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W Indies' ageing strike force revs up for another crucial mission

By Simon Hughes

25 January 1997

FOR many hours on this tour of Australia, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh have shared a room. The physios room. There they lie on an elongated couch, covered in ice packs and poultices, the fair dinkum Dennis Waight fussing about round them trying to settle their aches and pains.

But then that's to be expected for two spindly, ageing giants rattling in to bowl over after over on pitches baked the texture of granite. Fast bowling in the heat, dust and flies of the Great Outdoors is hard yakka for young turbos never mind vintage models with 100,000 miles on the clock.

Yet still their limbs keep pumping, their muscles whiplash, and, rapping the batsmen on the pad, their bodies uncoil like enraged triffids. ``Howzaaaaaaaattt?'' they beseech, daring the umpire to shake his head. Walsh grimaces and hangs his head if the decision is negative, Ambrose adopts a double teapot and stares in disbelief. Their methods might sometimes make traditionalists splutter but their talent has everyone drooling. Between them, Curtly and Courtney have dismissed 599 Test batsmen, which, statistically at any rate, makes them the greatest fast bowling strike force of all time.

How do they do it? It probably harks back to their initiation into cricketing circles during the heyday of Roberts, Garner, Holding and Marshall. Then, lest anyone needs reminding, the West Indies were unquestionably the dominant force in world cricket, and between 1980 and 1995 did not lose a single Test series at home or away.

With four predatory fast bowlers operating in rotation, and the slip cordon mumbling ``make him smell de leather'' from their position some 30 yards back, the Caribbean was a place batsmen feared to tread. For the West Indies players, asserting authority was a way of life, tampering with it a personal insult.

The Ambrose-Walsh partnership began inauspiciously in 1988 at Georgetown, Guyana when the team lost to Pakistan by nine wickets. But it was not long before they were making opponents run for cover. England were obliterated 4-1 the following summer having tried four different captains, and in 1988-89 the Aussies were cut down 3-1 at home.

The heavy artillery rumbled on until, four years later it almost ground to a halt in the Adelaide cliffhanger with the Australian last pair needing just two runs to take an unassailable 3-1 lead in the series. Digging to the very depths of his mental and physical reserves, Walsh dragged a humdinging bouncer from somewhere which Craig McDermott could only parry to the wicketkeeper and the West Indies were home by one run.

The rat-atat-tat of Ambrose blitzed the Aussies in Perth to maintain the West Indies extraordinary record, which still seemed impregnable the next winter when they demolished England for 46 in Trinidad. ``Ambrose and Walsh - they the ministers of defence,'' the taxi driver said driving us back to the hotel.

I N 1995, they finally relinquished their superiority to Australia and now are vulnerable again, 2-1 down with two to play. Australia need only draw the Adelaide Test to retain the Frank Worrell Trophy for the first time in a generation. It won't be the fault of Ambrose or Walsh if the Australians succeed they will both be trying their utmost to be sure - but there is no re- liable back-up. The fearsome four-pronged attack is down to two worn spikes.

Bruised and sore after recent one-day encounters, Ambrose loped in and sent down a few less than threatening trundlers at practice yesterday and probably expended more energy gesticulating and commentating on a ding-dong in the next net featuring Junior Murray's batting and Sherwin Campbell's little seamers. ``Come on, beat that one, beat it,'' he advised Murray in that delicious throaty growl. ``Knock 'em away - hard. I'd be gettin' in real good nick if I was facing.'' In casual-speak, words gush out of his mouth in liquid groups.

Ambrose is the biggest man in cricket with the strongest personality and his mood is a barometer for the rest of the team. ``When he's down we're all down,'' says Jimmy Adams, ``and when he's up we're buzzing - it lifts everybody. He was quite depressed early on in the tour, couldn't get any wickets, thought people had worked out his length. When we got to Melbourne, he realised matters had come to a head and he just had to go for it. He did.''

Ambrose took nine for 72 in the match and after it suggested that the revamp of Australia's batting order had sparked him off. ``Usually when I see a couple of young faces come into Test cricket I want to make sure I stamp my authority early, let them know this is the big time.''

Walsh wanders away from the practice area having had a few looseners, grimacing every time he pivoted on his dodgy knee. He knows his body is like a treasured old car - take it out for a run every morning or one day it will fail to start. ``You get times as a fast bowler when you suffer a bit with a loss of form,'' he said, alluding to the period when he was dropped in 1991, presumably because he took only three for 60 at Edgbaston or somewhere. ``I knew what Curtly was going through before Christmas and I told him that confidence can turn around in a day. I had a sore shoulder at the time, and he knew his country needed him. He led from the front and took a lot of the pressure off me. That's the sort of person he is.''

T HEY are a diverse pair. Ambrose is a human detonator on stilts, convinced that if he repeatedly plants charges in the same area eventually there will be an explosion. His flamboyant side comes out in animated dressing-room banter rarely related to cricket. In common with the best West Indies captains like Worrell and Lloyd, Walsh has a more benign exterior and a quiet, lilting speech. Lurking beneath is the mind of a wicked confidence trickster. The variations of angle and sudden changes of pace are silent but deadly.

What they have in common is a mission. To protect the West Indies reputation in spite of dwindling resources and lack of forward planning. It keeps them going through the trials and tribulations, oils the creaking shoulders and greases the gippy knees.

``It's a job we've go to do,'' Walsh says. ``Of course it's disappointing that there aren't other bowlers who can take the pressure off Curtly and me, but I think our four fast bowler strategy still has some mileage.''

Jimmy Adams, though, disagrees. ``The great dynasties eventually fell because they got complacent and I suppose that's begun to happen to us. We haven't invested in the future and our bowling reserves are wearing out.''

As sole members of WIPPD (the West Indian Pride Preservation Department) Walsh and Ambrose have developed an instinctive symbiosis that prompts one to accept more responsibilty if the other is floundering. Ambrose has also become more flexible over time and is now more open to suggestions. ``We have regular discussions about batsmen between overs,'' Walsh says. ``He often spots something useful and now if I say, 'Come on, Big Man, how about trying round the wicket' he might. A couple of years ago he wouldn't have bothered.''

How would he sum up their relationship? I asked. ``Huge mutual respect, great team-mates and special friends,'' Walsh said. ``I get on really well with his mum and he gets on really well with mine.''

They're nice boys really, you see, though that's not apparent when they've just speared five-and-a-half ounces of hard leather into some unprotected fleshy area. There's no respite for the physio when Ambrose and Walsh are in town.

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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 15:35