Curtly Ambrose, West Indies’ premier fast bowler in the 1990s, hits out at his former teammate and batting genius Brian Lara in his autobiography Time to Talk. An excerpt from the book
We were now seeking to rebound from the rarity of a series loss, to Australia (in 1995), though we were still confident of winning in England. There was just one problem. It turned out to be the most challenging and difficult tour I have ever been on in my entire career, especially in reference to the ridiculously long schedule.
Our first game was 13 May and the last on 3 September 1995 after two games against Yorkshire at Scarborough — this after a six-Test series! Can you imagine how I felt after a long, tough series to be told we then had to go and play some cricket at Scarborough?
West Indies captain Brian Lara (right) talks to fast bowler Curtly Ambrose during the Leeds Test against England in 1995 Pics/Getty Images
The other challenging part of this trip centred on team disunity or, more to the point, Brian Lara’s conduct that was unattractive for a top international cricketer. We had some issues with the great Brian Lara starting back in the Caribbean in the Australia series. Actually, the problems were more between Brian and the captain Richie Richardson.
A lot of people thought Brian wanted his job. I wasn’t sure but I sensed that Brian did not support Richie to the fullest. These issues that were hovering about the team became clearer in a meeting after the Jamaica Test against Australia, prior to going to England. Brian said he wasn’t in the mood to go to England and, again, it was my view that this was borne out of his feelings about Richie’s captaincy. So even though Brian did eventually tour there was friction and still some problems going on.
This ongoing problem came to a head when Brian left the tour between the fourth Test in Manchester and the fifth in Nottingham. Richie is a laid-back guy and he can put up with a lot before he snaps but there came a point when he could not take any more with Brian. We had a team meeting in Taunton before the second three-day match against Somerset and he really chastised Brian for being ‘egotistical’.
It was nothing to do with Brian’s batting — after all he had just smashed 87 and 145 at Old Trafford. But Richie felt Brian was undermining his leadership. Richie said he couldn’t deal with egotistical people and Brian really took it personally and said a few things back and walked out of the meeting. We didn’t know where he went but we learned that he had left the tour. He was AWOL for a few days.
Discussions between Brian, the tour management and the WICB president Peter Short saw Brian return to the squad in time for the next match against Gloucestershire at Bristol. I wouldn’t want to speculate on the nature of those discussions but when the news came from the manager Wes Hall that Brian would be rejoining the team, most of the guys were not too happy, including me.
We knew he was a great player and would make a significant difference to the team, but the manner of his walkout was grossly disrespectful to the captain and the team. I asked the manager, before Brian returned, whether he thought Brian would act differently when he came back.
The manager’s answer was ‘I don’t think so’. I felt that he should not have been allowed to come back and the officials could have dealt with it at the end of the tour, back in the Caribbean. It seemed to me that in some people’s eyes Brian Lara was bigger than the team.
This was another example of West Indies Cricket Board insularity and politics where decisions are made not on merit but on the strength of a guy’s reputation or the island where he comes from. I have seen it many times where guys have erred in far less a way and have been treated harshly, when maybe only a slight reprimand was required. For instance, Winston Benjamin was sent home from this tour for, in my view, doing nothing wrong. He was extremely ill and was not able to play the game against The Universities at The Parks, when they wanted him to play.
His condition improved slightly during the game and he tried casually kicking a football with the guys before the game, and it didn’t go down well with management. Their take was ‘You are too ill to play the game but you can play football... ?’ They sent him home on disciplinary grounds, presumably after consulting with the WICB. That cost him not only the remainder of that tour but his international career.
I also heard that some WICB officials wanted to ban Kenny Benjamin for life because of not wearing his blazer on this tour, even though there was a perfectly good reason for this. So the Brian Lara episode shows how inconsistently cricket in the West Indies can be managed.
I do not believe the fact the two Benjamins were both from Antigua is mere coincidence. I come back to the insularity and political bias of our cricket once more. When you’re from the Leeward Islands, or Windward Islands, you are not treated the same way as players from the larger territories like Guyana, Trinidad, Jamaica and Barbados. The facts are there.
Going back to the Lara episode, I am not going to say I have always been a saint. But whatever I have said that may have upset people has always been in the best interests of the team. I have become heated and aggressive in team meetings but have never walked out because it is about honesty and what is best for the team. For Brian to have been invited back was hurtful because it suggested he was bigger than the team.
This is not personal against Brian Lara because we have always got along fine; I am speaking generally. If I had acted in the way that Brian had I would have expected to have been kicked off the tour and dealt with accordingly.
This unpleasant incident left a very bitter taste in my mouth and, as is typical of the passionate and honest way that I react at moments like these, I told the coach Andy Roberts and manager Wes Hall that at the end of the tour I would no longer play for the West Indies. I told them that I would continue to play county cricket or seek a contract in South Africa or Australia. This decision had nothing to do with my cricket; it centred on how the WICB seemingly had a higher regard for one man than the team.
They tried to talk me out of it throughout the fifth Test at Trent Bridge, which I missed with injury. They worked on me for several days. I deferred judgement then but finally decided, after thinking about it further at home, that it was not the right time for me or West Indies cricket to bow out then. As angry as I was about the whole thing, I felt that I should not allow the Brian Lara saga to end my career.
I always said I would end my career when I wanted to end it. After Brian rejoined the squad for the fifth Test, following his brief exit from the tour, we had what was supposed to be a tactics meeting before the Trent Bridge Test. But I was very upset with Brian and had to say something; that meant this would not be your average team meeting but would be quite an explosive team talk.
The way I usually express my grievances in team meetings is to criticise collectively, as it is about the team rather than individuals. But when I am especially unhappy I will start calling names. And in this meeting I called out the captain Richie Richardson and told him what I thought of his batting, then I called Jimmy Adams and told him the same, and again with Carl Hooper. My concerns were about the senior batsmen stepping up and raising their game. I purposely left Brian Lara’s name until last. It was difficult to criticise his batting after his 87 and 145 in a losing cause in Manchester.
But I chastised him for his attitude and about him not giving 100 per cent to the team and I started to swear. When I do that the guys know I have really had enough. I told him that he was a professional and he should behave like a professional. I said, ‘When you want to score runs you will score runs; these England bowlers cannot get you out when you are focused.’ I chastised him severely because I knew he had more to offer than the other batsmen.
I suppose it was a back-handed compliment because I knew what he was capable of. Brian seemed to heed my advice and battled magnificently as he went on to score 152, 20 and 179. I was forced to miss the fifth Test through injury. There were disciplinary issues all through that England tour. At the end of the series, back home in the Caribbean, Lara, Hooper, Kenny Benjamin and myself had to face a disciplinary committee in Barbados, all for different reasons: Lara for his walkout; Hooper for not turning up at Scarborough for those last two games of the tour; Kenny Benjamin for the West Indies blazer issue, and for me it was quite similar. Kenny was never actually given a blazer that fitted him throughout the tour and was often using borrowed ones that didn’t fit right either, despite him complaining about it almost every day.
In my case, we were asked to wear a West Indies blazer back home on the plane though when Wes Hall called everyone in their room the night before we flew, to advise about the dress code, I was not there and never got the message.
Apparently the original plan for every player to fly back to his own island had changed and we were all now flying back to Barbados together before going our separate ways. I never got to hear any of this and when I came down into the hotel lobby on the morning of our departure I saw all the guys in their blazers. I was in my denims.
The first I knew of our uniform request was when Richie asked me where my blazer was, while we were boarding the bus. Then the manager suggested I got changed before we flew but I reasoned that my blazer and shirt were creased and crumpled in my bag and even if I put them on I would look more of a mess. I did check on the condition of my blazer in my suitcase when we reached the airport but it wasn’t in a good state.
Curtly Ambrose in his West Indies blazer. Pic/ Ravi Krishnan
Proud of my blazer
Not only that I would have looked foolish wearing my blazer with jean pants and a denim shirt. I preferred to be the odd man out than to look stupid. I wore my West Indies blazer with pride normally but in this case it wasn’t right.
When we reached the other end and were met by flashing cameras it didn’t look good for me. But Wes Hall did state in his end of tour report that I was the only one who did not receive his message.
After Brian and Carl Hooper had their hearing in the morning, I had a hearing later with Kenny. I explained my case but they still fined me — all four of us, actually — 10 per cent of my tour fee. It was a tough tour yet here I was handing some of my hard-earned salary back to the WICB for, effectively, not being in my hotel room to pick up a message from the manager!
Excerpted from Curtly Ambrose: Time to Talk with Richard Sydenham. Published by Aurum/Pan Macmillan India. Price Rs 599.
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