Michael Holding suddenly appears at my table in an otherwise empty restaurant. My failure to notice the former West Indian cricketer’s arrival is in keeping with his poetic nickname: “Whispering Death.”
That moniker relates to his graceful yet fearsome bowling action. In Holding’s pomp, he would glide across the turf, sprinting feet barely making a sound, before flinging a cricket ball at more than 90 miles an hour, a potentially lethal bullet if a batsman were struck between the eyes.
This ability made him one of the greatest fast bowlers of all time, a linchpin of the West Indies team representing Caribbean nations that over the 1970s and 1980s rose to dominate the cricketing world. That includes beating England — especially England — the former colonial power that brought the game, and the black players’ African ancestors, to the islands.
Now 67, Holding is tall and trim, retaining an athlete’s physique. “I have no problem with it,” he says of the nickname from his playing days. “I never killed anyone.”
Ah, that voice. Holding’s Jamaican lilt is the soundtrack to the summer for millions of fans around the world. The day before we meet, he was one of the television commentators describing India’s extraordinary, last-gasp win over England at Lord’s, the London venue known as the home of cricket.
“They worry about the press too much,” says Holding of England’s players. “They pick up their phones first thing [after matches] looking to see what’s happening on social media . . . Production in your job is the most important thing.”
He advises the home team to focus on suspect batting techniques ahead of the third of a five-match Test series that began on Wednesday at Headingley, Leeds. Perhaps they listened, as England’s batsmen racked up runs over the first two days of the Test.
Holding, the pundit, offers blunt opinions without bombast. His succinct analyses have made him the successor to the late Richie Benaud, an Australian cricket captain who also had a beloved second act analysing cricket matches on TV.
Possession of a microphone has allowed Holding to project thoughts far beyond the cricket field. Last year, a match between England and the West Indies was delayed due to rain. Sky, the UK broadcaster, filled the empty airtime with a discussion on the Black Lives Matter protest movement that had grown in response to the police killing of George Floyd in the US. Holding was asked to describe his experiences of racism.
“What people need to understand is that this thing stems from a long time ago, hundreds of years ago,” he said during an unscripted and impassioned monologue. “The dehumanisation of the black race is where it started. People will tell you: ‘That’s a long time ago, get over it.’ No. You don’t get over things like that. Society has not gotten over something like that.”
The clip went viral. “I heard about that,” says Holding with a smile. He eschews social media but understood his impact when other prominent black sportspeople, such as French footballer Thierry Henry and Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka, got in touch to discuss their experiences.
“[Henry told me] before he was known in England, he went to a store in a hoodie and was followed all around the store. Then he plays for Arsenal, scores a hat-trick, goes to the same store and it’s ‘Mr Henry, what can I do for you?’” Those conversations became a series of interviews in a book published in June: Why We Kneel, How We Rise.
The plan for lunch is to bed in for a long innings to discuss weighty matters of race, culture and cricket. But the one matter Holding has been unwilling to opine on is food, leaving me to select a lunch spot. Given India’s success in the second Test, I chose Amaya, a Michelin-starred Indian restaurant in London’s upmarket Belgravia district. It specialises in chicken, lamb and seafood cooked in a tandoori clay oven or over coals. Holding approves. “I used to be a fast bowler,” says Holding. “I’m not vegetarian. I’m a meat person.”
Halkin Arcade, Motcomb Street, London, SW1X
Black pepper chicken tikka £8.75
Green chicken tikka £10.50
Seafood platter £55
Saag spinach £8.50
Lamb chops £22
Sea bass steak £14
Tandoori roti £4.75
Lychee juice £4.50
Still water £4.75
Service charge (13.5%) £19.27
Our waiter is a young man from Goa — and a cricket fan. Thrilled to be serving my guest, he describes each dish in detail. “I’ll close this,” says Holding, seeing little need for a menu. I ask the waiter to bring anything he suggests. Tapas-style plates come in a steady stream over the next two hours.
Holding’s book is ambitious. Its main focus is not sport but to detail centuries-long prejudice against black people, particularly in the US and UK, the two countries outside Jamaica where he has lived longest. He cites everything from 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume, who once wrote black people are “naturally inferior to the whites”, to the nativist rhetoric of ex-US president Donald Trump.
“As a black man, your life is . . . impacted by racism,” says Holding. “It’s something that you live with. But I started reading about it nine or 10 years ago [and] started to discover things that were never ever told or never ever taught.”
Poignantly, Holding links ancient attitudes to personal tragedies. His mother’s family once disowned her for marrying his father, a man of a darker complexion, as that meant “her kids were [also] going to get darker”, says Holding. “And that doesn’t mean progress.”
Such issues have affected my own brown, Bangladeshi family. I still hear elders discussing whether the spouses of my cousins are appropriately shundor, a Bengali word with a double meaning: “beautiful” and “fair-skinned”.
“That all stems from racism,” says Holding. “From white people preaching to the world that they are superior. So the darker-skinned people want to get lighter, to match them, to feel that they belong.” He recites the lyrics of a fellow Jamaican, the reggae singer Bob Marley: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery . . . None but ourselves can free our minds.”
Holding was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1954, eight years before the island became independent of British rule. A political federation of Caribbean states collapsed in the 1960s, leaving one uniting factor in the region: a cricket team playing under the banner of the West Indies.
The sport was introduced to the Caribbean, as in other outposts of empire, by British servicemen in the 19th century. Cricket’s gentlemanly codes of behaviour were meant to civilise black slaves and servants, though only whites were initially considered worthy of the supposedly high art of batting.
Nearly 150 years later, Trinidadian intellectual CLR James wrote that the West Indies’ rise as a cricketing power meant the region’s people had entered “the comity of nations”, writing in Beyond a Boundary: “West Indians crowding to Tests bring with them the whole past history and future hopes of the islands.”
Holding was blissfully unaware of this imperialist past as he made his debut for the West Indies in 1975 aged 21. Playing abroad gave him a first, bitter taste of racism. There were slurs from spectators in Australia, letters sent to the dressing room while touring England, though never abuse from opposition players.
In 1976, Holding was part of the West Indies side visiting England when the home captain Tony Greig said in a TV interview that he intended to make his opponents “grovel”. It was an inflammatory word from a white man with a South African accent, who had left the apartheid state to play for England. (Before his death in 2012, Greig said he regretted using such insensitive language.)
“Whenever Tony Grieg came to the crease . . . all of us fast bowlers got quicker,” says Holding, cutting a piece of chicken tikka perfectly seasoned with black pepper. “It motivated us to make sure that whatever he said was going to be stuffed back down his throat.”
The West Indies won that series, sparking nearly two decades as cricket’s champion side. Between 1980 and 1995, the team did not lose a Test series, a remarkable period of dominance unmatched in elite international sport.
In 1977, Holding was also among those approached to play in World Series Cricket, a breakaway tournament created by Australian entrepreneur Kerry Packer outside the sport’s traditional structures. Holding had just played a Test series for $600. Now he was being offered more than $25,000 to sign up to the new contest.
He insisted on gaining permission from Jamaica’s prime minister, Michael Manley, an ardent opponent of apartheid, who objected to playing contracts also being offered to three South Africans who had stayed within the apartheid regime.
Given the money on offer, surely Holding was tempted to play regardless of the politics? “My mother was a headmistress, she had principles,” says Holding. “There are certain things you do and don’t do.” Packer paid off the South Africans and sent them home, all to ensure Holding joined the competition instead.
Moral clarity is also why Holding rejected huge sums to join other West Indian players in so-called “rebel tours” of South Africa in the 1980s, a breach of the global sporting boycott of the white supremacist regime. Many of the players who did go were treated as social outcasts on their return to the Caribbean, losing their livelihoods and becoming destitute.
Englishmen involved in similar rebel tours received playing bans, but enjoyed success in later careers. Mike Gatting went on to become an England batting coach and president of Marylebone Cricket Club, the august body that runs Lord’s. Geoffrey Boycott became a commentator for the BBC, the state broadcaster, and last year received a knighthood after being nominated by former prime minister Theresa May.
“What were the repercussions [for English players involved in rebel tours]?” says Holding. “None. That is what we describe as white privilege.” Has he said as much to Boycott and Gatting, men he still encounters? “If they’re upset, so be it. Just like when I’m doing commentary, if I think a bowler is crap, I’m going to say he’s crap.”
A torrent of dishes arrive. There’s a “seafood platter”: king scallops in a green hot sauce, wild ocean prawns grilled in red tandoori paste and, best of all, rock oysters in coconut sauce. Holding has also ordered a glistening buttered naan, which is placed on my side of the table. He swaps it with my unlacquered roti.
The West Indies’ strength came from having up to four truly fast bowlers, those who could bowl at more than 90mph. Even today, few sides have one player who can regularly produce deliveries at such velocity. They combined speed with accurate “short-pitched” bowling, bouncing the ball towards a batsman’s head and body. That was particularly dangerous in Holding’s era, before helmets were widely worn as protection.
Such strategies have been employed by other teams before and since. So-called “bouncers” have also led to serious injuries and even fatalities. Australian Phil Hughes died in 2014 after being struck in the neck, below his helmet.
With the benefit of hindsight, does Holding regret putting opponents in harm’s way? He maintains the game’s appeal comes from its beauty and its brutality. “I also had to bat,” says Holding. “You think [Australian] Jeff Thomson and [Pakistan captain turned prime minister] Imran Khan would look at me and say: ‘Oh, he’s not so good. Let us take our time’? . . . Wherever the ball was going, you had to deal with it.”
And anyway, it was nothing personal. Asked if there was anyone who was difficult to bowl to, he says “boring batsmen will drive bowlers crazy”, putting Boycott, who was known for stoic defence, into this maddening camp. Otherwise, he had little fear of opponents. “You did what was necessary. I didn’t worry about who was at the crease.”
We devour every last morsel of our final dishes: sea bass steak, more spiced chicken tikka and smoked lamb chops. The waiter asks if Holding enjoyed the meal. “Yah man!” he bellows. A valiant attempt to upsell us on dessert fails. We’re stuffed.
Where Holding does fear change is within his sport. He believes in the primacy of Test cricket, in which matches can last up to five days and still end in a draw. But in recent years, other than in England and Australia, the game’s longest form rarely sells out stadiums.
Holding blames the trend on the rise of Twenty20 cricket, where matches last three to four hours. This shorter formula is applied in the Indian Premier League, an annual tournament founded in 2008. It features spectacular hitting amid thumping Bollywood anthems and dancing cheerleaders. Such scenes evoke brash American sports fixtures rather than genteel English county cricket.
The IPL also attracts huge, raucous crowds. Global television audiences for a single match reach up to 200m. The world’s best players, such as India’s Virat Kohli and England’s Ben Stokes, earn millions from playing in the two-month tournament, more than their wages from international matches during the rest of year.
This shows cricket is thriving, I suggest, adding value to the sport. “Financial value,” snorts Holding. Entertainment value as well. “Not cricketing value,” he says. “They’re dumbing down the game more and more. It’s the same with exams, too many are passing because they’re dumbing down. How is the world benefiting?”
I point out that Sky is the main broadcast partner of The Hundred, a new English competition in which each innings lasts just 100 balls, featuring even shorter matches than in the IPL. “Worse than Twenty20,” he says. “I don’t even think about it.”
Does Holding not fear criticising a product his employer markets relentlessly? In recent years, veterans such as David Gower and Ian Botham have been eased out of the commentary box in favour of fresher faces. Will he be left behind too? “I’m happy to be called an old fogey. They can go on about me,” he says. “They can fire me if they want.”
Holding, then, will focus on commentating on Test matches, where his voice resonates with a greying but dedicated viewership who prefers the longer game’s slowly unfurling narratives over wham-bam action.
His establishment instincts are also why Holding’s interventions on race may prove more effective than most. He has found a way to speak to younger people seeking to tackle inequality, but has the respect of older generations that fear big societal shifts.
Holding’s parting shot? “I’m optimistic for my grandchildren,” he says. “Too many people who I don’t know, who have no reason to speak to me, have said: ‘Oh, I like what you said on TV’ . . . 50 years ago, I would have been told: ‘Go back to where you came from.’”
Murad Ahmed is the FT’s sports editor
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