They're one of us: West Indies fans delight in one of the team's many victories in England in the 1970s and '80s
They're one of us: West Indies fans delight in one of the team's many victories in England in the 1970s and '80s
At The Oval in 1976, the bowler was Holding, the batsmen were history
That Sony tape recorder was precious, oh yes. He would cradle it as if it was his infant son. He had bought it back in '75 because the BBC had agreed that he could make a radio programme for "the black community". Oh, yes - the black community! The BBC wanted access, but curiously, they had little money, so he met a restaurant owner near Leicester Square who had a tape recorder to sell. After he bought it, he had it repaired, cleaned up, and then he was ready to record. To document. To hear. To collect testimony.
And that is how, in August 1976, Alex Pascall found himself in the midst of - you got it - the black community - at The Oval, England versus West Indies, the final Test match of the summer. He was collecting interviews for his radio programme, Black Londoners.
"Let me tell you about '76. It was a hell of a year. Seventy-six was Bob Marley in London with the Wailers, '76 was Cindy Breakspeare - Marley's lover from Jamaica - becoming Miss World on the TV. Seventy-six was the Notting Hill riots, '76 was the Soweto Uprising and black students being shot down by the white police with their dogs. Seventy-six was the year. Look at the number of pieces there, man. You can't beat that."
"Why are you here?"
"Why am I here? To see Tony Greig, man. To see Tony Greig grovel! That's why I'm here!"
Running almost as fast as he could, he jumped and let the ball go, often at 90mph or more. The arm releasing the ball came down like a guillotine. Some fast bowlers were ugly to watch. Holding was beautiful
"What do you think of the match?"
"It's going brilliantly."
Ah yes. Tony Greig. Tony Greig and grovel.
Briefly, this is the story of grovel. Greig was the captain of England but he wasn't from England. No, he was from South Africa. When Greig was a boy, he played cricket in his back garden in a nice part of Queenstown in the Eastern Cape, where a black domestic help and gardener called Tackies - conveniently named after the plimsolls he wore - bowled to him. Greig was good and came to England to play county cricket for Sussex. Within a decade he was captain of his adopted country and one day found himself sitting on the pavilion roof at Hove, speaking to the BBC. It was two days before the first Test of 1976.
"I think you must remember that the West Indians, these guys, if they get on top, they are magnificent cricketers, but if they're down, they grovel. And I intend, with the help of Closey and a few others, to make them grovel."
The Mike and Andy show: batsmen never looked forward to facing Holding and Roberts together
© Getty Images
The Mike and Andy show: batsmen never looked forward to facing Holding and Roberts together © Getty Images
"Well now," says Pascall. "Greig's statement was the fieriest thing we'd ever heard. To tell West Indians you're gonna make them effin' 'grovel' - God help us, you asking for trouble. South Africa was a problem for us. And as far as we were concerned, Greig was not an Englishman. It was this simple. If there was racism going down in South Africa, Greig would pay the penalty for it in London. Definitely so. So when Greig walked out to that wicket, all of us were saying, 'Let him get it.' Yes, Greig was facing it all right - but let's be absolutely clear now - it was the politics, not the man. We already had the police, we already had Enoch Powell and we took all that energy and forced it through our bodies out onto the field towards the players as if to say, 'Here you are, now bowl the bastard out'."
Greig was bowled five times in the Tests that summer (and once in the one-day games). They felt that energy all right, yet the missiles which did the damage were home-grown, created in a small village in Kent. At a workshop in Chiddingstone Causeway, a chosen number of trusted craftsmen and women were tasked with making cricket balls. They took unscarred hides from Scottish cattle that had roamed where there were no barbed-wire fences. The skins had been dipped and dyed dark red at the Clayton tannery in Chesterfield. Quadrants of leather were then cut in a press and stitched by hand with Irish linen thread on top of quilted spheres of glue, Portuguese cork and woollen twine spun from English fleeces. When the balls had been beaten, baked and burnished, gold leaf was embossed on both halves; the Dukes company logo on one side, the royal warrant of the lion and the unicorn on the other.
Greig saw the ball coming. He knew what he had to do to stop it from hitting the stumps. But the ball was too fast
"If I bowled a hundred deliveries in that game, five of them would be outswing," he says, speaking from his home in Miami in the late autumn of 2015. "There was no pace in the pitch for the catches to carry to the slips. So I set it up for the inswinger, fingers either side of the seam, maybe with it pointing just a little towards the right-hander. You had to try to hit the stumps or get the batsman out lbw."
Holding was the fastest bowler on tour, and only Wayne Daniel was younger. At 22, Holding had a discipline, a detachment that went beyond his years. He would bowl two no-balls through the Test series; young Daniel bowled 75. Holding was precise. Always had been, perhaps because as a kid he had long-jumped and hurdled; always had to hit the board and measure the paces. He was a fine athlete but had no interest in making sport his living. He still lived in his parents' house in Kingston, Jamaica. He was not yet a professional cricketer and didn't want to be one. He had a job as a government computer programmer, a post he would keep until 1981.
"I was playing cricket because it was there to be played," he says. "I enjoyed it but never started off as a young man thinking that I would play for the West Indies. I never thought of cricket as a career. After that 1976 tour, Tony Greig offered me a contract to go to Sussex - £10,000, a house and a car. I turned it down, I wasn't interested. I didn't want to be a professional cricketer playing county cricket every day, driving along the motorways of England, trying to bowl fast every day. That did not interest me in the slightest."
The series was already won, of course. Two-nil after the fourth Test in Leeds. The Oval was going to be a celebration.
Chris Balderstone was bowled for a duck by Holding in both innings
Patrick Eagar / © Getty Images
Chris Balderstone was bowled for a duck by Holding in both innings Patrick Eagar / © Getty Images
"Oh yes, the buzz was on as soon as you got on that underground train," says Pascall. "By the time you got to Oval Station it was boiling. Whatever way we did it, we had to see ourselves beating England - for our pride, for survival. It was social warfare."
This war had been going for nearly 30 years. Nineteen seventy-six seemed like a different world to 1948. On June 22 that year, as Donald Bradman was calculating when to declare Australia's second innings against Yorkshire in Sheffield, 180 miles to the south, a young Trinidadian was singing unaccompanied in front of a small crowd at Tilbury Dock, near Gravesend. Aldwyn Roberts had just stepped off the gangplank of the SS Empire Windrush. He was a Caribbean immigrant - a citizen of the United Kingdom and the Colonies - invited by the post-war government of Clement Atlee to assist in the renewal of the nation. He was also known as Lord Kitchener, the calypsonian. He sang:
London is the place for me. London - this lovely city.
You can go to France or America, India, Asia or Australia,
But you must come back to London city.
Roberts and a few hundred others like him had arrived for work and to venerate the Mother Country. Thirty years later, many of their children believed that the mother was now a bitch.
Amiss ducked into the ball. The blow "split his head as if it were an orange with a thick peel," Robin Marlar wrote. "But the juice was red and splattered shirt and gloves"
Just as Lord Kitchener had sung of his joy and hope in 1948, the dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson - born in Jamaica but raised in Brixton less than two miles from The Oval - would describe in verse his profound disaffection half a generation on:
Well mi dhu day wok an mi dhu nite wok
Mi dhu clean wok an mi dhu dutty wok
Dem seh dat black man is very lazy
But if yu si how mi wok yu woulda sey
mi crazy i
Inglan is a bitch
Deres no escapin it
Inglan is a bitch
Yu bettah face up to it
"We were proud people but we were getting blows," says Pascall. "Racism was really heavy in that period. Man, I could tell you some things that you wouldn't even believe. Serious blows. And for the young children in that ground - I'm talking about the teenagers - the panda cars, the Sus laws [the informal name for a controversial stop-and-search law], the arrests, it was so bad that even the elders, who had not believed the children, were beginning to realise that they were telling us the truth."
"I didn't mind that pitch invasion. It wasn't professionally frustrating at all - we knew exactly why they were running on the pitch"
Hamish Blair / © Getty Images
"I didn't mind that pitch invasion. It wasn't professionally frustrating at all - we knew exactly why they were running on the pitch" Hamish Blair / © Getty Images
"My mother went to England to study," reflects Holding. "She kept referring to England as the motherland. She and her friends had a fantastic time. But, of course, the West Indians who lived here permanently had a slightly different story to tell. I had no family in the UK that I knew of, so my learning came from cricket fans who talked to me after games, people I met in '76, people who would bring you food, share a meal with you. A lot of these people drove buses, they did menial tasks, and they weren't looked upon as equals, but when we won cricket matches they could hold their heads up high because the people that represented them on the cricket field were beating the people who represented their workmates. But I must add - they didn't harp on about it every day. They came to fraternise, to eat and listen to music - we enjoyed ourselves."
West Indian fans had nothing to complain about at The Oval. Their team scored them 687 runs in the first innings. Never had they made a bigger total against England. Vivian Richards, the young batting prince of Antigua, made 291. After the first Test, when Richards had hit 232 in Nottingham, Greig asked the BBC scorer from Test Match Special to draw him a set of charts showing where Richards had scored his runs. But they were of no use. Richards just hit the ball where he liked, when he liked.
And yet when England went out to bat late on Friday afternoon, they had a double-centurion of their own walking onto the pitch. It was Dennis Amiss - a man who had played so feebly at the beginning of the summer that he had been disregarded by the selectors until the final Test.
"He didn't know it, but there was nobody more lethal than Michael Holding. Michael Holding was the Usain Bolt of his day. He was THE BOLT. He was mighty"
Amiss' problem, it seemed, was that he could no longer play fast bowling, quite an impediment for an opener in the mid-1970s. Amiss had gone on the MCC tour of Australia at the end of 1974 a confident England player. Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson did for him. His 90 at the MCG was offset by 7 in Brisbane, 12 in Sydney and then three ducks in a row. Still, Lillee and Thomson weren't finished with him. They followed him home to England and in the summer of '75, mugged him for 4, 5, 0 and 10 at Edgbaston and Lord's. So when the West Indians docked in England, Amiss knew two more really swift quicks - Andy Roberts and Holding - would be testing him.
There was a trial match - England v The Rest - to help the selectors choose their final XI on May 26 at the County Ground in Bristol. But Amiss knew he would be judged four days earlier at Lord's, where the West Indians would play an MCC XI and where Amiss would open. The game meant nothing to Holding - he barely remembers a ball he bowled. "It was against the MCC," he says. "It wasn't important."
It was a game Amiss wouldn't forget. His summer looked to have ended on the first evening. MCC had just begun their innings after a declaration. Three minutes before play ended, from the Pavilion End, Holding bowled a short ball. From the press box, Robin Marlar observed that the Jamaican was bowling as fast as any human had ever done.
Amiss ducked into the ball. The seam cut his scalp apart behind his left ear. The blow "split his head as if it were an orange with a thick peel," Marlar wrote in the Sunday Times. "But the juice was red and splattered shirt and gloves and spelt ominous danger for the Test series ahead."
Timber land: nine of Holding's 14 dismissals at The Oval were bowleds
© PA Photos
Timber land: nine of Holding's 14 dismissals at The Oval were bowleds © PA Photos
"He hit me about an inch from where Phillip Hughes was hit, the last bit of bone on the skull before you come to the arteries," remembers Amiss. "I was very lucky. Was I frightened to bat against him that night? Well, if you're playing well, thoughts of fear aren't in your head. But when you aren't, there is instead, a sense of - let's call it apprehension. I don't call it fear."
Amiss was okay. He walked off the pitch and the nightwatchman Phil Carrick marked his guard in his team-mate's blood. A doctor inserted four stitches before Amiss left the ground, but the thoughts in his head were far more painful.
"I'm going through a crisis in my batting career. How do I get over it? Do I give it all up or do I fight against it? I don't want to give it up. But what do I do?"
Amiss knew then that he wasn't going to be picked for the Tests. Perhaps he would never play another Test. But he was buggered if he was going to lie down and disappear. He still had county cricket and Warwickshire, so he did the only thing he could: bat until his confidence came back.
It was not long after six on Saturday evening at The Oval, the third day. England were four down, just past 300. They surely couldn't win - West Indies had made too many runs for that - but they might not lose. There were runs to be had. The lifeless wicket, as bleached as a barn owl's belly, held fewer threats to batsmen than a piece of unrolled carpet. This was the summer of drought; some parts of England had not seen rain for 45 days in a row. In July, London temperatures had reached nearly 32°C every day for a fortnight.
"I didn't want to be a professional cricketer playing county cricket every day, driving along the motorways of England, trying to bowl fast every day"
Holding felt good. Not too tired, not too hot, just loose. There were times during this Test when he would even bowl his spells in a sleeveless sweater. He liked to bowl four or five overs at a time and if there was a drinks break in between, perhaps his captain would ask him for a couple more. In the third over of the third morning, opener Bob Woolmer got a real quick one that he tried to play back to but was lbw. Then, having switched to the Vauxhall End, third over after lunch, Holding trapped David Steele leg before, too slow on another full ball that cut in. His next over to Chris Balderstone was even sweeter, the batsman late on a very fast yorker and his poles knocked out for nothing. Yes. Holding felt good. When you're taking wickets you always have energy, you always want to bowl.
It hadn't always been this way. He remembered the first time he had bowled for Jamaica at Sabina Park against Barbados when he was 18. He didn't like bowling fast one bit. After four overs, he was out on his feet. No strength left. As he walked back to third man he could hardly make it to the boundary edge. Leaning on the fence, he composed a brief prayer: "Lord, may Maurice Foster not call me for another over after this one."
Three years later at The Oval, he had more strength and control. And speed, of course. Later in this innings, on the fourth day, he would beat Derek Underwood with pure pace, tearing his off stump out from the ground. He would also be too quick for Alan Knott, who could only inside-edge onto his wicket, and Mike Selvey, who would do the same next ball. After that wicket, Clive Lloyd called all the fielders together. It was the hat-trick ball and Holding expected that his captain had a special plan for it. He was quickly brought down to earth.
Dennis Amiss fought his fast-bowling demons and endured a head injury to make a double-hundred at The Oval
© PA Photos
Dennis Amiss fought his fast-bowling demons and endured a head injury to make a double-hundred at The Oval © PA Photos
"I was ready to hear Clive tell everyone that they should be on their toes for me," says Holding, "but not a bit of it. His only conversation was whether or not we should make England follow on. Not a word about my hat-trick. That just put me back in my place immediately. I was deflated but it was very clear - this was about the team, not about me."
The indignity he would serve up to Underwood, Knott and Selvey came later. One other wicket had to fall first on that sunny Saturday evening, when Holding was about to bowl to the England captain.
Holding set off. He knew that he would reach the wicket in 16 paces. As he accelerated towards the batsman, each stride would become longer than the previous. Halfway through he usually transferred the new ball from his left hand to his right without even knowing he was doing so. Two seconds later, running almost as fast as he could, he jumped and let the ball go, often at 90mph or more. The arm releasing the ball came down dead straight, like a guillotine. Some fast bowlers were ugly to watch. Holding was beautiful.
Greig saw the ball coming. He knew what he had to do to stop it from hitting the stumps. But the ball was too fast. Greig tried to use his bat and his front leg as a firm barrier, but the ball, which had been laced and lacquered, stitched and stretched by callused fingers in Chiddingstone Causeway, sliced through the gap between bat and pad and struck the leg and middle stumps at the same time. Greig, off balance and falling to his right, knew he was beaten. He looked down at the mess of wood, dirt and whitewash and walked briskly away, unfastening a batting glove as he went.
Ah yes. Tony Greig. Tony Greig and grovel. Briefly, this is the story of grovel.
Holding had clean-bowled the England captain.
"What was your favourite moment of the match?"
"That special delivery for Tony Greig. Yeah. No doubt. That special delivery."
Holding would go on to play another 47 Tests, but he would never again take 14 wickets in a match, eight in the first innings, six in the second. Full and fast eminence on that dead pitch. Twelve of the 14 were bowled or lbw. No help from another hand. The best bowling that famous ground had seen by a West Indian. Hell, the best bowling south London will ever see by a West Indian.
Fifty or so spectators ran onto the pitch to mob the celebrating West Indians and the departing Greig. Dickie Bird was so concerned that he suspended play and took the players off the field for 12 minutes.
Five-for: hey Dickie, you owe Mikey
© PA Photos
Five-for: hey Dickie, you owe Mikey © PA Photos
"This was brand new," explains Pascall. "What Clive Lloyd was bringing to England was brand new. All our lives, class and race and culture had held our cricket down - even Frank Worrell had to stay close to what had been before. But not now. For Black Britons, carnival and the cricket were the two lungs that kept us breathing. Cricket spoke for us. When we were down in the cricket, we were down as people. When we were up - Jesus Christ - it was like fire going through the place. The West Indies were no more small. This was big time."
"I didn't mind that pitch invasion," says Holding. "It wasn't professionally frustrating at all - we knew exactly why they were running on the pitch, exactly why they were celebrating. And by the way, if you ever see Dickie Bird - tell him he still owes me £5. Plus the interest - a lot of interest. One of the fans ran over and gave him the banknote and said, 'Give this to Mikey', but instead, he put it in the Yorkshire Building Society."
Five pounds better off, Bird brought the players back on for the last two overs of Saturday's play. Amiss walked out with him, still there, continuing an innings that had begun 24 hours earlier.
Over the summer Amiss had not given up but had gone away and worked out a strategy to play the fastest bowling. First, he kept it to himself, then he tried it out only in the nets. When he was satisfied he could trust his new technique, he took it to the middle.
Roberts and a few hundred others like him had arrived for work and to venerate the Mother Country. Thirty years later, many of their children believed that the mother was now a bitch
Amiss was now taking guard on leg stump, but as the ball was about to be bowled, he would move his right leg back and across towards the off stump. At the point of delivery, he was almost front-on to the umpire with his chest facing straight down the pitch.
In the Test, Amiss' body position now complemented his talent. He had always been a great player through the leg side. Balls pitched on off stump, or even outside, could now be hit straight or through midwicket. Again and again, Amiss drove the bowlers past the on-side field or flicked them behind square.
"It was a two-eyed stance," remembers Holding. "You could see his leg stump and also see a piece of his middle stump. And because he adopted that style, we decided to attack his leg stump. Totally the wrong thing to do. We had two leg slips but no fine leg and he just kept finding the gap between them."
Amiss made 203, batting for nearly seven and a half hours (and was eventually bowled, shuffling across, around his legs). "I proved to people that I could still play against the fastest bowlers in the world," he says.
His team still lost by 231 runs, Amiss sharing with Len Hutton the experience of making a double-hundred for England at The Oval and losing a Test.
The fizz kid: Holding enjoys some champagne after the win
© PA Photos
The fizz kid: Holding enjoys some champagne after the win © PA Photos
This game belonged to Holding. Fourteen white-hot wickets on an extinct, exanimated pitch. One of the great all-time performances made by a young man who, by his own admission, was still learning to bowl.
"He didn't know it, but there was nobody more lethal than Michael Holding," says Pascall. "He was tearing it up for us. For the women too. I remember seeing a group of them, watching him bowl. They made that noise, sucking in the air sharply past their teeth as he delivered. This was a visceral appreciation of a young man's physique. He was tearing through things he didn't even know of. He was it for these women. Michael Holding was the Usain Bolt of his day. He was THE BOLT. He was mighty."
At the end, with that tape recorder bought from the man who owned the restaurant near Leicester Square, Pascall was under the pavilion balcony in the middle of - oh yes - "the black community".
"We want Holding, we want Holding!"
"Why do you want Michael Holding?"
"Coz he's the greatest. He's the best. The best in the world!"
"Who tell you that?"
"I can see it!"
Simon Lister is the author of Fire in Babylon: How the West Indies Cricket Team Brought a People to its Feet
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