Saturday, September 15, 2012

A is for Ambrose

Cricket is an in-depth game, it’s full of idiosyncrasies and nuances unlike any other sporting theatre. We are all drawn to the great game for different reasons – the individual battles, the statistics, the history – the list is endless. 

My cricketing A-Z isn’t about detailing the basics – that path is well-trodden. It’s written for things I love in cricket - those that have made an impact on me, that draw me to the game. They may not be the played in the “V” but they are a part of what makes cricket sing for me. It’s unlikely they’ll match your list but they’ll offer a trip down cricket’s memory lane, and hopefully some debate – there’s little better than healthy discussion.

Please excuse the strong New Zealand and West Indian bias – they shaped my love of our great game.

Over the coming weeks (read: months) I’ll work my way from A to Z, and given more time to reflect I’ll no doubt have to back track and make some additions, but here’s a start.

Cricket is a highly technical game – at times players, and coaches, make it overly so. There is little better to watch than a technically correct batsmen hold a pose as he on drives a fierce quick or caresses a back foot cover drive through a packed off side field, but there are other ways. The MCC handbook doesn’t work for everyone – cricket isn’t played by robots that can programme themselves to keep their elbow high, stay perfectly side on and play each ball on its merits.

There is more to our great game than simply pushing a length ball back down the wicket – and as cricket ages the options seem to multiply. The growth of one day cricket and the explosion of T20 have brought agriculture to the wicket that once belonged in green and pleasant lands – purists may baulk but others are drawn to players peppering cow corner and finding new ways to clear the rope, regardless of aesthetics.

Cynics call it slogging but that seems so derogatory and unjust – we may write of the method but scorecards only record the outcome, and isn’t that the end goal? Cricket doesn’t have to be technically correct to be effective – agricultural, cross batted heaves have their place.  Who doesn’t delight in the exuberance of Virender Sehwag, the brashness of Chris Gayle or the audacity of Kevin Pietersen in full flight? And Lance Cairns? Ask anyone who was at the MCG on 13 February, 1983

Imran Khan. Ian Botham. Kapil Dev. Richard Hadlee.

I grew up in the last era of the allrounder - players who if they had chosen just one discipline would have still made their national side, whether as a batsman or a bowler. Their proficiency in both added a dimension to test cricket that seems to have died, unless you include the new generation of wicket keeper batsmen.

A true allrounder is a game changer – they offer opportunities to alter the balance of a cricket side more than any other player. The four greats of the 1980s went hammer and tong for the number one spot – they stood head and shoulders above the trailing pack. For over a decade the four dazzled crowds with bat and ball, leading their sides from the front with calculated aggression, unbreakable belief and a relentless push for victory.

The highlights from four of the games’ greats were boundless, but:
  • Imran Khan would sit clearly at the top of the pile if averages determined superiority – he averaged 37 with the willow and 22 with the ball. That his averages improved to 50 and 19 during the final 10 years and 51 tests of his career show the true mark of a man whose political roots run deep in his homeland but whose cricket was almost solely played in England. It was fitting that his international swansong saw him lead Pakistan to victory against England in the 1992 Cricket World Cup at the MCG – after top scoring for his side with 72, Imran signed off with the final English wicket to bow out with the last word.
  • Ian Botham was a cricketer without fear – he wore his heart on his sleeve and played the game with a penchant for the dramatic. He was one of a rare breed of cricketers who could change the course of a match singlehandedly, and in short time.  Though I was but a boy, it is hard to go past Botham’s Ashes – after a draw and a loss in the first two tests at home, Botham resigned the captaincy but still led his charges to victory, in his own unique way. It’s hard to argue against Australian captain Kim Hughes’ assessment that Botham was the difference between the two sides – England came from 0-1 down to win the six test series 3-1. In the third test, England was asked to follow-on still 227 runs behind. With Ladbroke’s offering odds of 500-1 for an English victory, defeat looked assured as they stumbled to 135-7 in their second innings before Botham struck an unbeaten 149 at a run a ball. Willis’ 8-43 sealed an unlikely English victory and lined the pockets of Australia’s Marsh and Lillee – how times have changed. In the following test, England again looked gone with Australia on 105-5 chasing 151 for victory before a remarkable spell of five wickets for a solitary run in 28 balls consigned them to consecutive defeats – Botham was the toast of the cricketing world. 
  • Kapil Dev is unquestionably India’s greatest fast bowling allrounder, and an Indian quick without peer. Though not as prodigious with the ball as the others he so seldom bowled on pitches at home with any assistance. He retired from the game having edged past Hadlee’s world record 431 wickets, extending it by a further three. With the bat he could hit the ball whenever and wherever he chose.  Never was it better illustrated than in the first test against England at Lord’s in 1990. With 24 required to avoid the follow-on and the last pair at the crease Dev struck four successive sixes off the hapless Eddie Hemmings to rescue his side, if only temporarily.    
  • Richard Hadlee raised New Zealand cricket to a level above its place in the natural order. For over a decade they boxed above their cricketing weight. As a consequence most Kiwis seem to believe it’s attainable to achieve such heights again though it’s unlikely New Zealand will ever again enjoy a 12 year unbeaten test stretch at home. His crowning glory? The annihilation of Australia at the ‘Gabba – November 1985. Hadlee terrorised the Australian batsmen in the first innings with a career best 9-52 in a score sheet that included R J Hadlee in all ten dismissals after he caught the ninth wicket to fall off the bowling of Vaughn Brown. 6-26 in the second dig for match figures of 15-123 left Australia humiliated in a match that is seared in the mind of every Kiwi cricket tragic.

Ambrose, Curtly
I make no apology for my love of West Indian cricket - the Fire in Babylon era shaped my perceptions of what cricket should be. Hadlee, Crowe and Turner were fantastic cricketers but we are often drawn to those who possess abilities that oppose our own – those traits we long for – West Indian cricket filled that void. I watched, read and listened to the exploits of Roberts, Richards, Marshall and Greenidge, but few grabbed my attention like Antiguan Curtly Ambrose. Quick bowlers who don’t talk are a rare breed, successful ones are almost non-existent – Ambrose broke the mould. The gentle giant let the ball do the talking, though it often broke into full reggae song.

It is hard to go past one of cricket’s most devastating spells – a 32 ball stretch at the WACA in 1992/3 that reaped seven Australian wickets for just one run. Whenever there was any life in the deck, he found it, exploiting it to make even the best batsmen jump uneasily like a frog trapped in a box.

His dominance of England’s Mike Atherton created a new definition of cricket’s bunny - Ambrose dismissed him on 17 occasions at test level and epitomised one cricketer’s ability to mentally disintegrate the confidence of another. It got to the stage where the outcome was near inevitable but like lemmings and a cliff, viewers were drawn to the impending disaster.

For all that, the image that remains ingrained in my consciousness is Richie Richardson tugging on Ambrose’s arm to keep him away from a belligerent Steve Waugh at Port of Spain in 1995. It wasn’t only Ambrose who was usually quiet, most had the good sense to keep their thoughts to themselves when on the receiving end, but not Waugh – the silent, relentless stares took their toll and Waugh’s jibes at the Antiguan quick struck a chord.

The atmosphere is best explained by the Aussie stalwart - "his eyeballs were spinning and as he edged to within a metre, it seemed he was ready to erupt. At this point, I gave him a short but sweet reply that went down about as well as an anti-malaria tablet. Fortunately, Richie Richardson moved in swiftly to avert what could have been my death by strangulation, and the game continued." ( – 4 January, 2004)

In cricket, the effects of apartheid, whilst felt, were minor in the scheme of its political and cultural ramifications.

A 21 year hiatus (from 1970 through 1991) from the international game robbed cricket fans around the globe of the opportunity to see so many wonderful cricketers in their prime – one can only imagine the sense of loss for those in the Republic. It is beyond my comprehension to think of the impact such an expulsion would have today – it’s difficult enough that cricket is no longer played in Pakistan. I write this as an outsider, not knowing the true feelings in South Africa in a situation that goes well over my head – my commentary is not meant as a criticism or a challenge, simply the thoughts of a cricket tragic.

I am drawn to the way South Africans play cricket – the display of self-assurance without the overarching air of arrogance so often associated with such a trait is endearing. Whilst I don’t profess to understand the South African game, we saw so little of it in my youth, given the quality of the cricketers we’ve seen before and after the international sanctions, there were undoubtedly superstars waiting in the wings who would have dazzled on the grandest stage.

While many South African stars shared their time between their homeland and the County game in England, displaying abilities of the highest level, so many either missed international honours completely or gave us little more than a glimpse. Players of the ilk of  Eddie Barlow, Mike Procter, Graeme Pollock, Barry Richards, Garth le Roux, Clive Rice and Peter Kirsten, among a host of others, had the collective greatness to have challenged even the Windies through the Fire in Babylon era – they would have taken the test game to another level at a time when it was truly grand. 

Upon their readmission in 1991, and the formation of Cricket South Africa, our great southern friends took on the symbol of the Protea as they worked to help reunite a politically fragile nation. To see Kepler Wessels lead a new South African team onto Barbados’ Kensington Oval against the might of the West Indies for a one-off test in early 1992 was a fitting introduction – even in a small secondary school in New Zealand it occupied the thoughts of anyone with even a passing interest in cricket - the impact in South Africa is beyond the comprehension of a patriotic Kiwi.

The only perplexing point for me is that the shirt numbers over the breast of the modern band of proud South African cricketers only started upon readmission - Tertius Bosch, who played only once, holds the coveted number one. There are undoubtedly strong reasons (nationalism and the need for a fresh start in a united country among them) but does it take away from those who took the field to represent their country prior to the sanctions imposed in 1970?  If anyone knows more about the modern numbering system, I’d love to know – this is as much about learning as it is sharing.

No piece on cricket and apartheid would be complete without mention of Basil D’Olivera, but genius deserves a spotlight - watch this space in the coming weeks.  

For those of us outside the Republic, we were all reminded that no matter how dear we hold cricket in our hearts, it is just a game – the world has far more pressing issues.

Arthurton, Keith
Many will question the wisdom of including the dashing left hander from the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis, and with some justification. His statistics should preclude him from most lists - seven years at test level, 33 tests, a batting average of just 30.71 and a career high ICC test ranking of 32 in early 1993.

In full flight Arthurton was a sight to behold, but whilst a picture tells a thousand words, it often forgets the key ones. He more regularly encapsulated insecurity, mental fragility and a preference for style over substance – eight ducks in such a short test career is damning evidence.

But his remarkable innings in the opening test of the Frank Worrell Trophy against Australia at the ‘Gabba early in the 1992/3 season suggested great things were to come. Though he entered the fray with only 186 runs to his name in six previous tests and a fledgling average of just 23, the 27 year old played an innings that stood head and shoulders above his teammates. His driving through the off side during seven and a half hours in the middle was sublime – he showed everything that sees many left handers make batting look effortless. No matter what McDermott, Hughes or Warne delivered, he had the answer.

The 157 not out was his maiden test century, and highest first class score, but its effect on an impressionable teenager went far beyond one innings. That knock ensured I made every effort to see as much of the series as holiday work and parents allowed. My enthusiasm was repaid in the third test at the SCG with another maiden test century - a majestic 277 from the Prince of Trinidad, Brian Charles Lara. In just his fifth test, Lara hit the third highest score against Australia and the highest individual total in matches between the two sides – a cricketing love affair was born.  

Thank you, Keith Arthurton.

Contested since 1882, the Ashes name was adopted after an obituary penned in Britain’s The Sporting Times following England’s first defeat to Australia on home soil. The satirical piece played on the premise that England cricket had died, been cremated and the ashes taken to Australia with the triumphant team (Events That Shaped Australia - Wendy Lewis, Simon Balderstone and John Bowan (2006)). The “ashes” of a bail (reportedly) are housed in a small urn that remains housed in the MCC Museum at Lord’s – never has something so small been the source of such sporting hostilities.

Ashes history is well known – it’s been penned in far more depth, and by far more qualified scribes, than I could manage here.  The list of players, battles and performances are too rich to be done justice in a single blog, it’s the competition that appeals.

I have no ties to either of the old foes – no yearning for England’s green and pleasant land; no inclination to answer Lara Bingle’s ill-fated call - I am a proud Kiwi. But that doesn’t dull my love of the Ashes, not because of some misplaced patriotism but for a contest steeped in history and tradition – a clash that showcases the epitome of a true sporting contest.

The Ashes is something to be savoured - the ferocity of support in both countries can only be likened to Bledisloe Cup rugby fixtures in this country, though that's faded in the Dingo era. Supporters expectantly await subsequent Ashes series’ with keen anticipation – the two year gap always seems too long.

The huge crowds glued to every ball, the sold out signs, the songs and chants of the Barmy Army, the abuse that was once hurled from Bay 13 – all these things add to the mystique of the Ashes. They’re factors missing from New Zealand cricket – no rivalry has the same strength or height of competition – it’s merely cricket, if there is such a thing.

Tell me what you think – I’d love your thoughts. I’ve only managed to get through the first letter, but you can have a look at the plan for the other 25 – A-Z of cricket. If there are subjects you’d like to see covered, let me know. Post a comment below or tweet me @aotearoaxi.

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