By Zaheer E. Clarke
Published February 1, 2016
Republished February 9, 2016, in the Jamaica Observer
Sir Curtly Ambrose is among the all-time bowlers in Test cricket. When cricket pundits are compiling their all-time XI teams, he is always one of those featured to start alongside other bowling legends like Malcolm Marshall, Wasim Akram, Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan, and others.
Ambrose – the player – was ruthless, deadly and feared. His mere presence on the field or the sight of him running towards you with a leather ball in hand, had many batsmen’s knees knocking, hearts fluttering, and hands limp, in fear. Nevertheless, great past players don’t necessarily translate into great coaches. And it would seem that might be the case for Ambrose.
In the past 18 months, the bowling unit for West Indies has looked listless with Ambrose – the bowling consultant – in charge. Honestly, West Indies has been listless in all departments – batting, bowling and fielding – for almost 21 years. However, has the West Indies as a team gotten significantly worse in the bowling department under Ambrose’s tutorship? And if so, should he be fired?
In a recent interview with Fox Sports, reputable youth coach Franklyn Stephenson was quoted as saying, “He (Ambrose) was a fantastic bowler but he’s the worst coach I’ve seen.” Not a glowing endorsement by any means. In the article, Stephenson didn’t pinpoint specific areas under which Ambrose has failed as West Indies’ bowling coach or consultant. Nevertheless, I had to evaluate if there was any truth to his statements. How has the team performed bowling-wise under Ambrose’s tutelage?
Ambrose was appointed bowling consultant for West Indies in June 2014 and shortly thereafter with Clive Lloyd anointed the head of the selection committee, Ottis Gibson was unceremoniously relinquished of his title as West Indies’ Head Coach by Board president Dave Cameron. Gibson was appointed the West Indies job in February 2010 by former board president Julian Hunte after three successive Australians attempted to steer the battered and tattered West Indian ship. Before Gibson’s appointment, for six months David Williams was the interim head coach. Before Williams, John Dyson was the chief man in charge, and before Dyson was David Moore, and before Moore was Bennett King, West Indies first foreign head coach.
To be fair, Ambrose is not the current West Indies head coach. That title currently rests ever so tentatively with Phil Simmons. So why are we comparing Ambrose’s tenure as bowling consultant to head coaches, including Gibson?
Gibson brought to the West Indies helm his experience both as a past bowler for the West Indies and as the bowling coach of England, one of the élite world teams, prior to his appointment in 2010. Almost immediately we saw noticeable improvements in West Indies overall play, especially in the bowling department. Similarly, with Ambrose steering the West Indies bowling attack as the consultant, we are expecting more of the same.
Table 1. West Indies batting and bowling averages in the three formats of the game (Tests, ODI & T20) during specific periods from October 2004 – January 2016.
(Oct 2004 – Feb 2010)
(Feb 2010 – Aug 2014)
(Aug 2014 – Jan 2016)
1. Pre-Ottis Gibson era includes the trio of Australian coaches, Bennett King, David Moore, John Dyson and interim head coach David Williams.
2. Higher batting averages are better; lower bowling averages are better.
During the Australian coaching invasion, West Indies bowlers’ averaged 42.07 in Tests, 32.56 in One Day Internationals (ODI) and 24.60 in Twenty20 Internationals (T20I). Disturbingly, at the highest level of the sport, we won only four (4) of the 47 Tests played during that period spanning from October 2004 to February 2010: an anorectic period indeed in West Indies history.
When Ottis Gibson was hired as the head coach, West Indies bowlers’ averages improved significantly, particularly in the longest and hardest format. The bowlers’ averages fell to 34.85 in Tests (from 42.07), to 30.32 in ODIs (from 32.56), and to 21.07 in T20Is (from 24.60). Please note: lower bowling averages are better.
Since Gibson’s expulsion from the West Indies setup and Ambrose solely in charge of the bowling department or its consultancy, the West Indies’ bowling averages have regressed significantly to pre-Gibson days, or worse. As it now stands, the bowlers are averaging 41.78 in Tests, 36.88 in ODIs, and 36.14 in T20Is under Ambrose’s sole charge. This is extremely disappointing given the optimism that accompanied Ambrose’s appointment.
In all honesty, cricket is not a single department sport. Your performances in all departments are connected. Nevertheless, it has been my view and the view of the esteemed cricket analysts that in order to dominate Test cricket, your bowling has to be giant strides above everyone else. This is supported by over 14 decades of cricket statistics. All of the great teams had this common trait: the post-WWII to the 1950s Australians, the 1980s West Indians, the 2000-06 Australians and the 2007-14 South Africans of recent vintage.
Of late, West Indies has done well in the shortest format of the game, T20 cricket, and several individuals believe this format is the future of cricket. Currently, West Indies is ranked number one (#1) in the world in this format but even this dominance is under threat with West Indies’ bowling averages sky-rocketing from 21.07 (under Gibson) to 36.14 (under Ambrose tenure). Speak of sky-rocketing, in the recent Australian tour, West bowlers’ averaged 124.08 runs per wicket. In all Test series of two or more matches, only Bangladesh has turned in a worse performance in a series which had, at least, one of the matches ending in a win or loss.
For West Indies to return to dominance in world cricket, as all its fans hope, our bowling has to improve and improve by quantum proportions. Not regress. Ambrose’s tenure has been marred with the usual West Indian instability and the best players not being available at all formats due to differences between the board and players. In the past 18 months, the players have walked off a tour due to pay disagreements and players have been seemingly ostracized from team selection due to their disquiet about these issues. Let it be pellucid, I’m not defending these players and their performances. In the past 21 years, barring Brian Lara and recently retired Shivnarine Chanderpaul, there weren’t many performances to write home about. Albeit, the players must improve, our batting must improve, our fielding must improve, our bowling must improve and someone has to get them to improve.
In the bowling department, however, Ambrose is not getting the guys to improve, just yet. Though the best players have migrated to the shorter formats, we have seen a common decline in the bowling in all three formats. Should Ambrose be sacked? It might be justified. However, I say let’s give him another 6-12 months or thereabout and see if things improve. If they do not, then West Indies needs to find someone else.
Did someone say, “Ottis Gibson?”
Until next time…
© Zaheer Clarke
Writer’s note: All statistical data for this article was obtained from ESPN Cricinfo’s Statsguru database on January 31, 2016.
Editor’s note: At the time this article was written West Indies was ranked number one (#1) in T20I. By the date of publication, they have slipped to number two (#2).
From the “Lies & Statistics” column in the Western Mirror (Published February 1, 2016)