Michael Holding: Nearly forty years later, still holding the fort

Michael Holding bowling for West Indies during the 5th Test match between England and West Indies at The Oval,…Read More

Umpires would actually turn around and look to check if he was indeed running in to bowl. He used to be that silent. But Michael Holding always had a voice.
Holding’s soul-stirrer of a speech on racism is Ali-esque in its essence. Parents somewhere are probably already making a mental note to retire Churchillian war speeches, or even gentle Nehruvian nation-building ones, for this fervent appeal for educating the human race. But this is not just something to memorize to win school elocution competitions. It is to understand, feel and empathise with. If it didn’t shake you of your privileged aloofness and made you squirm in your seats as you heard him speak, then there’s a serious problem with you.
Michael Holding was the first poster on the room wall at home. Handsome and lithe — umpire Swarup Kishen and his famous girth presenting the sharp contrast – approaching the wicket in those olden day fast bowler’s boots, it came with the extravagantly-termed legend, ‘Holding the fort’. That was not really needed, that winter of ’83, an adequately equipped West Indies team hardly had to push him into extra service.
Yet today, that headline resonates. Nearly four decades later, Holding’s indeed holding the fort. For his lot, the world over. And ensuring, in his dignified, almost Morgan Freeman-manner of easy-going imparting of wisdom, that we stop to listen.
And people all over the world are listening. In India, parallels are being drawn to an age-old culture of discrimination and a privileged silence. Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna tweeted, “Waiting for the day when the Gavaskars, Manjarekars, Dravids, Shastris and Tendulkars will speak ‘on air’ about casteism, struggles of Dalits in India and their own participation in the system!” Others alluded to the deafening silence around rising Islamophobia in India.
Holding’s words have come after witnessing a lifetime of racism. He recounts the 1976 tour of England in his autobiography ‘In No Holding Back’. “Tony Greig’s ill-judged comments that he would make us ‘grovel’ riled us to the extent that we needed no further motivation. It was a highly insensitive remark to make about a largely black team. Remember, he was a white South African, qualified for England only via his parents, … and it sent out the wrong message, pure and simple. We saw nothing else.”
In a climate of rising police action against West Indies immigrants in England, 1976 was also the height of the brutal apartheid regime in South Africa, and Greig had struck at the very core, questioning Afro-Caribbean identity – pointing out that though talented, the West Indies would fall in disarray at the slightest sign of difficulty. “It was a piece of gamesmanship both ill-advised and intemperate,” writes Michael Manley, in ‘A History of West Indies Cricket,’ “The remark would have been unacceptable from any captain of any race. The fact that it was made by a South African could only heighten the tension.”
It did. The West Indies handed out an astonishing riposte. Holding, in particular, hit such a sweet, rhythmic stride that the foreboding of death that he unleashed on England’s dry and bare wickets that summer had a breathtakingly poetic and visceral tonality to it. Seldom has fast bowling looked so menacing and yet, so beautiful. He took particular relish in putting Greig in his place. Not satisfied, he then turned his attention to Brian Close in a famous, fearsome, hostile spell of fast bowling.
Holding, all of 22, was giving it back in his own dialect.
Yet it was such a different story only a year earlier. As a callow youngster on his first tour of Australia in 1975, he famously broke down in the middle of the Sydney ground. “I am not ashamed to say I began to weep,” he writes, after the umpire denied him a clear caught behind off Ian Chappell, “It all became too much for me and tears began to flow. I felt that my heart had been ripped out. I was a grown man … but I felt as though I had gone back in time to my childhood, with kids refusing to hand over the bat when it was clear that they were out.”
He talks of an unfair world that existed then, he talks of an unfair world that exists now. “I would hope this is not something that people have heard and just brush under the carpet,” he said. And as he spoke, he was holding back tears once more. It made for an unsettling sight. Michael Holding is 66, and you can feel his heart has been ripped out once again. It is on us, not to disappoint him this time.

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