The greatest over of them all?
The bowler was Michael Holding, and the unfortunate batsman on the receiving end was Geoff Boycott. Even at the time the over was recognised as something special, and almost a quarter of a century later nothing has surpassed it.
The scene was the third Test on England's Caribbean tour of 1980-81. It was a far from happy trip. The opening weeks were dogged by wretched weather, and after a draw in the opening Test, the whole future of the tour hung in the balance when Robin Jackman, a late replacement for the injured Bob Willis, was refused entry to Guyana because of his links with then-banned South Africa. In the end the trip continued, but the Georgetown Test was cancelled.
The Kensington Oval pitch was well grassed but clearly prepared to favour West Indies' four-man pace attack - Boycott described it as "a lottery and a farce" - but any skulduggery appeared to have backfired when West Indies slipped to 65 for 4 themselves on the first morning. A superb hundred from Clive Lloyd helped them recover to 238 for 7 by the close, but England had few problems wrapping things up on the second morning.
When England batted, Boycott opened with Graham Gooch, and after an over in which Andy Roberts twice found the edge of Gooch's bat, Boycott prepared to face Holding. What followed left the crowd in raptures and Boycott - and his team-mates - stunned.
Holding's first ball was a three-quarter-pace loosener which nevertheless rapped Boycott on the gloves and dropped just short of the slips. Each succeeding ball after that was quicker than the previous one. The second beat Boycott outside the off stump, and the third cut back and struck him on the inside of his right thigh. The fourth and fifth both hurried Boycott, but he just about managed to keep them out. "He middled none," wrote Gladstone Holder in The Nation, "but any lesser mortal would have been out." And Ian Botham recalled that Boycott was "jumping about like a jack-in-the-box".
Then came the final ball, the coup de grace, delivered at a fearsome pace ("It went like a rocket," Boycott recalled), which was pitched up and sent his off stump cartwheeling almost 20 yards as he desperately and belatedly brought his bat down. "The hateful half-dozen had been orchestrated into one gigantic crescendo," wrote Frank Keating. After a momentary silence, the crowd erupted. "Boycott looked round," observed Keating, "then as the din assailed his ears, his mouth gaped and he tottered as if he'd seen the Devil himself. Then slowly he walked away, erect and brave and beaten."
In the press box there was also a stunned silence. Holder glanced towards the England dressing-room and saw Chris Old "with his mouth wide open ... he too had the look of a man who had seen a monster".
Within hours, the onfield incidents of that day were overshadowed by the news that Ken Barrington, England's assistant manager-cum-coach, had suffered a massive heart attack during the night, and had died. "So stunned were they [England]," reported John Woodcock in The Times, "that their hearts went out of it." Nevertheless, England carried on, but it was hardly surprising that on that third day their bowling was flayed by Viv Richards, who made a superb hundred.
On the fourth afternoon, Boycott again opened England's innings, as they chased a distant target. The second ball he faced from Holding was pushed to midwicket for a single, and the sizable English contingent cheered that he had avoided a pair. Gooch then inside-edged a single, bringing Boycott back on strike. Holding again produced an unplayable delivery which spat and reared at Boycott's throat; it was remarkable that he got his gloves in the way, even more so that he then tried to drop his hands to try to deaden the ball. It was to no avail, as Joel Garner held the catch low in the gully.
That dismissal was special enough, but it was the earlier one which people remember, and which Holding admits he is still asked about to this day. "Twice Lloyd had let the magnificently brutal Holding off the leash," said Keating, "and both times Boycott had been humiliated."
Holding himself explained that he doesn't think the over was his fastest. But in 1990 he was paired with Boycott in the commentary box when they replayed the over. "Nine years on," Holding grinned, "and he didn't enjoy it any more."
As for Boycott, he laid much of the blame on the pitch. In his tour diary he wrote: "For the first time in my life, I can look at a scoreboard with a duck against my name and not feel a profound sense of failure. For the first time I remember, I can write off an innings, whatever the history books might say, as being as near to irrelevant as any Test innings will be. It might have been a spectacle which sent the West Indians wild with delight, but [it] had damn-all to do with Test cricket as I understand it."
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The Cricketer - May 1981
Wisden Cricket Monthly - May 1981
Another Bloody Day In Paradise - Frank Keating (Deutsch 1981)
Whispering Death - Michael Holding & Tony Cozier (Rupa and Company 1993)
In The Fast Lane - Geoffrey Boycott (A Barker 1981)