The Antigua quartet

WEST INDIES batted first on the first day of the Old Trafford Test, and I had a train to catch at ten past nine. Time enough, in these days of deplorable Caribbean batsmanship, to see history being made on the box. By tea, the Yorkshire pair of Darren Gough and Craig White had bowled out the visitors. England went in after the interval, and in the fifth over of the innings Curtly Ambrose had Marcus Trescothick caught at slip by one that lifted. Courtney Walsh, as ever, took his time over his over, and when Ambrose had the ball once more it was 8:40. These were the last six balls I would watch, for the Bangalore Cantonment station is a 20-minute drive from my home. The tall fellow now had 399 wickets, but taking strike was the wise and skilled campaigner, Michael Atherton. Would I see it happen? I would. Atherton played watchfully back, but the ball seamed away after pitching, took the edge and went fast and low towards first slip. Standing there was a man who has forgotten how to bat, somewhat, but not how to catch. Atherton caught Lara bowled Ambrose - such is the abbreviated story of the 400th Test wicket of a truly outstanding fast bowler.

Curtly Ambrose comes from the little island of Antigua: its area, 170 square miles; its population, 65,000; its Head of State, the Queen; its chief industry, tourism; its national heroes, cricketers. The first of these heroes was Anderson Montgomery Everton Roberts, named for a great English general and a greater Barbados batsman. The child, contrary as children are, decided he would bowl fast instead. Had he been born 10 years earlier, he would have displayed his talent on the beaches of his home land. But, in the 1960s, a handful of brave pioneers from the little islands had fought their way into the West Indies Test side. These included the Shillingford cousins, Irving and Grayson, who hailed from the Dominican Republic, a batsman and a fast bowler, left-handers both; the wicket-keeper Michael Findlay, from St. Vincent; and a little slow left-arm bowler from Nevis with the lovely name of Elquemedo Tonito Willett. These men were to confidently play for the West Indies alongside men from the established cricketing powerhouses of Barbados, Trinidad, Jamaica and Guyana.

Roberts made his Test debut against England in the home series of 1973-74. The next winter he came to India, and bowled faster in the sub-continent than had anyone before him. West Indies won the first two Tests, India the next two, and the visitors the fifth. Roberts got 32 wickets in the series, the only batsman playing him with any kind of confidence being G. R. Viswanath. They had an epic battle on a bouncy Chepauk pitch, Vishy scoring an undefeated 97 out of a total of 190, while Roberts claimed 7 for 64. I never watched Roberts and Ambrose bowl together, and nor did anyone else. One Antiguan had retired before the other played tests. They were massively dissimilar in style if equally deadly in effectiveness. Roberts ran in very fast, with short steps, whereas Ambrose takes long, loping strides. Roberts bowled from wide on the return crease with a slightly round arm action. Ambrose bowls with his arm classically high, and from close to the stumps. Roberts chiefly relied for his wickets on a big outswinger, with an occasional off-cutter for variation. In his pomp, Ambrose moved it little but late, and both ways. Roberts had a wicked bouncer, but Ambrose's regular deliveries rose more steeply off the pitch. They have displayed different persona on the field too. The bearded Roberts kept his own counsel, and celebrated his wickets inwardly (off the field, he eschewed human contact in favour of that most solitary of pursuits, fishing). Ambrose is a more gregarious character, smiling more often in a session than would his compatriot in a series. Who was a greater bowler? I would not dare pass judgment. Television has brought us more of Ambrose, but to those too young to have seen Andy Roberts I need only say Sunil Gavaskar insists he was the most dangerous new-ball bowler he ever faced.

Also on that 1974-75 tour of India was one I. V. A. Richards. This Antiguan has just been knighted for his services to cricket, and just been adjudged by Wisden Cricketers' Almanac as one of the five cricketers of the 20th Century. I cannot agree with Wisden - who chose Richards ahead of Wally Hammond, Victor Trumper, S. F. Barnes and W. J. O' Reilly - but have plenty of respect for the man nonetheless. I saw him play three times against my country. Twice he won the match with the bat and once, strange to relate, with the ball. Fortunately I saw him make runs aplenty against other sides as well. No batsman in modern times has exercised as complete an authority over the bowlers.

Some place else I will pay proper respect to Richards. Allow me here to write more of that other brilliant Antiguan, Richie Richardson. He too made his Test debut against India, in India, but nine years after his home famous compatriot. I saw that first knock on the telly, It lasted three or four balls. Before he had scored, Richardson was given out leg before wicket to Shivlal Yadav. It was a shocking decision, even by the standards of Indian umpiring. The ball was missing the leg stump; besides, it took a slice of the bat before striking the pad. In later years Richardson made Indian cricketers pay hugely. For example, in the 1988-89 series against us he scored in excess of 600 runs, and in only four Tests.

Those runs I only read about, but in the summer of 1991 I was at Lord's when Richardson hit a brisk half-century in a one-day match. His broad-rimmed red hat shone brightly in the sunshine, as he hit David Lawrence - England's fastest bowler - for three flashing fours of successive balls, past sweeper cover each time. Like Viv Richards, Richardson always batted without a helmet. He had a high flourishing back lift, and besides the drive and cut could hook and pull with zest. When England played a Test in Antigua, both local boys got hundreds - and Richardson's came quicker. No one would consider him for an all-time Wisden list, nor would he make an all-time West Indian eleven - Richards, Gordon Greenidge and the three W's would get there before him - yet he was a superbly gifted player all the same. At least when I watched him Richardson looked as good as batsman at the other end - be that fellow Richards or Greenidge or Desmond Haynes. After his seniors had retired and the West Indies captaincy was thrust upon him he battled on alone, as in the 1996 World Cup. With a little help from his juniors, he would have taken his unfancied side to the finals of that tournament.

And so, in a mere two decades, a country that contains less people that Mylapore has produced four world class cricketers. Ambrose's 400th Test wicket was the last in a series of stunning achievements by the sportsmen of Antigua. It was nice that Sir Vivian Richards was one of the spectators at the ground when it happened, but, as the bowler must surely have felt, how much nicer might it have been if he had been one of the players instead? If Richards had been playing, and Richardson and Roberts too, the other side would have lost the Test match inside of two days.


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