job before tea, while Hillie’s neighbours lost their sleep before dawn, after her son, the executioner was finished.
Hillie’s son, known more popularly outside Swetes, Antigua as Curtly Ambrose, is described by many as “the most lethal bowler of his generation”. Tony Cozier, a cricket commentator, alludes to Curtly as “terrifying” and “the quiet assassin”. Matthew Hayden, a batsman many bowlers likened to ‘Hades’, said Ambrose is “the greatest bowler I ever faced.”
Strangely, neither cricket or bowling was ever his first love. As a boy in that small village, football, basketball, and music were his passions. Even so, it was as an apprentice carpenter, following in his father’s footsteps, where some believe he learned to convey pride in whatever he did. It was there some say this once reluctant apprentice learned the importance of mastering one’s tool. His tool, some may ask, was bowling a cricket ball, and his workshop was the minds of hapless batsmen, on a red square many call a pitch.
Former England captain Mike Atherton, the batsman who more than all else Ambrose used his tool menacingly, once articulated. “At his best, there is no doubt that (Curtly) 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”.
Looking back, it seems the English endured his mastery more than all else. In 1990, at Bridgetown, with Jack Russell batting for over five hours in the second innings, Hillie rang her bell eight joyous times. Luckily for her neighbours, it was during the day and they were all awake this time. Many of them were listening and watching with her as her boy took eight English wickets for 45 runs. West Indies went on to win the match and later the series from certain defeat.
Amazingly, it was just six short years before, Curtly yielded to Hillie’s request and played his first cricket match for his village, Swetes. Eerily, it was only two years before, Tony Cozier dubbed him as Joel Garner’s “ready-made replacement” after his debut series for West Indies. Ironically, it was but a few weeks before, he was dropped for the start of this England series. Yet, here on this day, he was fulfilling Hillie’s dream and embracing his calling: this giant huffing “fee fi fo fum, I smell the blood of Englishmen”.
Four years later when the English returned, Hillie’s boy was once again huffing: “fee fi fo fum, …”. England looking solid, for the first time on the tour, needed only 194 runs for victory, with an hour on the fourth day and the entire fifth day to spare. Hillie’s son, the forever hero in times of despair, produced arguably the most destructive evening spell witnessed in Test cricket.
With the first ball that fateful evening, Curtly had captain Mike Atherton plumb in front, and the proverbial, “Cut off the head and the rest will follow” rang true. England never recovered. Hillie’s bell rang 6 times as he took 6 wickets for 24 runs, leaving England shocked and bloodied at 46 all out by morning. Such was the lethality of his performance, in the face of certain defeat, that his first innings performance of 5 wickets for 60 runs is often forgotten.
The Australians, however, have not forgotten, nor do I think have forgiven Dean Jones for his transgressions in his effort to irritate Hillie’s boy giant during the 1993 World Series Final match. Jones, through the umpire Terry Prue, got Curtly to reluctantly remove his white wristbands. Initially, Ambrose thought Jones was joking. Consequently, it was Dean’s Australian teammates who felt the indignation of an angered giant as they went in to bat. Ambrose took 5 wickets for 32 runs. However, as the Australian batsmen put it, Ambrose went from “military medium to express pace” due to Jones actions. It is alleged that after Jones realized his transgressions, and how it was destroying his side, he said to Curtly: “You can put them back on”. However, it was too late. The assassin had struck, and Jones could not find safety, neither on the field or in his own dressing room.
Steve Waugh, another Australian, is cited as saying that Ambrose is the “guy he respected the most in any team”. However, he almost suffered a similar fate as Jones, when he swore at Ambrose during the famous 1995 Test series against West Indies. Waugh, annoyed by Ambrose’s deadly stare, later admitted that his rash tongue was a “moment of madness” on his part. Ambrose, often known by the line “Curtly speaks to no man” responded to Waugh on this day. The giant was fired up, and the bouncers were coming at Waugh’s throat repeatedly thereafter. Only West Indian captain Richie Richardson was able to intervene and prevent an all out war from Hillie’s boy. As Waugh put it, you were “never on top of him”, you only “survived against him” if the gods allowed.
I suppose the world owes Hillie, a debt of gratitude for her fanatical incessant behaviour that one of her sons would play cricket for West Indies. Her dream emerged long before any Antiguan represented this collection of proud people. Thank you, Hillie Ambrose, for giving us “the ruthless competitor” from Swetes.
© Zaheer Clarke
From the “Lies & Statistics” Column in the Western Mirror (Published Monday, April 20, 2015)