Using the word God depicting a sportsperson is common as it has become sobriquet of Maradona, one of the greatest ever footballers and many people actually worship him like a celestial one. Same perhaps may even be applied for Sachin Tendulkar as he is the deity of a country that is frenzied with cricket like a religion. But, how Amrbose and why to a person far from his own land?
The answer actually unfolds an amazing social history. The saga of a tumultuous time for a newly independent country. The effect of post colonialism, the urge of revolution, the dream of building a world of just and egality. In the end it, I must aware, became a sad footnote in the grand annals of Bangladesh history. However, the chronicle is vital and the meeting of a demigod and his devotee brought it to the fore again.
This part of the world fought twice to earn their independence. First, from the colonial shackle and then from the atrocity of Pakistani rulers through a long and bloody struggle. Sports always played a vital role to charge up the youth and also finds solidarity as well as forming identity. Football and cricket, two English game, were vital to fight against the English colonizers themselves.
And during the sixties the advent of radio, television and global sports created a different layer. Myriad of newly independent former colonies were seeking national pride and international fraternity simultaneously. The wind of change was blowing high and strong. Anticolonial mindset was one of the driving forces of the progressive people throughout the so called third world countries.
Amid this background Brazil football team became everyone’s second choice and West Indies had the same pedigree in cricket.
CLR James, one of the most important philosophers of last century, showed the impact vividly on his magnum opus, beyond a boundary. Regarded as the best book written on cricket it describes how West Indies cricket became the symbol of resistance against the white supremacy and emancipation of black.
That became a global phenomenon soon. Like Brazil, sporting success of Windies was the major fuel to ignite and thrive the fire. Through cricket many were seeking their desired fire in the Babylon. The dreamers of Bangladesh, who imagined a world without oppression, followed the suit in pursuit of their own Babylon.
As a result, the progressive faction of the country started to subscribe the calypso brand of cricket. In the heart of Dhaka, the people who were eager to be part of modern literature and culture took side of West Indies.
“The West Indies cricket team, their success and style attracted us. We were oozing with confidence after the liberation war. The fire of 60s was alive and we thought revolution was round the corner. We thought we could imitate Windies as the all-conquering force who serves the right side of victory,” told Mahmud Ali a veteran freedom fighter and sports lover of Gopibag, a cultural and sporting milieu at the outskirt of old Dhaka.
The place right then became the hub of culture, sports and politics. These intertwined in the newly born country and the Windies great like Gary Sobers, Clive Lloyd became their icons.
It was not confined in the Dhaka city. The same zeal was ubiquitous throughout the small towns.
“West Indies held a big part in the minds of progressive people in the small town of Jhalkathi,” said Masood Imran Mannu, a professor of archeology who was born and brought up in the southern district.
“The people used to read English dailies, they used to gather discussing about modern literature, politics but cricket always seemed to be at the fore and West Indies was the passion for my progressive father and his friends,’ added Mannu.
The situation was similar in almost every other town. The urge for progressive thought spread and supporting West Indies somehow became a crucial binding agent.
Incidentally West Indies not only won first two ODI World Cups in 1975 and 1979 but they were undisputed kings of Test cricket from the late seventies to middle of the nineties. The support base for Windies got strengthened as children of the new generation also got attracted with the likes of Gordon Greenridge, Desmond Haynes. Malcolm Marshall, Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Viv Richards.
“West Indies players were my childhood heroes. Despite being a girl, I wanted to play and win like them. The progressive thought of my father and history of the team that I knew from him also helped me loving them,’ said Punny Kabir, a PhD student who grew up in Dhanmondi in the late eighties.
During that period however, cricket was basically a fringe game in Bangladesh where local football dominated domestic circuit. The national team was also playing in the lower tier of the global level. But a certain portion of the society held the game dear and it won’t be difficult to assume almost everyone of them had soft corners for West Indies.
The next decade brought a big change. Football started to diminish as the mass cultural practice and the neo-liberalism started to alter progressive politics. Ironically, cricket sprung as the chief sport thanks largely to the major inculcation of capital in subcontinent game and Bangladesh started to become a vital junction to raise the craze for the game.
Ironically, the love for West Indies and the people who were following them were shrunk. The former elites who used to nurture cricket saw the influx of new generation who focused on revenue and strengthen the global position to secure more capital flight.
Indeed, the decline of West Indies cricket also accelerated the fall down. The fairy tale of the Island nations turned into a mere story of golden pas. Gradually their cricket falls into abyss. Meanwhile, the landscape of Bangladesh politics, culture and love for the game also changed completely. The fans of West Indies, like their team, got almost obliterated.
And there comes the God story of Ambrose. He enjoyed a great career and the peak moment of West Indies cricket under the captaincy of Viv Richards. Richards used to wear three-colour band as expression of his politics. The Green represented the land of Africa, Gold for the wealth that was stripped away and the Red for the blood that was shed. Richards was the embodiment of West Indies, their glory and the political ethos that used to make them cult figure in Bangladesh and other third world countries.
Ambrose was not as expressive as person. He is a reticent person. In his autobiography, ‘the time to talk’’, he mentioned time and again that he preferred his bowling do the talking.
Brian Lara, one of the modern-day greats became the shining light of West Indies cricket in late 90s and early in the new century. But for me the pair of Ambrose and Courtney Walsh was more attractive. Lara, like his biggest competitor Tendulkar, was superstar but the pace duo was like workmen who continued their voyage relentlessly.
And I must confess, despite being a better record I would not treat Walsh as good as Ambrose (I profoundly apologise to Walsh for that). The style, the aggression, the fun of the latter made me a devotee like many others. His legendary battle with late Dean Jones, where the latter asked him to remove the wristband to irritate him, created one of the most romantic stories for fast bowling lovers. Yet, his broad smile after bowling out Ian Healy with a super slower ball made him even more endearing.
Curtly’s gesture had uniqueness. After grabbing a wicket in a crucial phase, he used to celebrate like the hunters of antiquity. Every time when he appealed for a leg before it seemed plumb. He wanted to become a basketball player and although his dream was not fulfilled his expertise to the game helped him more accurate with finding the most suitable spot of the pitch using his long and flexible wrists.
But above all, his pride, never say die attitude made him the icon. The famous one-run win against Australia, capitulating a strong Indian batting outfits for 81 while chasing 120 were prominent examples. He snatched some amazing victories with the aid of Walsh and his other teammates that he will be remembered as one of the greatest ‘heist artist’ of cricket.
However, the luck was not always with him. The infamous loss in the World Cup semifinal in 1996 against Australia was the watershed moment. West Indies and Ambrose could never recover and failed to become greatest from great. On that traumatic day, perhaps the most traumatic in my life, a chapter of history was finished. For once, Ambrose lost from the jaw of a win. Like him, I also tremble recalling the moment even after a quarter century.
The middle name of Amrbose was given after Australia’s legendary fast bowler Ray Lindwall. Curtly’s mother Hillie Ambrose, his greatest inspiration of life and an ardent cricket fan, named him in the hope of her son becoming a great fast bowler.
They say truth is stranger than a fiction. Curtly surpassed the great he was named after as a pacer. Some stories are perhaps written in the stars.
Curtly’s one is like that.
The story of Amrbose, his legacy and an unbelievable connection with Bangladesh cricket and fans will shine forever like the brightest star.