The great Curtly Ambrose’s form, fitness and match readiness are causes for concern only 10 days prior to the first ball of the Cable & Wireless Series at Sabina Park tomorrow week.
It is unthinkable that his name will be missing when the list of 13 is released this afternoon. His reputation, based on 307 Test wickets, 117 of them against England at just under 20 runs apiece, affords him an immediate psychological advantage.
The experience of 74 Tests is also an invaluable asset to a team shaken by its recent 3-0 thrashing by Pakistan and under a new and untested skipper.
But the panel will need further evidence to convince them that Ambrose is yet ready to take his place as the spearhead of the attack.
He has one more match, for the Leeward Islands against Trinidad and Tobago in the President’s Cup at the Queen's Park Oval starting Thursday, to put in the work he clearly needs. Lara will be on the opposing side, no doubt carefully monitoring his performance in more ways than one.
Fortunately, Hall and coach Malcolm Marshall, themselves two champion fast bowlers who can empathise with Ambrose’s situation, are on the panel and their voices will clearly carry the most influence.
Ambrose is now 34, was incapacitated by a back strain that caused him to leave the Pakistan tour early and, in his two Cup matches over the past two weekends, has been a shadow of the clinical assassin who has so often demolished England’s batting.
His problems were starkly in evidence in his latest match for the Leeward Islands against Barbados at Kensington Oval, scene of some of his most memorable performances, such as his match-winning eight for 45 in the 1991 Test against England.
Throughout, he confined himself to a shorter run than usual and, apart from one typically testing spell at the start of the second day, lacked his old zip.
With Barbados five short of first innings lead, one wicket standing and Patterson Thompson, the burly fast bowler who is one of the game’s more authentic No.11 batsmen, Ambrose was given the second new ball late in the afternoon to polish things off.
Lacking pace and direction, he was twice smashed to the cover-boundary by Thompson, sprayed the ball down the leg-side for four byes that levelled the scores and repeatedly overstepped the front crease.
Never particularly bothered by no-balls, Ambrose has now delivered 49 in his 47 overs for the season. It is a clear sign that his rhythm, such an essential element in a fast bowler’s action, especially his own, is defective at present.
It could be that he is cannily saving himself for the big occasion and that, come the day, he will charge in with the Headley Stand at his back and the roar of the crowd in his ears to send balls whistling past English noses and bats and into inadequately protected stumps. Let us hope so.
England certainly have enough respect for him not to take anything for granted. Memories of their demolition for 46 at his hands at the Queen’s Park Oval on the last tour four years ago remain vivid. Yet for West Indians, his recent decline – he managed only one wicket from 44 overs in the Tests in Pakistan and has taken five from 42 overs so far this season – is unnerving.
While Ambrose has struggled, his long-time accomplices, Courtney Walsh and Ian Bishop, have been among the wickets in the President’s Cup, three of the new generation of speed men, Franklyn Rose, Nixon McLean and the left-arm Pedro Collins, have strutted their stuff impressively and another, Merv Dillon, has recovered from a strained elbow and plays for Trinidad and Tobago against the Leewards this weekend.
So the selectors have options. But they are unlikely to take them up just yet. In the batting, they have few and are likely to stick with a familiar order.
A possible 13: Brian Lara (captain), Sherwin Campbell, Stuart Williams, Carl Hooper, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Jimmy Adams, David Williams (or Junior Murray, depending on Williams’ finger injury), Ian Bishop, Curtly Ambrose, Franklyn Rose, Courtney Walsh, Mervyn Dillon and Rawl Lewis.