Sometime in 1976, Michael Holding is met with a scowl from his mother. The Indians had just been scorched and bruised at Sabina Park in Kingston, Jamaica. Five Indians were “absent hurt” in the match. They didn’t turn out to bat. Holding was too hot. “So, Momma gives me a flipping tongue lashing at end of that game. ‘Mikey, those are human beings. How can you bowl bouncers? That’s not good. What gets into your head when you have the ball’. All I can say, ‘Momma, but that’s cricket.’ She doesn’t like it. She hated it. She never watched boxing for same reason.”
It’s 1980, West Indies vs England at Leeds. An icy-cold breeze is ripping the flesh. Geoffrey Boycott with the bat, Holding with the ball. He goes round the wicket and bowls a bouncer. Somewhere at fine-leg, Momma is sitting. “It’s cold, she is wearing a football hat, a West Indian sweater, jacket, grey socks.” Somebody in the crowd shouts, ‘You bastaaarrrd!’. She gets up from her seat, wades through the crowd and leans towards that gentleman, ‘What do you know about him to be calling him a bastard?!’ Oh Momma, what a lady she was.”
1976. Holding is staring down Brian Close in one of the most spine-chilling moments in cricket history. The ball kicks up every now and then, peppering the 42-year old Close’s body. It rams into his ribcage, thuds into his chest, and every now and then it flies past his nose. At short-leg, Viv Richards, who has immense respect for his county senior Closey, walks to check on him but is told to f*** off. Close sways, he taps the pitch, and there is this mask, an incomprehensible veil, on Holding’s face. What could the fastest bowler in the world be thinking?
“Get him out. I am not thinking anything else,” Holding tells you after 32 years. “The pitch didn’t help. It was rising from even short of length. Closey was a tough man. Let me tell you a story about Closey’s plan to get out Alvin Kalicharan. He tells the offspinner Pat Pocock to bowl on leg stump so that Kalicharan can go for his favourite sweep shot. Closey’s plan? Stand at short-leg and stop the bloody ball on his chest so that Alan Knott, the wicketkeeper, can take the rebound. That’s the plan! He would do anything for his country. They don’t make them like that anymore. So I am thinking nothing. Just trying to get him out. That’s all. Believe me, I never ever tried to hit a batsman deliberately. No, that wasn’t me.”
“Ask him,” Holding points to Alec Stewart, former England opener standing nearby and who once had his face smashed by a Holding bouncer. “I can see the pitch was a bit up and down, and I tell him. ‘Stewey, watch the ball’.” Stewart nods his head before adding, “Yeah he did warn me and I watched it all the way onto my chin!” Laughter cascades into the room.
Holding was 9 or 10, living in Jamaica and in love with cricket for one main reason: Curry goat rice on Sundays. The boy would shrug off sleep from his eyes, go to church, and scoot off with his mates at Melbourne Cricket Club. The van would clatter along dusty roads into the hinterland where Bauxite mining companies would host them for a game. “Red-dirt grounds because of the mining. They would always prepare goat and rice. And boiled green bananas. I loved it then, I love it now. Some teams would wait to make sure that we have arrived before they kill the goat!”
“You know I was an off-spinner when I started out.” Stewart, who is fiddling with his phone, turns around sharply and goes, “Whaaat? Why didn’t you carry on, Mikey?! This man breaks my jaw and I learn now he was an off-spinner. Hell!” More laughter. It was the greedy batsmen that seemed to have flipped him over. “We would play informal cricket in open spaces near homes and the only opportunity you would get to bat was if you get the person bowled. If he hit it in the air and someone caught it, the catcher would bat next. So you had to hit the stumps. These guys would put legs in front of the stumps. No lbw, nothing. A piece of corrugated iron, zinc, was the stumps – and when you heard that sound, it was sweet. No one can cheat about that sound. So I figured, I had to get quicker, and if I hit them on the legs once or twice, they won’t put their legs in the flipping way.”
Sometimes, at home, he would catch the wrath of his father. Mother was a school teacher and father a builder and a contractor, who would dish out punishments. None of the children smoked or drank, or were up to any grave vices, but if they strayed from rules, they would get it. With a hose pipe. “I still remember it,” Holding laughs. “He had a piece of water hose with a piece of string through the holes, electric wire knotted at the top. He would put his hand through the electric wire and give a proper hiding with the hose.” You mumble something about comb and stick from your childhood, and Holding scoffs. “That sounds like sweet love. No, no, this is water hose man. Believe me, you didn’t want to get that. You just did what you were told. For instance, it was Saturday morning, we had to clean the floors, windows and then you can go out. If you had ducked out before that, when you got back, your a**e is on fire! Nobody in my family was rude: no smoking, no drinking or back-chatting with parents. There was nothing like that. That is all modern-day. You have duties to do, just do your duties.”
It’s to his parents that he traces his moral ethics. He turned his back on millions from Allen Sandford, the businessman who bankrolled island nations in the Caribbean for his T20 tournament and was later jailed for running a ponzi scam. He fell out with his childhood idol and “God” Lawrence Rowe who went to South Africa to play cricket during Apartheid. “We patched up and talk these days but it was not what it used to be.” He turned down obscene amount of money to play in South Africa. “It was my upbringing, I guess. I didn’t have to think a second to turn it down.”
The man they called Whispering Death could well have been cooped up in an office cabin somewhere, staring at a computer if not for a phone call from Clive Lloyd. As a youngster, just after leaving school, he had already worked at Barclays bank at the data processing centre but had quit after his boss asked him to choose between cricket and banking. He then played a couple of series — the 75/76 soul-churning tour of Australia where they were hammered, losing the series and pride, played India when his mother had given him the verbal whiplashing, and a tour of England. Holding was done with cricket. When Pakistan were touring West Indies, Holding was at university, studying computer science.
“Lloydy calls me and tells me about World Series Cricket and about some Australian businessman Kerry Packer. He says, two people would come to meet me soon.” It turns out to be Tony Greig and Austin Roberts. “I can’t believe what they tell me. That they would pay me 25,000 dollars to play cricket. I got 600 for entire tour of Australia. They tell me to keep it hush-hush, and say I would get one third of the amount in two weeks. That’s 8000 dollars.”
A fortnight later, Holding is at the bank. “Just curious. I think it’s all a hoax. The cashier puts my red savings book in the machine and it goes, ‘clung clung clung’, and pushes it to me. I open it, there was nothing. A week later, I go again. Clung, Clung. I open the book and see a comma! I had never seen a comma in my book before. The money was there!”
World Series was the toughest cricket he has ever played, he says. Fiery fast bowlers in a sun-burnt country, no helmet, Packer in their ears to up the quality, batsmen hooking to survive, else facing the prospect of being stretchered out.
Just one thing stood out a bit. The colour of the jersey. Pink jerseys in the ’70s, Mikey? “Ha ha ha. I don’t know how that came about. I was just a kid. In the ’70s, men didn’t wear pink. Well, it was a mix of coral and pink. It was a bit odd initially but after a while it didn’t matter. It was down to the cricket. Lillee and Thommo, Max Walker, Wayne Prior (he was incredibly quick but couldn’t get into the Australian team because of Lillee and Thommo ). Mike Procter, Garth le Roux, John Snow, Imran Khan – the works. Everyone was there.”
1979, the famous tour of Australia after the ban was overturned and players allowed to play for the West Indies. “Revenge for 1975. We were busted then, and were now out to bust their ar**s. No West Indies team had ever beaten Australia in Australia. We were more mature, hardened professionals who knew how to handle emotions and turn it on. We still came across bad umpiring but Lloydy told us not to moan; take 15 wickets to get them.”
West Indies steamrolled Australia and Holding remembers the night at Adelaide where they won the series. “Relief and great joy. Last time, everything had broken down. This time we let the world know what we were capable of. Everybody got flipping drunk. I didn’t drink then (these days, I have white wine). But one player, I won’t tell you who, got so drunk and was vomiting. I wasn’t there but I heard his wife was so upset with him that she put his head into his vomit!”
The West Indies travel the world, imperiously shoving off other teams but are loved nearly everywhere. The BBC radio sports broadcaster Eleanor Oldroyd captures the impact Holding and co. had on white England. “I remember 1976. The summer was hotter and drier than this year. Everything was brown. These guys came along. I was just a white teenage girl, gasping in adulation at this greatest team I have ever seen. I still get goosebumps,” she says.
The movie Fire and Babylon puts their motivation down to race. Holding doesn’t quite see it that way. “Not for me. I would say this though. We knew when we beat England in England, my people here could walk around in the country with pride. That pride mattered to me. I knew what we brought to the people.”
It’s not Australia but Pakistan that proved the toughest competitors. “We would bust Australia every time we played but Pakistan were the toughest. You knew you had to really fight hard to win. Imran Khan, Abdul Qadir (he was great, only legspinner who I would compare with Shane Warne), Javed Miandad, Majid Khan, Zaheer Abbas, Sarfraz, the keepers Salim Bari and later Salim Yousuf, you could go on and on. That Wasim Raja, he gave us hell. We could never get him out, he would come at No. 5 or 6 and slam us. Bouncers didn’t faze any of them. They were tough nuts. In fact, in 1987, they should have beaten us in the West Indies but our umpires cheated. Umpiring all over the world was bad then.”
“Your Jimmy Amarnath was a tough, tough man. I remember a series in West Indies, he was hit by a bouncer, retires to dressing room and comes back with a blood-soaked shirt. Bouncer first ball, and he hooks it to square-leg boundary. And a fantastic guy. Most times, we bowlers never spoke to anyone on the field. But Jimmy was such a friendly guy, we would have a little chat. And then bowl bouncers. He would just smile. Great memories.”
His smooth jazzy run-up has made many salivate. Some have even attributed, almost subconsciously to his race. It makes him bristle. “Even our bowling. It was as if they thought, all we needed to do was run up and bowl fast or short or whatever. That’s what irks me the most. I tell them go check the scorebook: how many were lbw, bowled, caught in slips or whatever. It’s as if they don’t want to credit our thinking. I have never seen more intelligent and crafty bowlers like Andy or Malcolm. As far as my run-up goes, I would put it down to my long-jump training in younger days. You had to be smooth, you had to sprint and you could not cross that white line. That’s why I hardly ever bowled a no ball in my life.”
For the last two decades, Whispering Death has been shorn off the blood-curdling glares; it’s his deep, fruity Caribbean voice with its smooth cadence that fills the ears across the world. “I don’t like hearing my voice!” The BBC lady interrupts in shock: “The other day my daughter, 17 years, heard your commentary on television, “I can hear it all day, all my life.” Holding smiles and says, “My wife, luckily, says the same!” It’s surprising that audio book publishers haven’t broken down his doors yet.
What’s voice without insight, though? Frank, often brutally honest, Holding has transitioned from being the voice of West Indian cricket to the voice of cricket. He doesn’t commentate or see much of T20 cricket. “I turn up for the Tests, that’s all. I wanted to retire last year but Sky sent me a two-year contract. I don’t like hanging on. I might well leave it next year. Let’s see.”
Outside of cricket, he loves his horses. He owned a few of them before selling them off when he got the Sky contract. “It was a childhood love. My brother’s godmother, a nurse, was our next-door neighbour and she had horses. I fell in love with them. My mother never liked it; I didn’t have any money to gamble on them then (that all came later) but she just hated the idea of me with the horses. Every now and then, once in two months, she would allow me to go for the races.”
Even now, every day he is in London when he isn’t working, Holding is up at dawn and is with his friend Michael Stout, a famous horse trainer. “Every morning, at 5.30 am or 6, I am down there. I put jackets on the horses, walk around with them, do stuff that other trainers do, and we all come back, sit down and have our breakfast and talk. The horses are always around me. I don’t know what it is, but I just love their spirit.” Why did he sell his horses, though?
One day, in his early days of commentating, he called his mother’s home in Jamaica. “She isn’t there and I learn that she is down at gas station that I had started after retiring from cricket. I ask, doing what? I am told that there are some problems and she has gone to help. At that moment, I decided that I would sell that petrol station. No way my mother, 80-odd years old, was going down to any petrol station to help me out. She has already done enough for me. I went home and sold the gas station. A year later, I had sold the horses too. I only did commentary. No way, my Momma was going to be in any trouble because of me.”
Holding then whips out his phone, and shows photos of his grandkids – that’s his first day at school… this and that. The fastest bowler in the world, the pacer with the most beautiful run-up in the world, one of the main men behind the greatest cricket team this world has ever seen—and a Momma’s boy.