Sir Curtly Ambrose: why he finally broke his silence in new book Time to Talk

  • West Indies fast bowling legend opens up to Richard Sydenham
  • What he really thinks of ex-teammates and opponents
  • Inside story of his battles with Steve Waugh
  • The good and bad sides of Brian Lara

Jon Culley

Amid the debate over the rights or wrongs of the send-off salute that the West Indian cricketer Marlon Samuels gave England's Ben Stokes during the second Test match in Grenada, I noticed something that once would have caused jaws to drop in astonishment...a comment from Curtly Ambrose.

The former fast bowler, one of the greats of West Indies cricket and the scourge of English batsmen for more than a decade after he was first unleashed upon them in 1988, famously observed what amounted to a vow of silence with the media for virtually his entire career.

His steadfast refusal to offer a quotable comment, let alone grant interviews, became his trademark.  Requests, it is said, were politely declined and greeted with five words: 'Curtly talks to no man!'

But that has all changed now.  Invited by sports writer Richard Sydenham to share his thoughts some 15 years after his retirement as a player, Ambrose agreed.  Together they produced an autobiography entitled Sir Curtly Ambrose: Time to Talk.

In an interview with The Sports Bookshelf, Sydenham revealed how he came to the decision to test whether Ambrose might be prepared to break his silence.

"I'm just about old enough to remember what it was like trying to get an interview with him back in the day," he said.  "I remember several futile attempts.

"Fast forward several years and I was thinking one day about the legends that were out there who had not done a book and he struck me as an obvious one to pursue, not only for the fact that there was no Curtly book but because none of us really knew anything about him.

"I approached him at first in 2013 via Richie Richardson and was delighted when he said from the start that the time felt right for him to do a book."

Nonetheless, Sydenham admits that he still felt a certain amount of trepidation about their first meeting in London.

"I didn't know what to expect, with this mystique that surrounds him," he said.  "You imagine he might be a bit moody, that he is not going to say much, because you think of him as the way you see him in the field.

"But as he says in the book he is a totally different character off the field.  He would often say that once I cross that rope I've got my game face on.

"I was pleasantly surprised.  When he sat down with a Pepsi to discuss the key moments of his career and what we were going to talk to publishers about, he was really engaging and interesting and friendly.  We hit it off straight away and it was clear he had a lot of great stories to tell."

Sydenham also spent time in the Caribbean to get a flavour of the life Ambrose leads away from the spotlight and to learn about his early life.

"I had about 16 days out there.  I went to Antigua and although Curtly wasn't there because he was coaching at the Caribbean Premier League but I was introduced to his friends and family and looked up where he went to school and his house.

"I couldn't speak to his mother because she was very ill at the time.  But I went St Kitts and caught up with Curtly there.  It gave me a flavour of what his life was like there and I felt I couldn't really have written the book without doing that."

Buy This Book


He found Ambrose, who was knighted by the Antiguan government in 2014, to be a person not keen to create unnecessary controversy but eager to be honest and therefore candid in sharing his opinion of teammates and opponents from his career.

His comments on Brian Lara, for example, could hardly be more blunt, particular when he talks about Lara's disruptive effect on the 1995 tour of England -- the year after he had broken the records for both the highest Test and first-class scores in the space of two months - when the brilliant left-hander's behaviour and ability to polarise opinion made him the Kevin Pietersen of his day.

"Curtly is quite a loyal person really, not a person who chases controversy, and at first he might have been reluctant to talk about a few things," Sydenham said.

"But in the end I think he realised he wanted this book to be very authentic, very honest and there were a few things where he said 'No, if this is going to be a very honest book, this has to go in the book' and he would jab his finger on the table.

"He was very determined that this would be a book that has not really hidden anything."

Ambrose, in fact, thought Carl Hooper was a better batsman than Lara, in terms of natural talent. "He would quite often chastise Hooper because he felt he wasn't making enough of his ability, whereas Lara knew he had to work hard to get the best of his ability."

He talks frankly as well about Michael Atherton and Alec Stewart, the Waugh brothers, Ricky Ponting, Javed Miandad, Sachin Tendulkar and Jacques Kallis among others.

He speaks of his admiration for Richard Hadlee, his respect for Glenn McGrath and how the bowler he would rate the greatest of his time was Wasim Akram, the Pakistan left-armer.

"He thought Wasim Akram was the tops, someone who had the ability to do everything. He almost called himself a mere mortal in comparison to Wasim, who he felt had the box of tricks to produce any wicket-taking ball at any time."

And, of course, he talked at length about the great comrades from his heydey, and the highlights of his bowling career, which Sydenham found a particular joy to listen to.

"It was riveting because I'm a guy who was passionate about West Indies cricket from the time I got into the game in the early 80s. Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes were my childhood heroes.  I loved watching Malcolm Marshall and Joel Garner and latterly Curtly and those guys, so it was all fascinating for me.
Sir Curtly Ambrose

"And there were the memorable moments like the six for 24 against England in Trinidad, the Steve Waugh confrontations, that extraordinary spell of seven for one against Australia at the  WACA.  We all know about them and the basic details but it was a lot more interesting getting to know the depth and the origins of those kind of great moments, whether controversial or just great bowling spells.

"He told me the story of the seven for one, how he had sprayed it around a bit in the early session of that day, had not gone for many runs but knew that he hadn't made the batsmen play on a pitch that was conducive to fast bowling.  He sat in a dressing room with his head in a towel for 40 minutes, angry, and then came out and produced that spell of seven for one.

"A couple of times when he was answering my questions, and I did think to myself 'is this really happening?' Is this Curtly Ambrose, who's never said a word through his career, all of a sudden spilling his life story to me? It did seem a bit surreal at times."

So why did he give away so little of his time during his playing career, why did he insist on all bar a few occasions, that 'Curtly talks to no man'?

The phrase itself may be a bit of an urban myth, since Ambrose cannot recall ever having used those exact words.  Yet he does not deny that the usual response if a journalist asked if he might like to offer an opinion was 'no'.

"His explanation was it just wasn't for him," Sydenham said.  "He said there were plenty of guys happy to go yapping to the media at the end of the day's play but he just wasn't really comfortable doing that.  He said that he preferred to let his five and a half ounces do the talking for him.

"He did not speak about anything specific but it was clear he had had a couple of instances in his rookie days where he had given an interview and it did not come over as he wanted or expected.

"I explained from our point of view that sometimes you do an interview for half an hour and you only get space for 400 words and you have to be selective in picking out the most interesting bits.  He accepted and understood that but said that it didn't really help if the Curtly Ambrose portrayed is not the one he was expecting to see.

"So he thought it was better not to say anything and let people make their judgements based on what they see on the field, so that's why we have had to wait 15 years to hear what he has to say and all the experiences he has been through."

Buy Sir Curtly Ambrose: Time to Talk (Aurum) from Amazon, Waterstones or WHSmith.



Past winner Chris Waters challenges Kevin Pietersen for Cricket Society-MCC Book of the Year award

Given that it is seemingly impossible to keep him out of the news, it probably comes as no surprise that the shortlist for the 2015 Cricket Society and MCC Book of the Year Award contains two books about Kevin Pietersen.

His own, highly controversial autobiography KP is one. The other is journalist Simon Wilde’s excellent and rather more balanced portrait, simply entitled: On Pietersen.
Challenging those two titles for the £3,000 first prize will be Chris Waters, who is seeking to win the award for a second time with 10 for 10: Hedley Verity and the Story of Cricket's Greatest Bowling Feat.  The Yorkshire Post cricket writer won in 2012 with Fred Trueman: The Authorised Biography.

Were 10 for 10 to emerge as the judges' choice there would be echoes of the 1986 success enjoyed by Alan Hill with Hedley Verity: A Portrait of a Cricketer.

Also on the shortlist are Christopher Sandford's poignant work The Final Over: The Cricketers of Summer 1914, which looks at the impact of the First World War on the game as a whole and for the individual players who went to fight.

From a longlist of 16, Dan Waddell makes the cut with Field of Shadows: The English Cricket Tour of Nazi Germany 1937, as does Peter Oborne's splendid Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan.

Chair of judges Vic Marks said: “There are some good books here and my panel of wise judges will have much to discuss at our final meeting. It will be a lot closer than England’s matches at the recent World Cup. I am sure we will settle on a worthy winner."

The competition, run by the Cricket Society since 1970 and in partnership with MCC since 2009, is for books nominated by MCC and Cricket Society Members, and is highly regarded by writers and publishers. Last year’s winner was debutant cricket author and political editor of The Economist, James Astill, for his book about Indian cricket in a wider national context - The Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption and the Turbulent Rise of Modern India. Australian Gideon Haigh won in 2013 for On Warne, his book about Shane Warne.

The £3,000 prize for the winner, and certificates for all the shortlisted books, will be presented at an awards evening in the Long Room at Lord’s on Tuesday May 12.

The six books on the shortlist (alphabetically by author):

The other ten books considered (alphabetically by author) were:
Hubert Doggart's Cricket's Bounty (Phillimore)
Bill Francis’s Cricket’s Mystery Man, The Story of Sydney Gordon Smith (via Ronald Cardwell)
David Frith's Frith's Encounters (Von Krumm Publishing)
Pete Langman’s The Country House Cricketer (Marvelhouse Words; all profits to Parkinson’s research)
Antony Littlewood’s W.E. Astill (ACS)
Andrew Murtagh's Touched by Greatness: the story of Tom Graveney (Pitch Publishing)
Roger Packham, Nicholas Sharp, Phil Barnes and Jon Filby’s A Pictorial History of Sussex County Cricket Club (Sussex CCC)
Scott Reeves’s The Champion Band: The First English Cricket Tour (Chequered Flag Publishing)
Andrew Renshaw’s Wisden on the Great War: The Lives of cricket’s fallen 1914-1918 (Bloomsbury)
James Wilson’s Court and Bowled: Tales of Cricket and the Law (Wildy and Sons Ltd)

In addition to Vic Marks, the other judges are David Kynaston and Stephen Fay for the MCC,  John Symons and Chris Lowe for the Cricket Society.