Legendary West Indies fast bowler Michael Holding talks about “institutionalised and systemic” racism in sports, insists T20 is “not even cricket”, says the Indian team has vastly improved its fitness levels and explains how Virat Kohli is similar to Viv Richards. The session was moderated by Deputy Associate Editor Sriram Veera.
SRIRAM VEERA: The book is an enlightening, heart-wrenching, occasionally emotionally difficult read when you delve into the history of racism. You hadn’t spoken out a lot on this issue before last year. Why was that?
MICHAEL HOLDING: Because I don’t live it. I had taken a selfish view that this is a thing I experience just for a few months when I am away from home. When I go back home, I don’t live that experience. So I just go back home, I am happy and I am content to be where I am. If you look at history, it will show you that… in the long run, it was a wise thing to do. Because if you look at all the Black people and the people of colour that have hit out against racism and made a stand, their careers ended in no time at all. Look at (American footballer) Colin Kaepernick. He is a man who in recent times took that stand. His career came to an end immediately. That shows you when Black people and the people of colour decide that they are being victimised and they want to talk about it, they want to complain about it, they want to protest about it, the system, the institutionalised racism that is evident around the world, locks you out. And you basically are dispelled from society. Perhaps that would have happened to me if I said anything earlier.
SRIRAM VEERA: All of us heard your emotional speech on Sky Sports on Black Lives Matter movement last year. What made you go ahead and write this book?
MICHAEL HOLDING: If my boss at Sky hadn’t given me the opportunity, even now no one would have known what I thought about the situation. I wouldn’t have written the book. But these feelings have been inside of me for many, many years. I have travelled the world. I have experienced and seen discrimination and racism in different parts of the world. But because I live in Jamaica and I hadn’t ever come across anything like that where I live, I used to brush it off and say, no that’s their problem. But given the opportunity by Sky, I spoke about it and spoke about it deeply because I knew all about the history of racism in the world. I only wrote the book at the end because after speaking on Sky, so many people got in touch and implored me to go further on what I said on Sky. And after much prompting, I decided yes, let’s go ahead and do this book.
All the first people (who) had called me before I even thought about doing the book was Thierry Henry. He saw me on Sky News and called me after that and we had a good, long discussion. Then of course when I decided to do the book, I got back to him and he was happy to be involved. And so many people around the world said and the messages I have got, so I thought let me go ahead with this book.
SRIRAM VEERA: You have written white people fear black people. Why do you think that is the case? And it’s a deeply researched book where you go into racism history in great detail.
MICHAEL HOLDING: It’s quite evident you see it in everyday life and again, I am not blaming people for this attitude that they have. You walk down a street in a place with white people and they see a black person coming, they try to move out of the way. Not so much in multiracial society but certain places that you go. Because that is what is in your head. That’s what they have been taught for decades, that black people are violent. Black people are criminals. That is the just the way they are brought up. I am blaming the institutionalised and systemic racism that puts those things in their head.
I did research because I wanted the book to be a teaching tool. I want this to be a process of education for people who will read this book. It would have been easy for me to fill a book with stars and their experiences and the racism that they have experienced. But that doesn’t teach anyone anything. All that would have been a collection of stories. They already know those stories. The reason that those great athletes, those great names are in the book is to show people, it doesn’t matter which background you are from… It doesn’t matter how famous you are. It doesn’t matter how rich you are. Once your skin is dark, you suffer victimisation, you suffer racism. That is the reason those people are in the book. I want people to be educated by this book. That is why I have gone into history to show people how racism started. Why it started? And why people want it to continue. They don’t want equal justice for everyone. Basically, they want this system to continue. And when I say they, again I am not talking about individuals. I am talking about the institutions and the way they are set up.
Two people will go to school, a black and a white kid will go to school… In many countries, in England, in Australia… Both of them will have the same academic achievements, but when they leave school, their path would be different depending on the colour of their skin and that is what I am talking about. They go to school and they are the best of buddies. But when they leave school, one goes left and one goes right and that is not their fault. That’s the way the system is set up. And that is what I want people to be educated about so that they can put pressure on people who make policy, so that we can have a change in those things.
SRIRAM VEERA: In your book you write about a beautiful incident with your mum; a black kid and a white kid are playing. You wrote about what your mum said and looking back, what do you think about what she said?
MICHAEL HOLDING: They were two girls… She (mum) woke me up, because she got up early and she saw the two kids in the backyard and she said, ‘Mikey, Mikey come here’ in an excited manner. And when I got to the window and I looked down and saw the two kids, I just said, ‘look at that, we have a chance’. That was obviously on her mind. Because she went through that when she was young; when she married my father, she went through all that. So it’s definitely something that’s been playing on her mind over decades and decades. Because I was the last child born. I am 13 years after my mother’s first child. For so long these things are on our mind and she sees the two kids and she thinks to herself that things are improving; a black and a white kid are there in a yard playing together. But as I said in the book, she didn’t take into consideration the institutionalised and systemic racism that would separate them when they stop being kids. And that’s what we are hoping for, to make sure that these kids can go to the same world, the same society, get the same opportunities and achieve the same.
SRIRAM VEERA: Was it during your first tour of England in 1976 that you realised what West Indians winning in cricket meant for the West Indian diasporas away from home?
MICHAEL HOLDING: That was my second (overseas) tour. I went to Australia in 1975-76 and I went to England in 1976. And of course in Australia, we didn’t come across a lot of West Indians. In England, it was the first time I was coming across a lot of West Indians living outside the West Indies and realising how important it was for them if their team did well. But in 1976, I still didn’t grasp it that much. I didn’t grasp it, understand it and recognise it as much as when I started going back to England regularly in the 1980s. When I would live with these guys, I would mix with them, I would interact a lot. I would go places and would how things operate with these people, then I got to understand totally, what they were going through. They were treated as second class or possibly third-class citizens especially here in England. Sometimes I would look at some of these guys and say ‘man I could never live in this country, I am so glad I am going home in September’. They wanted people to recognise that they had as many rights as anyone else. If their team could beat the English team that lifted them. They walked proudly on the streets… ‘I am from where these guys are from, we beat you at cricket. I am just as good as anyone else.’ That is how they wanted to feel.
MIHIR VASAVADA: Do you think the sports ecosystem is largely white — not the players but the administration, lawmakers, coaches, broadcasters, journalists. Everyone is white and white male at that.
MICHAEL HOLDING: Racism is institutionalised and systemic. That’s what we are trying to get rid of. Thierry Henry talks about how many Black players have never been able to become football coaches. We must get rid of institutionalised racism to achieve that.
TUSHAR BHADURI: Did some people think that bowling fast and the brand of cricket that your West Indies team played at that time wasn’t cerebral enough. Was there some subtle racism?
MICHAEL HOLDING: You could say there might have been some racist slant. But again, I would say those people were in a minority. Certain journalists who had certain amount of power and wrote for certain powerful newspapers would try to decry and degrade some of what we were doing. And of course people who were not really thinking for themselves and also want to find a reason to say that we were not as good will follow those journalists. But at the same time, we didn’t care. We went there to win. There is no way anyone could say we were playing outside of the laws of the game or outside of the spirit of the game. We played cricket to win and we wanted to beat everyone.
And later on, other teams tried to adapt the same tactic which we adopted. When we started off with four fast bowlers, one of the first cries was, ‘oh it is not a balanced team’. We were winning, we were not interested in ‘balance’, we were interested in winning Test matches. In 2005, when England selected four fast bowlers and won the Ashes, they didn’t say they didn’t have a ‘balanced team’. When (Steve) Harmison hit Ricky Ponting on his face at Lord’s and brought blood, people in the stands were cheering. When we did it, it was boos and we were criminals. But when they do it, it is fine.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: The West Indies team of that era was so intimidating that other cricketers wouldn’t have dared, forget racism, to even casually sledge you guys. Somebody once used the word grovel (Tony Greig) and the world knows what happened after that. How does this dynamic work? Especially for the Asian teams of that era that have complained of racism.
MICHAEL HOLDING: I have heard some members of my team say that they had racist remarks passed at them or passed around them. You know, I can’t say yes or no if that actually happened. During my entire career as a cricketer playing for the West Indies, no one on the cricket field passed a racist remark towards me. People will say because you bowled fast, they were afraid. But I don’t think that was the case. We in that team never said anything to anyone, we never abused anyone on the cricket field. Perhaps that is the reason why people didn’t really say anything to us. Because all that we did was go about our business and play as well as we possibly could. As for the Asian teams, perhaps they would have had remarks being passed at them, I don’t know, I can’t testify about something I am not aware of. But if that is the case, it is understandable because if it takes place off the field, it can take place on the field.
SRIRAM VEERA: In your book, (former South African cricketer) Makhaya Ntini talks about why he didn’t get into the team bus but would run to the ground from the hotel.
MICHAEL HOLDING: Yeah, he didn’t feel comfortable with the team. And he related a story that he would go for breakfast [first] and sit at a table. Other team members would come in and sit at another table. None of them would come and join him. Because of course, he was the first Black African to play for South Africa. But he was all alone at his table.
You know, it is not shocking to me. When you have a country with that sort of history [of apartheid], it takes a long time for people to accept that we are all human beings. The apartheid regime doesn’t just get washed away and everything goes back to normal. It will take time for people to understand, people to accept and for people to come together.
NIHAL KOSHIE: What’s your take on South African cricket’s transformation policy: six players of colour, including two Black players, are requirements. The criticism is that merit is not always rewarded.
MICHAEL HOLDING: In my book, both Makhaya Ntini and I agree that a quota system is never going to be the solution. We can understand why it has taken place as people are desperate for change – and as rapidly as possible. But the best solution is to make opportunities available for everyone. I had this argument with Dr Ali Bacher from 2003 that instead of going out and picking special talent and putting them in special schools, make sure all facilities all around the country are accessible to everyone. Don’t attempt to just pick the next Makhaya Ntini. As the chapter narrates, Ntini goes to the school and gets lost. He doesn’t even know the [English] language. He doesn’t know what’s happening. Don’t take him out of his community. Go to his community and improve the infrastructure so that they can develop themselves. It’s a lot easier on them that way because you are putting pressure on them when you take them out of their community. And of course, you will identify more talents; instead of picking one, you might get 3-4. Ntini might bring along a kid from his community who is good. That is the best way to get to where you want to be – getting the best to be selected.
The quota system just shows that you are in a hurry to be where you want to be. In my opinion, that should not last. You can’t keep on having a quota system forever and forever. Ntini talks about it – he is in the South African team and is being looked at as a quota player instead of being justified of his place. He was mentally strong and able to get over it. Not everyone is going to be like that, though. It can destroy your mind.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: What do you think about the West Indies of today? We hear youth’s love for basketball and then they win a T20 tournament and again talks of cricket revival begin. But it doesn’t last long. Why?
MICHAEL HOLDING: When you win a T20 tournament, that is not revival; it’s not even cricket! It’s going to be very difficult for the West Indies to get on top in Test cricket because of this T20. The T20 tournaments around the world are the bane of the game. When you are a poor country and can’t afford to pay as much as England, Australia, and India, the players will go on to play T20. That’s where West Indies and others are getting hit. Unless you can pay as much as the rest of the big countries, this will happen. Many West Indies players are not interested in playing for West Indies. I don’t want to call out names. When you are earning 600,000 or 800,000 dollars for six weeks, what are you going to do? I don’t blame the cricketers. I blame the administrators. They give a lot of lip service to Test cricket but all they are interested in is bringing in money into their cupboards… West Indies will win T20 tournaments which aren’t cricket; they won’t be a force in Test cricket.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: You haven’t found commentating in IPL interesting?
I only commentate on cricket.
SHIVANI NAIK: When your team bowled bouncers, the administrators changed rules. Now things have changed with the episodes of concussions and their long-term effects. Would you say cricket should relook that part of the game or continue with it?
MICHAEL HOLDING: What I’ll tell you is that I’m glad I’m on the way out. Because they are slowly but surely destroying the game. I wouldn’t even try to honour that with a proper response. You want to cut out bouncers from the game? Okay, well, stop footballers from heading the ball because that gives them concussion as well. And that is a study that has proven to be correct. You try and protect people as much as you can, yes, that is why people are wearing helmets and improving helmets now. That is why they do so much to try and protect them because people’s lives are important. But don’t turn it into a softball competition. Cricket also is a test of your strength of character. What you have got ticking inside your chest. That is why they call it Test cricket. If you’re afraid of the ball, why should you be able to excel when you’re afraid? So if you’re a coward, find another way to make a living.
SANDIP G: Do you think batsmen are reluctant to play the hook shot these days? More batsmen seem to be getting hit these days.
MICHAEL HOLDING: If you can’t hook, you don’t hook. You have too many people who cannot hook but are trying to hook because they have a false impression that their helmet will protect them. Years gone by, before the helmets came along, people who could not hook didn’t try to hook because they knew if they made a mistake, it could be a dangerous mistake. If you’re playing on a normal, plain surface and getting hit, it obviously means – 1) You’re not capable of playing the game that you’re trying to play or 2) You’re playing shots that you’re not capable of playing. Look at the history of the game. How many people got hit before helmets came along?
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: This whole shrinking of cricket that is happening… Looking at the bigger picture of Zimbabwe, even Sri Lanka, South Africa. There was a point when there wasn’t so much money but cricket was active in so many countries.
MICHAEL HOLDING: Michael Atherton wrote an article about it many years ago. He thought Test cricket would die and I said, ‘No, Test cricket won’t die in my life but it will become more and more insignificant.’ England, they say, is the mother of cricket where the game started before all the colonialists took it around the world. The best months in England are supposed to be the summer months, right? Is yearly Test cricket being played? They play in May and early June. The next Test match is on August 4. This has been going on for two-three summers in England. So, it’s obvious that they are putting other forms of cricket over Test cricket. The shortest form of the game is attracting more and more people and companies to broadcast them. Test cricket just gets lip service.
SRIRAM VEERA: India, England and Australia have got power in cricket. You think they are using their power well? Some in India say the white guys used to run it and now it’s our chance. Even if we do something bad, let it be because they used to do it for so long, so let’s show them who is boss now.
MICHAEL HOLDING: The great Nelson Mandela was in jail for 27 years and when he became president of South Africa, if he had adopted that same attitude of ‘Okay. It’s my time in power. I will do to you what you did to me,’ South Africa would have been in a bloodbath. Great people don’t think that way.
Think of cricket as a universal game. Not something owned by India. We saw the big three of England, Australia and India trying to take over the game and they did for a period of time. They are still doing it but doing so undercover. It’s obvious that they are only interested in themselves. The same attitude that you talk of… ‘Oh we have the power. We will do as we like,’ it pervades the game.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: Is there a significant difference in the way India plays cricket now and in the past?
MICHAEL HOLDING: Well, it’s a totally different era when it comes to Indian cricket. When I played against India, probably two of the players were fit. Now everybody on the field is fit. You see how athletic they are, how dynamic they are. The skill level hasn’t really changed that much but when you have fitness, and change of attitude along with skill level, obviously the cricket will also change. What has also helped Indian cricket is that a lot of pitches in India, for domestic cricket and cricket in general, have improved. The ball bounces a lot more and since it carries, batsmen are able to cope on overseas pitches. In my time, once India left India, that was it. The pitches that they played in India were slow and low and it became dusty. When I did a series in India in 2014-15, when West Indies came and the tour was abandoned, each time I would do a pitch report with Sunny Gavaskar, I would joke and say, ‘Sunny, how come the pitches weren’t like this when we used to play here?’ Good pitches create good cricketers.
SRIRAM VEERA: What are your thoughts on Virat Kohli, his approach and his captaincy?
MICHAEL HOLDING: Virat Kohli is someone who wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s someone who will let you know exactly how he feels. I think he gets a bit carried away at times, but that is Virat Kohli, that is the man. He’s similar to Viv (Richards) in that regard. Viv, sometimes on the field, was over-expressive. But those are the personalities of those two gentlemen. They can tone down a little bit as well, but then, if you are a Mustang, it’s hard to tell a Mustang to trot. He’s going to gallop.
As far as his captaincy, I’ve only seen India when they were touring England and I saw them in South Africa. The only thing I’d say about Virat is that he tone down a bit so his team can relax because a lot of them, I think, are on tenterhooks.
SHAHID JUDGE: What do you think about social media-related problems players face?
MICHAEL HOLDING: When people talk about social media putting them under stress, all they need to do is to come out of social media. Social media is now being monetised. More people are following you on social media, people are telling me, the more advertisers you get, more money goes to your pocket. I was never interested in what the newspapers were writing or what the journalists were saying. And up till now, I have never joined a social media platform. I am not interested in that.
DEVENDRA PANDEY: These days commentators are under pressure since their fate is being decided by cricketers and cricketing boards. How do you maintain your honesty and self-respect as a commentator?
MICHAEL HOLDING: You know what the situation is going to be when you are working in India and for the ICC — what you can and cannot say. I accused some umpires of bad umpiring during the World Cup, that was the first time I worked for an ICC tournament for something like 10 years because they don’t want people to express the opinion they don’t like. Because that is the way they want to control the narrative of what is going on. They want people who will say what they want. I am not into that. I am here to give an honest opinion of what is taking place on the field because I have my integrity to live up to and that’s the only thing that I can take to my grave. I can’t take money or love or anything else to my grave but name.
SRIRAM VEERA: Your hero, the batsman, Lawrence Rowe went to play in South Africa during the Apartheid era, as did some others. In the book, you mentioned that the reason he told you was that the situation in South Africa was not that bad; that he saw a black man driving a Mercedes Benz. How difficult was it for you to digest?
MICHAEL HOLDING: Again, we go back to education. They didn’t know the full story of South Africa. When somebody can make a comment like they see a black man driving a Mercedes Benz so things can’t be all that bad, obviously they haven’t thought about it deeply or learnt about it deeply. That’s just the surface that they are looking at. It’s all down to education.
And when I talk about education, people think that I’m only talking about educating white people as the great things black people do. I’m talking about also educating black people on the workings of the world. I was in a taxi when I finished doing my duties in London recently with the book. I was in a taxi with a Ghanaian driver. And I had to be educating him, because he’s telling me, “Oh, black people have never done anything good. And black people this and black people that”. He said to me, black people have never even invented something like a toothpick. And he didn’t understand because he is uneducated as to what black people have done. And that is the basics around the world.
They brainwash people, they airbrush great things that black people and people of colour have done so that you are unaware. We stopped at a traffic light, and I said to him, “Do you know it’s a black man who invented that traffic light?” And he said, “what, that?!” He had no idea but I don’t blame him.
It’s the education that we are given. It’s what we are taught by the teachers… that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. Thomas Edison invented the non-functional light bulb. That’s like telling me that someone invented the car, but the car had no engine. And then someone invented the engine, but only talk about the man who invented the body of the car. That is the teaching that we have had, and that is what this book is about, to educate people as to the real history of mankind.
SRIRAM VEERA: The book talks about the first black Roman Emperor Septimius and Lewis Howard Latimer, the inventor of copper filament in bulbs which made the lighting last long.. How important is this sort of education in order to clear the brainwash? To not only be teaching that you’re a descendant of a slave, but that you were great?
MICHAEL HOLDING: Well, that is the objective of this book, so that people of colour can understand that they have had great people from their same race and their same colour before them. When you don’t have people to try to emulate and look up to, to try and be like them, you’re sitting there and saying, ‘This is my luck. I’ve never seen anybody like me that has done anything great. So this is my luck, I can’t go any further’. And when you know about it, then you can lift yourself. The same thing that we were talking about earlier on with the cricket.
SRIRAM VEERA: You use music lyrics in the book, be it Bob Marley or the reggae song ‘Christopher Columbus is a liar’ by Winston Rodney, who went by the stage name ‘Burning Spear’.
MICHAEL HOLDING: Bob Marley is one of the greatest musicians of the world but people listen to the beat, they might hear the words but they don’t quite understand because they are jumping around and enjoying themselves. And Bob Marley said ’emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds’. And people hear that and they will dance and not really understanding what Bob Marley is saying.
And the thing is that it’s not Christopher Columbus that discovered Jamaica. Come on. Jamaica’s been going on for hundreds and thousands of years before Christopher Columbus got here. People were living there. People were travelling around the Caribbean. So can you discover something that has been there for so long?
But again, that’s brainwashing. Unless the Europeans know about it, it doesn’t exist as far as they’re concerned. They tell Christopher Columbus discovered America and even set foot in America. And at the time at which he was sailing around the area, the Native Americans were already doing trade with people in Europe. Norway I think it was, they were doing trade with. Then Captain Cook goes to Australia. There had been people living in Australia for hundreds of years and then you come out claiming that you’ve discovered Australia. No no no. That’s the arrogance of Europe. That’s like me getting a penicillin injection and ‘oh, I discovered penicillin’. Nah, it’s been there a long time.
SHAMIK CHAKRABARTY: How hopeful are you that things will change with regard to racism?
MICHAEL HOLDING: This is not going to be an easy read for anyone. My sister called to say that some chapters are difficult to read. It had to be a hard read because unless you recognise why you are sick, you can’t cure yourself. It was both cathartic and emotional and at times difficult to write. Because there was a lot in the book that I didn’t know… I had to go and research. I saw some pictures from the 40s and 50s about what they did to people. They did really degrading things to Black people.
I have hope that people are waking up. A few days ago, I was on Good Morning Britain (GMB) and I spoke up about all this. And this gentleman and his wife, a white English couple, slipped a note under my door. I will read it to you: “Dear Michael, just saw your interview on GMB. So very passionate and empowered, very eloquent. It has opened our eyes. Thank you very much.” I know there is a chance of things getting better. We have a chance.