Cricket: No more playing second fiddle for Ambrose

By Chris Barclay

It cannot accurately be classified as a summer holiday but after a month of monotonous fielding drills, tedious gym work and endless nets Tim Ambrose is anxious for gainful employment as England latest test cricket wicketkeeper.

Faced with such a mundane start to his first overseas tour, and knowing he would not face a ball in anger until two warm-up matches in Dunedin last week, it seems Ambrose should be commended for maintaining both his focus and enthusiasm.

Of course, there was an obvious justification for his upbeat attitude.

The 25-year-old was just biding his time realising Seddon Park was his destiny - Ray and Sally had their flights booked from Sydney months ago, secure in the knowledge their boy was not about to be incapacitated by New Zealand's seam attack during the one-dayers or Twenty20s.

Born in Newcastle north of Sydney, not Newcastle in England's north east, Ambrose has taken a curious journey to England's cricketing pinnacle - one that started when it dawned on him his sporting ambitions would never be realised in his native New South Wales.

With mum's citizenship allowing him smooth passage to London in 2000, he eyed the English county circuit as a pathway to international cricket.

Sussex was his first stop but after a five-year jostle for the position behind the stumps with Matt Prior, Ambrose retreated to Warwickshire in 2005 - as a career move it was an astute step forward.

After emerging from Prior's shadow, he has ultimately replaced him as England's selectors struggle to find a long-term successor to the Alec Stewart.

James Foster, Geraint Jones, Paul Nixon and Chris Read are among the players tested, trusted and turfed.

Prior was the most recent incumbent. He averaged 40 with the bat over his first year of test cricket but was a liability wearing the other gloves - three glaring misses against Sri Lanka in Galle three months hastened his demise.

Ambrose need not look hard to identify a contributing factor to that alarming turnover rate - another keeper who left NSW to further his career, Adam Gilchrist.

Since the retirement-bound Australian redefined the role of a wicketkeeper-batsman with his explosive hitting in the one-day and test arenas, England's cricket hierarchy have been desperate to unearth their own Gilchrist-clone, as New Zealand have managed with Brendon McCullum.

Asked if it was unrealistic to be expected to emulate his former countryman, Ambrose preferred to dwell on the positive.

"I'd never say he's been detrimental, he's been inspirational. He's raised the bar and it's great to have someone at that level to aim for - there's no reason why people can't achieve what he's done in the past."

Ambrose's sights have understandably been set lower this week - a sound debut will suffice after limited competitive preparation.

"It's been quite strange being around cricket for a month or so without actually getting in the middle and facing some bowlers and catching the ball," he said, after finally making his debut on University Oval.

It was evidently worth the wait.

"I'm as ready as I'll ever be, I haven't felt too many nerves so far. My game is in good order."

Ambrose took four comfortable catches against the New Zealand Invitation 11 and scored an encouraging 33 with the bat - an improvement from the earlier match against an Otago selection. There he made two and conceded eight byes, though in mitigation few wicketkeepers are blessed with the necessary wingspan to prevent a Steve Harmison early-tour special thudding into the sightscreen.

England's job-sharing arrangement behind the stumps now sees Phil Mustard, wicketkeeper during the Twenty20s and one-dayers, to busy himself on game day - an assignment Ambrose embraced.

"I didn't find it hard to fill my time. The guys are very professional and it's been a good learning experience," he said.

"I'd play the guitar to help me unwind. I'm a big (Bob) Dylan fan, a big fan of folk music.

"A few of the other guys (James Anderson and Graeme Swann) are trying to learn on tour so it's been good having some people to play along with.

"We haven't let in anyone to watch us yet - it's always been a bit of a relaxation thing for me."

Ambrose admitted his primary occupation was not exactly conducive to technically correct strumming, what with the ball thudding into his palms with monotonous regularity.

"I've had to adjust my style slightly because I got a thumb injury and it didn't quite bend the right way but I've managed to work around that."

- NZPA

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