With an imposing frame standing at a towering 6ft 7ins, Curtly Ambrose was a terrifying sight for any batsman, even from 22 yards away. The right-arm fast bowler is not just one of the greatest from the land of the Caribbean but also a celebrated icon on the world stage. Christened, ‘Little Bird’, he soared to dizzying heights, breaking numerous records to become one of the leading wicket-takers of all time.
A man of few words during his career, he was notoriously reluctant to speak to journalists. He was chosen as one of the Wisden Cricketers of the Year in 1992. After he retired he was drafted into the International Cricket Council Hall of Fame and selected as one of West Indies all-time XI by a panel of experts.
Born in Swetes, Antigua, Ambrose came to cricket at a relatively late age, having preferred basketball in his youth, but quickly made an impression as a fast bowler. Andy Roberts was his early mentor and emphasised the psychological aspect of bowling and instilled in him a belief that he could join countrymen Baptiste, Ferris and Benjamin at the highest level.
After an early foray in the West Indies regional competition in 1985-86, where he tookfour wickets for 35 runs, he left an indelible mark on the 1987-88 competition in establishing a record of 35 wickets at only 15.51 during his first full season, thereby erasing Winston Davis's previous tournament best of 33, which had stood since 1982-83. The West Indian selectors immediately pitched him into Test cricket that April, against Pakistan at Bourda, but it was an inauspicious début, coinciding with West Indies' first home defeat for a decade.
The “Little Bird” wasn’t the greatest swinger of the cricket ball but more than made up with unswerving accuracy. His height gave him the ability to get the ball to rise steeply off a good length, besides bowling bouncers at will. His brisk run-up & fast action added to his sting.
Later that year, Ambrose was chosen to tour England. After appearing in early tour games, he was chosen for the first two ODIs, taking three wickets in total, but was omitted from the third. In the Test series, he played in all five matches to take 22 wickets at an average of 20.22; his best figures of four for 58 came in the fourth Test, in which he took seven wickets and was named man of the match.
In 1988–89, West Indies took part in an ODI tournament in Sharjah. Ambrose took 8 wickets, and was man of the match with four for 29 when West Indies defeated Pakistan in the final. From there, West Indies entered a tour of Australia in which Ambrose was the dominant figure. The West Indies won the first three Test matches, using controversial short-pitched bowling tactics. Ambrose's height made him difficult to play as he once more made the ball bounce more than other bowlers and ended the series with 26 wickets at an average of 21.46. He was West Indies leading wicket-taker and headed the team bowling averages. His team won the series 3–1. In the ODI tournament that took place during the tour, West Indies defeated Australia in the final courtesy Ambrose who took 21 wickets in the series and twice took five wickets in an innings. However, he was less successful later in 1989 when India toured the West Indies due to fatigue and illness.
Ambrose made an impression in batting as part of a West Indian lower batting order which repeatedly added crucial runs during the series against Pakistan and Australia in 1990-1991. West Indies' next matches were in England. The Test series was drawn 2–2 and Ambrose was the team's leading wicket-taker with 28 (averaging 20.00) and also came top of the bowling averages. He had a particular impact on Graeme Hick, who was appearing in Test cricket for the first time, dismissing him six times in seven innings with short-pitched bowling.For his performances, Ambrose was named one of Wisden's Cricketers of the Year.
In April 1992, South Africa toured West Indies for the first time, and played their first Test match for 22 years. Ambrose played in all three ODIs, all of which were won by West Indies. The Test match was the first time West Indies bowled under a new playing regulation which permitted only one bouncer per over and this seemed to affect the home bowlers, but Ambrose took two for 47 from 36 overs. South Africa began the final day of the match requiring 79 runs to win with just two batsmen out, but Ambrose and Courtney Walsh took the last eight wickets for 26 runs to bowl West Indies to a 52-run win.
The West Indies toured Australia in 1992–93, recovering from losing the second Test to win the final two matches and take the series 2–1. The team also won the annual World Series Cup. In the first three Tests, Ambrose was hampered by pitches which did not suit his bowling and was often unlucky when he bowled; although he took five for 66 in the first test. In the final two matches, he took 19 wickets. In the fourth match he took ten wickets, including six for 74 in the first innings; in the second innings, he took three wickets in 19 deliveries as West Indies won the match by one run.
Then on the first day of the decisive final Test, Ambrose took seven wickets at the cost of one run from 32 deliveries and finished with figures of seven for 25. Wisden described it as "one of Test cricket's most devastating spells". West Indies won by an innings and Ambrose was named man of the series, having taken 33 wickets to equal the record in an Australia-West Indies Test series.
Ambrose's shoulder injury, caused by his bowling workload, caused him to miss the West Indies' tour of India in the last three months of 1994. Although he returned to join the tour of New Zealand in early 1995, he did not reach his full bowling pace and took one wicket in the ODI series and five in the two Test matches. He remained in the team when Australia toured the Caribbean later in 1995 though the West Indies lost the Test series 2–1, their first defeat in a Test series since 1980.
Following Australia's victory in 1994–95, when West Indies toured Australia in 1996–97 the series was heavily publicised as a re-match. However, the visiting team were often ineffective, continuing a trend of decline, and depended heavily on their senior players, one of whom was Ambrose. He began the series poorly, continuing a pattern established in several preceding series, and critics suggested that he was no longer effective. After taking only three wickets in the first two Tests, both of which were lost by West Indies, Ambrose told his team-mates that he would take ten wickets in the third. On a difficult pitch for batting, he managed to take nine in the match, including three in the first hour of the game, despite struggling with a hamstring injury. West Indies won, and Ambrose was named man of the match, but he missed the fourth Test with an injury.
West Indies' loss of form continued in late 1997 when they lost every international match during their tour of Pakistan and Ambrose’s form was not as it was during his peak years. Before his next series, a five-match series in England in 1999, Ambrose announced that he would retire after the final Test, although the president of the West Indies Cricket Board unavailingly tried to persuade him to continue for a little longer. West Indies lost the series 3–1 mainly because the other bowlers were ineffective, and Ambrose publicly commented during the series on the lack of support that he and Walsh received. He was second in the averages to Walsh with 17 wickets at 18.64.
Having retired from cricket, Ambrose has concentrated on music, playing with several bands. He played bass guitar with the reggae band Big Bad Dread and the Baldhead; one fellow band member was his former team-mate Richie Richardson.