I wish Michael Atherton was there to see it. It’s past midnight and Curtly Ambrose is singing, dancing and creating quite a joyous ruckus in an Antigua casino. Atherton would have seen a deathly cold stare, pride-drenched sweat, and a windmill-wave of arms after he had fallen to yet another screamer; 17 times he succumbed to Ambrose in Tests. It’s a different Ambrose these days. Genial. Friendly. And someone who laughs a lot. “Atherton was not a bad player and he has scored hundreds against me,” Ambrose said. “But people only remember the number of times I got him out.”
Finally, after all these years, Ambrose is doing the things he wanted to do all his life. He never liked cricket but was pushed by his mother’s fanatic love for the game to take up the sport. “My mother basically forced me to play cricket. And then to try and please her, I did. And like they say, the rest is history. So I guess she knew I had a talent.”
He was a reluctant cricketer. “I never liked cricket. It was just a job.” Then how can someone who didn’t like the game go on to achieve greatness? “I am a proud man.” That’s it. No follow-ups. Nothing. It says everything that’s to say about him. When you probe further he adds, “My pride basically was my motivation. I want to be the best at whatever I do. I strive for excellence. I don’t like to lose. Once I decided cricket was going to be my job, I just wanted to be the best. It’s a lot of hard work.”
It took him two years to decide that cricket was going to be his job. On the day he was first selected for West Indies, he played basketball. “I wasn’t still serious.” The people in his village, Swetes, took the initiative to make him so. “They didn’t let me register into the basketball and football association any more. So that’s when I realised that if my villagers can be so protective and be so concerned about me being a cricketer then I said okay let me just take this thing serious.”
He was initially called a “little bird” as they thought he was like the “big bird” Joel Garner. The tall Ambrose laughs as he says that nickname. Back to the show at the casino. The little bird leaps out from the stage and enters a song-and-dance routine. He waves his arms, involves the audience and sings. The crowd respond. They laugh, they dance and they sing back. Ambrose can’t stop smiling. Behind him, Richie Richardson is quietly playing out his role of the rhythm guitarist. His wife is in the audience and dancing. Ambrose’s wife is lapping it all up, sitting in the chair. All around, the crowd go berserk. Ambrose beams. His band, Spirited, is going from strength to strength.
“I don’t like talking about cricket,” he says the next day. “As a matter of fact, Desmond Haynes said to me one time, that he had never met a cricketer like me. Because I don’t talk cricket. Other guys will talk cricket at breakfast, talk cricket at dinner. I don’t do that. Once I get to the cricket ground, I switch onto cricket. Once I leave the ground, I switch off. I don’t want nothing to do with cricket. So Haynes said to me that I am a strange person.”
Strange he might have been, but he was bloody intimidating. Was there any player he found a tough nut to crack? “David Boon of Australia was an extremely tough batsman. You know you have some batsmen who you can look at the eyes and know that they are not comfortable. It’s only a matter of time before you get him out. Boon is as tough as they come. Steve Waugh was very tough as well. At times, he could look out of sorts. But I can tell you, he’s tough. He’s not going to surrender.”
The obvious thing, then, was to ask about that famous spat with Waugh. It was a hair-raising moment: Ambrose staring down at Waugh as if he meant to hit, Waugh looking back icy cold, and Richardson trying to drag Ambrose out of the crime scene. “You know I am not usually like that. That particular series in 1995 we were in danger of losing our No.1 status. And we were behind in the series and I got a little frustrated. He said something to me that I didn’t like and I responded and we said a thing or two. But it started right there on the pitch and ended right there. We still had mutual respect between us.”
What were you really thinking at that moment? Would you have hit him? “Well I wanted to. I was so frustrated I wanted to vent it out. It was out of character because I am not like that.” Intimidation by that cold stare was his style though.
“I think every fast bowler should be aggressive and try to intimidate the batsman. Not verbally. I will stare at you and look at you cruel. Like I am gonna ... Sometimes I don’t mean a thing. I used to do that a lot. I stare a lot. It was part of my weapon. So you should intimidate them. Soften them up basically to get them out.
“But I don’t like sledging, I have never done that. I don’t think that is part of cricket. If you are good at what you do, you shouldn’t resort to sledging to be successful. Because if you do that to get success, then you know that you are not any good. So I let the ball do the talking. I will stare at you and look at you very mean and all that because it was part of my weapon.”
Then there were those special celebrations that came to be associated with Ambrose. “It was all in the heat of the moment. There was nothing that I planned. You react to the situation. Sometimes you look back and think wow you can’t believe that you are behaving like that. You can’t rehearse, you just react.” That was then. Ambrose is a lot more relaxed these days. Sing. Dance. Smile. Here is the all-new Ambrose.
Sriram Veera is a former staff writer at ESPNcricinfo