For almost 15 years, Michael and his team remained invincible and the motivation for excelling was their resolve to get back at their past exploiters
It used to be a treat watching Michael Holding running in almost from the sight screen towards the popping crease, like the accomplished athlete that he was, passing by the umpire like a waft of air delivering the cricket ball with the speed of a rocket.
His run up to the wicket, bowling action and follow-through were the most rhythmic and had in it much for the young fast bowlers to learn from. Undoubtedly, Michael was the most fearsome of the West Indian fast bowlers in the 1970s and ’80s.
Thus, Michael was to many a batsmen a whispering death. The way he destroyed the England cricket team led by Tony Greig, is an epic tale in the annals of cricketing history. In the Oval, he captured 14 wickets and left Brian Close with several bruises to nurse. That was the best bowling performance by any West Indian in a Test match.
It will not be out of place to mention that Greig made a statement before the commencement of the Test series. He said, “I intend, with the help of Brian Close and a few others, to make them grovel.” The comments outraged the West Indians. To the team the use of the word “grovel” in particular “smacked of racism and apartheid”.
Afterwards, Greig and other English cricketing enthusiasts must have rued that something of the sort was said. Holding, Gordon Greenridge and Richards piled up misery on the English team. They made them pay for what had been said from their quarter.
The other day, while talking about racial discrimination, the 66-year-old legend from Jamaica revealed another dimension of his personality, his awareness of history and the marginality that the African American people were subjected to. He was in conversation with Nasser Hussain and Ebony Rainford Brent, the cricket commentators, when the focus of their interaction switched to racial discrimination.
Michael’s comments went viral. “Black Lives Matter” has taken the whole world by storm and Michael’s response is evidence of that. It was intellectually sound and carried great emotional depth. I wish our current generation of cricketers a similar sensitivity and the capacity to articulate it. While talking about it, Michael failed to rein in his emotions and could not hold back his tears. That, of course, was a human aspect of the ‘whispering death’, exhibiting a side of him that had not been known to the public.
Far more impressive was his critical reading of history in which the contribution of the Black people was ignored. It nudged many into a thinking mode. He alluded to the cultural appropriation of the figure of Jesus Christ, with a golden beard, a white complexion and blue eyes and how he was considered to be an exemplification of perfection. That was the European rendering of the Christ which has pervaded even the non-white world. If such was the case, then Christianity ceases to inspire non-white (Black) people. That was the major cause for Muhammad Ali (the boxer) to embrace Islam.
Michael’s pleading for human history to be re-assessed and re-written from the perspective of the conquered and the marginalised contains a message for all and sundry to take both history and history-writing seriously. Ever since George Floyd’s murder in Trump’s America, that sordid saga of human history has come alive yet again. Michael’s own mother having borne the atrociously disparaging treatment because she married a man who was darker-skinned than her. Michael could not keep his poise when he mentioned all that his mother had to endure “for people like me”.
It was through the struggles of people like his mother, that he became a renowned cricketer and commentator, and beyond that, a man of wisdom, intellect and human sensitivity. He became an icon treading a path of the great Muhammad Ali, advocating human values that transcend colour, class and creed.
The significance of making a political statement through cricket became evident to me when I watched Fire in Babylon. It is a 2010 British documentary film about the record-breaking West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and 1980s. Importantly, it was produced in the context of racial othering, demonstrated against them by some white players. For recommending that documentary to me, I am grateful to my very dear friend, Dr Kevin Greenbank from Cambridge.
Michael is featured in that documentary and along with Vivian Richards, scrutinised in depth the insolence heaped on the Caribbean players by their erstwhile colonisers. In the perception of both Richards and Holding, the way the Australian players and the crowd misbehaved with them during their tour in 1975 was nothing short of a visit to purgatory.
Sledging, brick bating and calling names, the Australian crowd had a disillusioning effect on the young Michael. Along with his other teammates, he realised that calling cricket a ‘gentleman’s sport’ was inaccurate. Thus began the battle on the cricket field against the colonial mindset and white supremacy.
The pertinence of the classics like Alex Haley’s The Roots, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird, C J James’ Black Jacobins, and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was re-established squarely. It was through Fire in Babylon that I noticed Vivian Richards wearing a tri-coloured wrist band, which had a succinct political connotation. The green band depicted the homeland of the native, the golden symbolised the wealth that was stolen from the country by the West, followed by the red, which represented the blood that had been shed by the colonial masters. These West Indian greats had a political motivation to prove themselves better than their colonial masters.
Imbued with that motivation, they visited Australia in 1979 and played with vengeance. They inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Australian cricket team. The battery of the West Indian fast bowlers took the wind out of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson’s sails. Several teams in those days used to shy away from visiting the Caribbean islands to avoid the mere prospect of facing Michael Holding and Andy Roberts.
For almost 15 years, Michael and his team mates remained invincible. The motivation for such sustained excellence was their resolve to get back at their past exploiters. Undoubtedly, it was their historical consciousness that made them beat the world. Michael was always their mainstay.