Michael Holding vs Geoffrey Boycott: The greatest over ever bowledTuesday, September 21, 2021
AS Michael Holding retires from the commentary box we should remember the great player he was.
Simply put, he was quick.
His long approach to the wicket was silken, weightless, and at the end of it the ball was propelled from a picture-perfect action, often at a pace as rapid as any ever bowled. In good rhythm and at full throttle on a responsive surface, you felt pity for the poor batsman at the other end.
The Jamaican possessed many of the skills of the fast-bowling trade but it was unadulterated pace that was his main weapon.
Making his debut on the West Indies' disastrous tour of Australia in 1975 to 1976 the 6'4” bowler quickly formed a formidable pair with Antiguan Andy Roberts. And two quickly became four, as the Clive Lloyd-led side adopted the famous four-pronged attack that quickly fired the West Indies to the top of world cricket, keeping them there for the better part of two decades.
Holding's velocity through the air meant he could be devastating on placid pitches as well. On tour of England in 1976 he fashioned a career best of 14/149 on a lifeless Oval surface. Spurred on by a promise by Tony Grieg to make them “grovel”, the West Indies players adopted the kind of aggressive mindset that indicated they fully intended to ram the England's captain's words back down his throat.
Christened “Whispering Death” by Umpire Dicky Bird on account of his noiseless glide to the wicket and burning pace, Holding captured 8/92 in the first innings, 6/57 in the second. Amazingly, in testament to the directness of his methods and the speed he generated, 12 of his 14 wickets were either bowled or leg before wicket (lbw).
“There is nothing that thrills a fast bowler more,” Holding recalled in his first memoir, ghosted by the late Tony Cozier, “than seeing the stumps flying from behind a batsman, and at the Oval I hit them nine times. Not only to my own delight but to the unrestrained delight of every West Indian on the ground as well, I clean-bowled Tony Grieg in both innings.”
Holding claims that he ran in and bowled as quickly as he could for the over 53 overs he delivered during the match. Never once did he think of slackening off. For bowling of high pace and impeccable accuracy over a sustained period it is doubtful his efforts that day could be bettered. But there were times, he said, that he had bowled faster.
One of those times must have been his opening over to Geoffrey Boycott in Barbados in 1981.
England's 1980 to 1981 tour of the West Indies was a troubled one. Citing the Gleneagles Agreement of 1977 in which Commonwealth presidents and prime ministers agreed, as part of their support for the international campaign against apartheid, to discourage competition between their sportsmen and sporting organisations, teams, or individuals and South Africa, which, in the Guyana Government's interpretation, prohibited them from hosting a match in which Robin Jackman played, the second Test was cancelled. The Surrey fast bowler, who had sometimes plied his trade in apartheid South Africa, was invited to join the tour as replacement for the injured Bob Willis.
Fortunately for the organisers, the governments of Barbados, Monsterrat, Antigua, and Jamaica disagreed with Guyana's interpretation and so the tour continued. But then there was more misfortune in Barbados when beloved Assistant Manager Ken Barrington died of a heart attack in his hotel room at the Holiday Inn on the Saturday night of the Test. It was a seriously sad blow for the visitors.
The West Indies easily won the first Test in Trinidad and Tobago by an innings and 79 runs, and with the Guyana fallout it was on to Barbados. Batting first, the home side was dismissed early on the second day for what seemed like an inadequate 265, with Ian Botham, Graham Dilley, and Jackman sharing the wickets.
Then it was England's turn to bat and a large crowd turned up, invigorated by the prospect of witnessing their famous quartet in action on a responsive surface.
According to Holding: “They were everywhere, crammed into the limited stands, precariously perched on galvanised roofs, spilling on to the boundary's edge. The 15,000 or so people, squeezed into the limited facilities of Bridgetown's Kensington Oval, buzzed in excited expectation.”
Graham Gooch survived the first over from Roberts, though the Antiguan found his edge twice.
And then came Holding's over to Boycott. Those six deliveries have long passed into legend, variously pronounced as the best, fastest, most exciting over in cricket history.
Though approaching 41 at the time, Boycott was still one of the game's most adhesive batsmen. Every bowler knew that it normally took some effort to separate the Yorkshireman from his wicket. That day, however, for that first over, nobody could have withstood Holding's assault.
Additionally, Boycott had showed some concern before the game about the amount of grass that remained on the pitch. “What's this then? Where's all this grass come from?” as he confronted the pitch's curator, Tommy Pierce, who related the story to Holding. “I just told him that grass in the Caribbean is green.” He left unamused.
“I want you to bowl flat out from the start,” was Lloyd's instructions to his fastest bowler, who was already warm and raring to go. His first ball prompted a stiff jerk of Boycott's head backwards as his glove relayed the ball to slip, falling just short of Viv Richards. From there each ball appeared quicker than the last, building up to, and exploding into an ear-shattering crescendo with the sixth ball, which removed his off stump and sent it hurtling 20 yards back.
This is how Boycott remembered the over years later: “…I never laid bat on ball. One hit me in the chest; one on top of the thigh; two I think I gloved outta me neck; then he knocked my off stump over.”
Later in the innings, Holding seemed to touch top pace again when he removed Ian Botham and David Bairstow in the same over. England were bowled out for 122.
Richards, batting as if on the most benign surface imaginable, made a compelling, unbeaten 182 that led the West indies to 379 in the second innings. And, though Gooch was impressive in scoring 116, England was dismissed for 224, losing by all of 298 runs.
In England's second innings Holding again accounted for Boycott. Protecting his neck once again, he did well to get his gloves in the way. This time the ball was diverted to Joel Garner in the gully. The opener was dismissed for one off the fourth ball he faced — all of them from Holding.
Boycott's first-innings dismissal rested so heavily on his mind that he felt the urge to study a video of the six balls over and over again. “For the first time in my life I can look back at a scorecard with a duck against my name and not feel a profound sense of failure,” he wrote in his book, In the Fast Lane: The West Indies Tour of 1981.
That day, Holding was just too good — just too fast.
Garfield Robinson is a Jamaican living in the US who writes on cricket for a few Indian and English publications. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.