A few weeks ago, my former boss emailed me to say “Now, don’t take this the wrong way (I know you will), but Marigold Hotel with Henry Blofeld was on TV last night, and I thought of you!”
Her allusion to Henry Blofeld, or Blowers as he is known to aficionados of BBC Radio’s Test Match Special (TMS) cricket commentaries, was (I hope!) due to her bemusement over several years when a colleague and I used to discuss cricket in the margins of team meetings.
I replied that, “I’m not sure about being conflated with ‘Blowers’. He is after all an old f*rt that talks about cricket and rabbits-on endlessly with anecdotes (that only he finds amusing) whilst not letting others get a word in edgeways. Along with that he prefers things the way they used to be, and is forever eyeing his next slice of cake. Ah, my dear old thing… now I see!”.
Anyway, I’m sure that like me, my ex-boss will be delighted to know (hah!) that international cricket is now back after its Covid 19 hiatus and that currently the West Indies are playing England at Hampshire’s home ground, the so-called Ageas Bowl.
The Test Match is being shown on Sky Sports, to which I don’t subscribe so I can’t watch it; however, the Graun has reported on it and has paid glowing testimony to the events on the first day. Not to the cricket itself, but to the Sky Sports’ experts’ discussions when, predictably, rain stopped play.
Chief amongst the pundits is Michael Holding, a former West Indies fast bowler and one of the awesome foursomes of fast bowlers in the Indies’ pace attack of the 1970s and 80s (Holding, Roberts, Holder & Daniel or Roberts, Holding, Garner & Croft or Marshall, Roberts, Garner & Holding; there were others too, so take your pick).
Not for Holding the light-hearted, and admittedly humorous-at-times, tittle tattle of the BBC’s TMS commentary box, but some acute observations around racism and Black Lives Matter.
As Andy Bull wrote in the Graun,
You can’t understand the history of cricket without understanding the history of empire. You can’t appreciate the rivalries between these, and other, teams, without appreciating the relationship between our countries, what’s been given, and what’s been taken. You can’t understand the hostility of Michael Holding’s bowling without understanding what made him so angry, you can’t appreciate Frank Worrell’s grace as a captain without knowing something of the prejudice he faced, you can’t value the violence of Viv Richards’ batting without a sense of what he was fighting against.
Fortunately, the Sky Sports channel has put Holding’s observations in front of its paywall and you can see and hear him here, it’s powerful stuff.
The channel then followed on (see what I did there?) by posting a compelling video on YouTube in which Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent (the first woman of colour to represent England at cricket) talk about their experiences of institutionalised racism. This was the video to which Holding made reference in his live-to-air comments.
This is serious stuff, so well done Sky Sports.
On a much less serious note, and changing channels to the BBC, Michael Holding was also an innocent party in one of the most-cited-but-apocryphal quotes in TMS and cricketing history.
Legend has it, and it is only legend, that in the 1976 Oval Test Match between England and the West Indies, when Holding was bowling to Peter Willey, an England all-rounder, the TMS commentator, Brian Johnson (aka ‘Jonners’), voiced the immortal words that comprise the last line of this week’s ALAW…
His commentary was dull until he
Expounded out loud and quite shrilly
That the ball was in play
Which led him to say
“The bowler is Holding, the batsman’s Willey”!
Postscript: The 1976 England versus West Indies test series was noticeable for the aggression of the Indies’ fast bowlers, Holding, Roberts, Holder & Daniel, and their frequent use of bouncers; short-pitched deliveries that bounced dangerously high. One could understand their aggression as during an episode of the BBC’s Sportsnight programme shortly before the test series was to start, Tony Greig, England’s South African born captain had stated:
Sure, they’ve got a couple of fast bowlers, but really I don’t think we’re going to run into anything … You must remember that the West Indians, these guys, if they get on top are magnificent cricketers. But if they’re down, they grovel, and I intend, with the help of Closey [Brian Close] and a few others, to make them grovel.
Amazon’s intro to Grovel!, David Tossell’s book on cricket’s summer of 1976 puts it well:
When England cricket captain Tony Greig announced that he intended to make the West Indies ‘grovel’, he lit a fire that burned as intensely as the sunshine that made 1976 one of the most memorable summers in British history. Spurred on by what they saw as a deeply offensive remark, especially from a white South African, Clive Lloyd’s touring team vowed to make Greig pay. In Viv Richards, emerging as the world’s most exciting batsman, and fast bowlers Michael Holding and Andy Roberts they had the players to do it.
Greig acknowledged in his forward to Tossell’s book that he had got it badly wrong, whilst also denying that his South African background was behind his comment and that there was no racist tone intended. Well, he would, wouldn’t he, but even if true it reeks of the sort of historical and cultural ignorance that leads to and underlies the unconscious bias that can belie even the saintly; a significant part of the issues that Michael Holding raised in his live piece to air.