‘It’s hypocrisy’: Why Michael Holding is angry and how race affects perception of West Indies’ bowling in his time

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“The hypocrisy of it stands out. At no stage in my West Indies career, did we bowl bouncers for hours like this. At one stage on day 4, there were 98% short-pitched deliveries.You think there is going to be any real uproar about this tactic now? It’s England and Australia playing; not the West Indies,” Michael Holding told The Indian Express.

There is a history here. When England’s Douglas Jardine devised the Bodyline strategy to be deployed in the 1932-33 Ashes series in Australia, specifically to stop Don Bradman indulge in another run-orgy, the cricketing world began to prattle. The tactic was simple and effective: bowl bouncers at the body with men packed behind the stumps on the leg side, from leg gullies to men in the deep. At that point, there was no restriction of fielders behind the stumps on the leg side (now, only 2 fielders are allowed in that region).

Bradman’s average came down to 56.57, still pretty good of course but it was nothing compared to 139.14 he had averaged in the previous Ashes in 1930. Bradman would start retreating to the leg side, and try thrashing the ball to the off – a strategy attempted unsuccessfully by the likes of Harry Brook in this game. Once, Bradman even chopped a ball onto his stumps. There was a Jardine quote about how the idea kicked in when he saw a film of Bradman bat on a spiteful pitch in 1930 – “I have got it … he’s yellow! (Read afraid). Bradman got an early inkling of what was to come on the 1932 tour game in Perth and would tell his team-mates, ‘”You fellas have no idea what sort of summer this is going to be.” Though there was an uproar in Australia with their captain Woodful saying, “There are two teams out there; one is trying to play cricket and the other is not” ( as an aside, the same quote was used by Anil Kumble decades later during the Monkeygate series), no rules were changed.

Until, next summer when West Indies started to use the Bodyline attack against England in England. It had the first instance of a batsman, Patsy Hendren, cobbling a headgear and play with it. West Indies would use the tactic again against India next summer. And finally, in 1935, bodyline was introduced with an introduction of law which allowed the umpires to step in if bowlers engaged in what was perceived as intimidatory bowling. So, in some sense, the first rule change came after the West Indies started to do it.

Decades later, after a fiery late 70’s and 80’s when West Indies prowled the world with their wondrously skill-full and hostile pace attack, yet again the cricketing world was up in arms. This time the accusations flood in about the number of bouncers they bowled and their slow over rates.

Mark Taylor, arguably Australia’s best Test captain in the last 40 years, would reference it in passing on Saturday. “You could battle through an hour (against bouncer-barrage) and have just 15 runs. The rules were then changed,” Taylor said in his commentary stint.

And that’s the type of comments Holding objected to when he said, “At no stage in my West Indies career, did we bowl bouncers for hours like this.”

In 1991, the rules were changed to allow only one bouncer per over. Then in 1994 they allowed two bouncers, defined as above shoulder height.

“West Indies were always the target, you see,” Holding told The Indian Express. “With the over rate slowing up now, you won’t hear or read any negative writing about it.. Australia and England are playing; who is going to write negatively? Over rate has been a joke for a very long time. In our day we had six hours to bowl whatever overs… then especially in the Caribbean we never even got six hours as we would start at 11 am and light wouldn’t hold in the evening. They complained about our over rates and yet they give these guys 6.5 hours and they still don’t get in… no big talk about it … icc might fine but the boards pay it.”

In 2020, former West Indies captain Darren Sammy would be more direct with his accusation at the cricketing world about bouncers and West Indies.

“Looking at the Fire in Babylon, looking at when (Jeff) Thomson and (Dennis) Lillee and all these guys were bowling quick and hurting people. Then I watch a black team becoming so dominant, and then you see the bouncer rule start to come in and all these things start to come in and I take it, as I understand it, as this is just trying to limit the success a black team could have,” Sammy told Inside Out. “I might be wrong but that’s how I see it. And the system should not allow that.”

In between the Bodyline (in the aftermath when intimidatory rules were brought in) and 1994 when it became 2 bouncers, there was to be another crucial change involving the number of fielders behind the stumps, square on the leg side.

In 1957, after off spinners and medium pacers started to tail the ball in on the legs, with a packed leg side field curtailing runs, it was deemed too negative, and the rules were changed.

In an interview with this newspaper in 2018, Holding had talked about how race affected the perception of his and West Indies’s bowling in those times.

“Even our bowling. It was as if they thought, all we needed to do was run up and bowl fast or short or whatever. That’s what irks me the most. I tell them to go check the scorebook: how many were lbw, bowled, caught in slips or whatever. It’s as if they don’t want to credit our thinking. I have never seen more intelligent and crafty bowlers like Andy or Malcolm.” Even his beautiful run-up was subconsciously attributed to his race by many. “As far as my run-up goes, I would put it down to my long-jump training in younger days. You had to be smooth, you had to sprint and you could not cross that white line. That’s why I hardly ever bowled a no ball in my life.”

Let’s end with a story that Holding shared on Saturday evening. “I was once commentating with Nasser Hussain and they showed a statistics of our bowling and Nasser went, ‘Mikey, so many bowled, lbws and length bowling, then why were your team targeted as if you bowled just bouncers the whole day?’ I joked with a bit of sarcasm, “Well, Nasser you see, the stumps were taller in our times!”



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