In June last year, at Sotheby’s in New York, a small piece of paper, magenta in colour with black printing, sold for just under $10 million at auction.
The British Guiana one cent stamp is said to be the rarest in the world, this, the only example known. Five months later, in a public library in Saint-Omer, in France, a previously unknown First Folio of the works of Shakespeare was discovered, having lain there for two centuries. And one month on from that, on a farm in the west of France, the estate of the deceased owner revealed, stored in barns and under shelters, 60 vintage cars of extreme rarity that had been there for 50 years. Rare things all, and do not even mention hens’ teeth and blue moons.
Before he was so honoured, Alec Bedser used to joke that the only bowler who had ever been dubbed was Francis Drake, but here, seated behind the world cup interview desk at the Basin Reserve, were two bowling knights, Sir Richard Hadlee and Sir Curtly Ambrose, 836 Test wickets between them, the one 63 and grey on top now, and a little more thickset than the slender greyhound of his pomp, the other barely into his fifties, and with no hair at all apart from a braided top-knot that pours from the top of his head and hangs like a tassle, the legacy of times spent playing reggae bass in Big Bad Dread and the Baldhead. Hadlee is a World Cup ambassador, and used to being sounded for opinions. Not Curtly, though. There is an oft-told story of a journalist colleague who, when Curtly was at his glowering peak two decades ago and more, sought to clarify a fact. So he asked the team manager Clive Lloyd, only to be overheard. “You want to know something, you ask Curtly,” said the bowler. “OK,” said the colleague, and put his question. “Curtly talks to no one‚“ was the response.
And there we have it: stamps, first folios, vintage Bugattis, all of them two-a-penny compared to public utterances from Curtly Ambrose when he was a player.
Yet here he was now, amiable, articulate, humorous, the very epitome of geniality and the antithesis of his bowling persona. Ambrose has been here with the West Indies team, as a sort of bowling coach-cum-mentor, not so much honing skills as sharpening minds and attitudes. In his day, he was a ferociously brilliant intimidating bowler, scowling, intense, taking his wickets at a shade under 21 runs apiece. This writer witnessed his burst of seven wickets for a single run in Perth to destroy Australia, and the manner in which he disposed of England for 48 in Trinidad when they looked on course for a win. I also saw his altercation with Steve Waugh, also in Trinidad (Waugh had the temerity to “cuss” him) and the successive rapid beamers that he sent past the head of Dermot Reeve when the Warwickshire batsman, on the way to a double century, had the audacity to sweep him (really) for six. Ambrose received a ban from his county, Northamptonshire, for that. Then there was the time, at Edgbaston, when he sent the first ball of the match, off a good length, straight over the heads of the batsman Mike Atherton and the keeper Junior Murray and one bounce into the sightscreen. “ You have a good day now,” he muttered to the batsman. Sir Vivian Richards, who played with a whole list of great pacemen, puts Ambrose alongside Malcolm Marshall, Andy Roberts and Michael Holding in his dream quartet.
He last visited Wellington 20 years ago as that silently brooding player, but he was talking away now: about sledging, and the manner in which the modern limited overs game is loaded against the bowler (he doesn’t like that at all), all said with a smile so wide you could drive a coach and horses through it. When prompted, he recalls the time when Dean Jones tried to get under his skin by asking him to remove his wristbands, and paid the price for antagonising the giant. And that occasion when the New Zealand opener Mark Greatbatch, playing in the 1992 World Cup, came down the pitch to Marshall and belted the latter for six. “He did the same to me,” remembered Ambrose.” I said to him, ’the pitch is 22 yards long, so don’t try and make it 18.’ He got the idea and stayed in his crease.”
But Ambrose didn’t and doesn’t approve of sledging. He described the incident with Greatbatch as talking to him “politely”, which brought more smiles. “I was never sledged,” he said. ”At 6ft 7in and bowling 90mph, it is not the best thing to do. I’ve heard other guys being sledged, though. I’ve had our batsmen come to myself and the other quicks to make a complaint and say ’you have got to take care of so and so’. Sledging happens and I don’t believe in it. I don’t believe it is part of cricket. If you are a good enough player you should let your bat or ball do the talking for you.”
So now we know what Curtly thinks. Curtly talks to no one?
Not any more he doesn’t.
This article was written by Mike Selvey in Wellington, for theguardian.com on Friday 20th March 2015 14.01 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010