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Curtly the clubbie, part one: Cornflakes and clattered stumps at Chester Boughton Hall

Scott Oliver by Scott Oliver
@reverse_sweeper 7 minute read

In the mid-to-late Eighties, before his West Indies Test debut and with one first-class appearance to his name, Curtly Ambrose cut his teeth playing club cricket in Lancashire. In a two-part series, Scott Oliver speaks to those who played with and against him as he wreaked havoc, first for Chester Boughton Hall CC and then for Heywood. Part two is available to read here.

It would be fair to say that Curtly Elconn Lynwall Ambrose established himself a permanent, primo pitch in the English cricketing psychodrama of the 1990s, a haunting, gangling, bristling figure, all pumping knees and elbows, galloping in to dispense, at best, a brand of splice-hitting strangulation and, at worst, wrecking-ball devastation, a figure straight out of a Stephen King novel adapted for the screen by Kubrick or Cronenberg. If he wasn’t sending the first ball of an Edgbaston Test trampolining straight over Michael Atherton and the wicketkeeper’s heads for four byes (England were blitzed out for 147 and 89, to which the masochist Robin Smith contributed 46 and 41), he was making it scuttle along the Trinidad deck as England were routed for 46.

England’s first glimpse of ‘Ambi’ had been on the West Indies’ 1988 tour when, as a change-bowling three-Test greenhorn, he picked up 22 wickets at 20.22, with an economy rate of 2.19, as their hosts went through four captains in losing 4-0 to the Caribbean steamroller. Well, not quite the first glimpse ‘England’ had had, for two years earlier he was playing for Chester Boughton Hall of the Liverpool and District Cricket Competition. For free. As in: unpaid. Without remuneration. A 22-year-old Curtly Ambrose. Taking the new rock for your club team. Or worse, for their team.

Precisely two years before winning the first of his fourteen Test Player of the Match awards at Headingley – that’s one every seven games exactly, a rate bettered only by Steve Smith and Wasim Akram of those with more than five – Mr Ambrose was taking 7-42 at home to Formby, six clean bowled and one caught behind. All in, he bagged 84 league wickets at 9.8 – some 61 of which involved a radical feng shui re-think of the stumps’ arrangement, while only one was trapped lbw (or to put it another way, half the amount of people he dismissed hit wicket). The disparity between these two numbers would suggest that the majority of batsmen were looking to score primarily through the off side.

His debut had come in the away fixture with Formby, a well-to-do commuter town separated from the Irish Sea by the sort of spectacular sand dunes that lend themselves to the area’s three Open-hosting links courses. Ambrose scored a season’s best 50 not out, but returned figures of 0-28 on a drizzly north-west afternoon. “It was wet underfoot,” recalls teammate Brian Gresty, “and Curtly didn’t have any spikes. He was slipping and sliding all over the place, both bowling and batting. No one had any boots his size to lend him, as you can imagine. But I had a sports shop in Whitchurch, so I took Curtly down and sorted him out with some bowling boots. Size 16, they were. I also measured him for some trousers and I think his inside-leg measurement was 41 inches.”

Ambrose had just one first-class appearance under his belt at the time, and had come over on a Vivian Richards Cricket Scholarship arranged through the Chester-based travel agent Geoff Moss, whose company, Caribbean Connections, covered his airfare and living expenses. Sadly, Gresty’s memory that Boughton Hall’s free-of-charge future fast-bowling great “spent the week working in a travel agent” has been anecdotally alchemised over time, says Moss. “No, he didn’t work for me. He just strolled around, listened to music, strummed his guitar and occasionally went to practice. He lived in a house near the club with Sam Skeete [a Desmond Haynes scholar, who was playing at Oxton] and wasn’t expensive to keep. He basically lived on cornflakes and cheese sandwiches”.

Curtly’s co-recipient of the Viv scholarship was George Codrington, a Barbadian all-rounder whose professional career never took off but who would later end up playing for Canada against England in the 2007 World Cup as a rotund 40-year-old off-spinner (10-0-70-1: Bopara). “We didn’t want two overseas players, so I offered George Codrington to Whitchurch, but they didn’t want him. So then we offered him to Birkenhead Park, who took him. It was our captain who decided to keep Curtly.”

Top row: Lynett Dan, Barry Melcalf, Brian Gresty, Curtly Ambrose, Jeremy Jordan, Ian Melcalf, John Hedgecoe
Bottom row: David Wright, Alan Coleman, Robin Jones, Andy Robinson, Hew Davies

The previous season’s Viv Richards Scholarship recipient – and Chester Boughton Hall overseas amateur – had been Winston Benjamin, who hailed from All Saints in central Antigua, a dusty mile up the road from Ambrose’s village, Swetes. Benjamin’s skiddy pace and penchant for chin music had brought 106 wickets at 7.57 with a best of 8-20 – 48 more scalps than anyone else in the division and top of the LDCC charts on both counts – while the lusty batting that saw him make a Test-best of 85 yielded 503 runs at 35.92, fourth in the averages, an enormous contribution to Chester winning the LDCC title. All of which was good enough to earn him a deal at Leicestershire for the 1986 season, doubtless to the relief of Merseyside’s club batsmen. Until they saw the replacement.

“After his first game,” recalls Chester’s skipper, Robin Jones, “we got back to the club and they all asked me, ‘What’s this fellow Ambrose like?’ I said, ‘Well, he’s not the bowler Winston was, but I think he’s going to be a reasonable batman’.”

Ambrose had a lot to live up to, then, but followed his wicketless debut at Formby with a wicketless home debut for the champions, returning 20-10-34-0 against Sefton, at which point one or two at Boughton might well have wondered whether Birkenhead Park had had rather the better of the arrangement. On the other hand, the figures did point up an ability to – as they say on Merseyside – not bowl much shit. Over the next five weeks, the big Antiguan found his mojo, taking 7-30, 5-30 (also making a second 50*), 1-35, 9-58 and 8-50 against Neston, the last five men all clean bowled, for 0, 1, 2, 1, 0. On one occasion, recalls Jones, Benjamin dropped in on a game unannounced and the sight of his sponsored car emblazoned with ‘Leicestershire CCC’ was “like flicking a switch” in his fellow Antiguan.

After that flurry, Ambrose again suffered back-to-back wicketless outings, the second coming in a draw at Ormskirk whose number three batsman, John Davies, a 27-year-old engineer, became the only man to score a hundred against Chester that summer. “When I came in there was a pool of blood on the wicket,” he recalls, “after Colin Mitchell had been floored by Curtly.”

“Colin was a good player,” adds Jones, “who played for the league representative XI. At the end of the first over, I walked past him as he was tapping down the pitch and he said, ‘He’s not so quick, Jonesy’, which wasn’t a good idea. Curtly heard him, see. Next over, he bowled him a short ball, which he went to hook, and it hit him straight between the eyes, fracturing his forehead like a burst orange. He was poleaxed on the pitch and within five minutes or so an ambulance was there on the outfield. Curtly was quite shaken up for a while and didn’t want to bowl.”

“I didn’t have a helmet on either,” continues Davies, who finished on 101 not out, “although, to be fair, Curtly pitched it up after that. Well, he did until one of our lads came back from the local sports shop having bought a couple of helmets, which we all shared between us. He started bowling bouncers again after that!”

This wasn’t Ambrose’s only infliction of GBH for CBH, with Hightown’s NL Gwyther – the only batsman not to be Curtlied in that 9-58 – also being retired hurt by a man with a good memory for adversaries who perhaps thought they had his measure. Davies can himself attest to this. In the return fixture, the last match of the season, he was bowled by Ambrose for a single, a brief stay yet long enough to have his hand broken by the Antiguan. “We declared on 71 for 9,” he chuckles, “because our number 11, Dave Brighouse, totally refused to bat. By then I was on my way to hospital for an x-ray, so I didn’t see them knock the runs off.” Fair to say nobody was objecting to his sweatbands.

Somewhat incongruously, by mid-June Ambrose only had one wicket at home – Warwickshire coach Alan Oakman had been to scout him and took away the view that he wasn’t good enough – but this was rectified with 4-39 against Liverpool, albeit in an eighth draw in ten unbeaten games, the visitors ambling to 85-4 in reply to 179-4 declared. The format of timed games, with cagey, sometimes spiteful declarations, did not lend itself to cavalier cricket, although there may have been a subtext.

“The year before Winston,” recalls Gresty, “we had a Barbadian spinner called Alan Rogers, who I think was the first-ever overseas player in the Liverpool Competition. There were no professionals allowed. Then came Benji, who knocked sides over one after the other. We regularly bowled teams out for double-figure scores [96, 74, 58, 58, 58, 49 and 42]. The other teams resented it, so when we turned up with another West Indian quick the following year they took umbrage. They went to any lengths to try and stop us winning.”

Even so, with Ambrose taking 6-46, Boughton beat St Helen’s Recreation – who would finish as runners-up – in their next jaunt north of the Mersey, trips fondly recalled by Jones, whose job it was to ferry his West Indian warhead about. “I’d given him a red cap, a club cap, which he wore all the time. So when he sat in my car, which had an open-topped roof, with him being 6 foot 8, you’d see this red cap sticking through the roof, which was probably quite a sight going through the Mersey Tunnel.”

Ambrose neither drove nor drank, “but he’d be perfectly happy for me to spend an hour or so socialising after an away game”, says Jones. “He would potter about looking at old photographs on the clubhouse wall. But once or twice in the season he did come up to me and say, ‘I want to go now, man’. So we did.”

Perhaps put off by an early-season net session when he discovered the hard way what stinging nettles were, Ambrose wasn’t exactly an avid trainer, according to Jones, not that too many of his colleagues were unduly perturbed by what they were missing out on. “The club has great net facilities now – Lancashire sometimes train there – but at that time they weren’t the sort that you’d want to have faced Curtly in.”

Unbeaten until the final week of June, but drawing too many games, Chester suffered a four-game mini-slump of two defeats and a draw that dealt a fatal blow to their hopes of retaining the title. First they were bowled out for 84 by Southport & Birkdale to lose by 92, then travelled to Huyton in the middle of a heatwave to find the square flooded. “The game was almost called off, it was that bad,” recalls Gresty, and Ambrose went wicketless for the fifth time in 13 outings. He then picked up 7-32 against Northern in a straightforward win, before a trip up the Wirral to Birkenhead Park – the fifteenth and final opponent of the first run of fixtures – and a clash with the overseas player that Chester had passed over.

The home team made 193-4, Ambrose dismissing Codrington, but were in turn hustled out for 180, Ambrose chipping in with 45, the last wicket falling to a 49-year-old Tony Shillinglaw, the man who later decoded Don Bradman’s ‘rotary’ batting technique. The victory would propel Birkenhead to the title – perhaps Chester did have the wrong man – and leave Boughton off the pace with a nine-match home stretch left to play, two of which would be lost to the weather.

In those final seven outings, which brought four wins and three draws, Ambrose’s returns were that 7-42 against Formby, 5-41, 6-39 (all bowled), 1-27, 2-39, 6-54 (five bowled) and 5-38. One more win would have seen them finish third rather than sixth, but his colleagues were in no doubt about the Antiguan’s quality. It was never more amply demonstrated than in a tight Liverpool Echo Knockout final, played over two innings of twenty overs, when Bootle had needed 10 off two overs with all 10 wickets intact and Curtly defended three in the final over with a series of laser yorkers.

Alan Oakman may not have been sufficiently impressed by the tyro, but toward the back end of the season a two-man delegation from Central Lancashire League (CLL) side Heywood had come to run the rule over him, with a view to signing him the following year. Bob Cross and John Rhodes, now club president and chairman, were those charged with the duties. Legend has it that after two balls of his spell Cross turned to Rhodes and said: “I’ve seen enough, we’re having him.” They did, but not for free.

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