Michael Holding

'You can bowl fast within the laws'

Michael Holding reflects on the 15-degree law, the decline in fast bowling and more

Rolls Royce of fast bowling: Michael Holding © AllSport UK Ltd

Michael Holding was a sight to behold - for everyone barring the batsman. Smooth and silky, he glided to the wicket and sent the ball down at over 140kph consistently without any apparent effort. Had he not had to share the spoils with his equally remarkable mates, his 60 Tests would have probably fetched him more than the 249 wickets (no mean returns by any measure) he finished with. These days he wields the microphone with the grace and sharpness that once marked his bowling, and with a generous dose of laconic wit. In this interview with Cricinfo Magazine, he holds forth on fast bowling then and now, and addresses upfront an issue that few these days dare confront directly: chucking.

Fast bowling then and now: what is the fundamental difference?
I wouldn't say that there's a difference, but there certainly aren't as many fast bowlers in the game today. That's because of the amount of cricket being played. That isn't conducive to fast bowlers staying in the game, and staying fit. The ones that are there now have all had to take their breaks and come back after various types of injuries.

Bowlers are better taken care of, there has been advancement of sport sciences, greater understanding of techniques because of television, yet there has been a steady decline in the quality of fast bowlers.
I think it's the workload. I would also suggest that some of the biomechanics that I hear people talking about... I don't believe a lot of that, about actions and bad backs and not getting side-on. I've seen bowlers with side-on actions who went through their entire career without a back problem. I bowled at 90-odd miles an hour for 12 years with a side-on action. Never had a back problem.

I think a lot of people are confused. If you turn your body side-on, and rotate your entire body, you're not putting pressure on your back. It's when you're partly side-on and partly chest-on that you get problems, because there are two different rotational actions going on.

Workload is often cited as a reason, but there is another view - that modern players actually play less cricket than those of the past because they hardly turn up at domestic games.
A lot of them don't get a chance to play domestic cricket. But a four-day international game takes a lot more out of you than a domestic one. You put a lot more pressure on yourself and your body. Look at Pakistan's itinerary. After playing India they're now in Sri Lanka. Then they go to England. After that it's the Champions Trophy and series against West Indies and Zimbabwe. That's just too much cricket.

How do you see yourself coping with the current international schedule?
I wouldn't have coped. I wouldn't have been able to play 12 years of Test cricket. It's ridiculous how much they're playing.

Is there is a possibility that bowlers are getting over-coached, thus stifling their natural talent?
A lot of them are over-coached and a lot are being told the wrong thing by some of these experts. What you study in the classroom doesn't necessarily work for you out on the field. A lot of people do things naturally that might perhaps not look technically correct. Who would tell Colin Croft that he couldn't have an action like he had? Who would coach Jeff Thomson as a kid to bowl with the action that he had? It might look awkward, but they were comfortable with it. You need to relax a bit and let these kids bowl with an action that comes naturally to them.

There were certainly no pace academies in the West Indies in your time.
None whatsoever. (laughs)

What role can a captain play in a fast bowler's development?
The fast bowler is part of the team, and a captain is very important for a team's development. He's pretty much the father who is always nurturing. Clive Lloyd did an excellent job as far as that went. He was someone who understood individuals, and how to get the best out of them.

What made you take up fast bowling and how did you learn your craft?
Well, I learned to bowl fast from this free-for-all game called Catch n Shubi [meaning to push out of the way] that we used to play wherever we could find open spaces in Jamaica. You got a chance to bat by getting out whoever was batting. And by getting them out, I mean getting them out bowled. If he was caught, the person who took the catch would bat. Nobody had pads or gloves. You had a bat, a ball, a zinc pan or something as a wicket, and an open piece of land. The guys would stand in front of the pan. If it hit them on the leg, they weren't out because there was no lbw. So some of us would bowl fast so that when it hit the leg it would hurt, and they wouldn't want to keep their legs in front. I used to bowl offbreaks, but I decided that the next time someone kept their legs in front, I would hit them and hurt them so that they didn't do it again.

When I was born, my father registered me at the Melbourne Cricket Club in Jamaica. Whenever the team went out into the country to play the bauxite companies, I would play those games. Some of the senior guys thought I had a bit of potential and gave assistance and guidance. One was Arthur Barrett, a legspinner who played for the West Indies. The other was a left-arm spinner called Bruce Wellington. George Stirling was my senior club captain, and I also had a bit of guidance from a gentleman named Teddy Griffith [who went on to become president of the West Indies Cricket Board], who was a very good friend of my father. They weren't fast bowlers, but knew enough about the game to help a youngster.

A lot of batsmen today, their technique is so faulty that if they were to have that 30 years ago, they'd be dead

How different were the training methods then?
There were actually no methods. I didn't have any training till I started athletics. Running on sand and lifting weights helped with my cricket. Even with the West Indies, we used to run a couple of laps to warm up. Then Dennis Waight joined the squad in 1977, during World Series Cricket, and told Clive Lloyd that we were nowhere near as fit as we should be as professional sportsmen.

Imran Khan was saying recently that all people did in his time for fitness training were a couple of laps at the ground.
Yes, exactly. And it wasn't training, it was warming up. I remember watching West Indies teams as a kid, and players came out onto the ground before play in their whites. Nobody had a tracksuit. The bowlers would bowl some balls to the batsmen, who would have a knock for 15 minutes and then everyone would be back in the dressing room waiting for the match to start. Training is a modern phenomenon. We started it only in 1977.

Pitches - how much have they changed?
When I was young, I didn't really know enough about them. You just had a pitch, you ran up and you bowled. Depending on the pace of the pitch and the bounce, you adjusted your line and length. I didn't ponder the nature of pitches until the end of my Test career.

For example, have the West Indian pitches slowed down considerably?
All the pitches there have slowed down, but we never had more than two fast ones - Jamaica and Barbados. No other pitch in the Caribbean has ever been fast.

Is one-day cricket responsible?
Well, in one-day cricket most of the pitches are dry, and they take off most of the grass because they don't want lateral movement.

Australian pitches haven't slowed down and they've always been the quickest ones in the world. People have taken off the grass and kept pitches dry, but they haven't slowed down; you can still get enough pace and bounce out of them.

Was fear of facing fast bowling a major factor in your time?
Definitely. We didn't have a lot of protection, so you would easily find out who didn't have the guts to stand up and face the fire.

How much difference has the helmet made?
A huge difference. A lot of batsmen today, their technique is so faulty that if they were to have that 30 years ago, they'd be dead. They now take their eyes off the ball knowing that even if it hits them on the head, the helmet will protect them. If they didn't grow up with helmets, they wouldn't have developed such bad techniques and would keep their eyes on the ball. It's a matter of the environment in which you grow up.

Would some of guys who relied on sheer pace in your time have been disadvantaged by the helmet? Someone like Patrick Patterson, for example?
Well, by the time he came along there was enough protection around. Proper helmets came along in the early eighties. He was effective because when you have pace, you get people out.

What do you think of the bouncer rule?
I don't have a problem with it. Two bouncers an over is enough.

In a sense, the West Indian fast bowlers were held responsible for the bouncer rule. You were accused of using it indiscriminately.
They say that because they couldn't handle the four-pronged pace attack. When they introduced the bouncer rule, we were still effective because we never bowled bouncers over people's heads. What's the point of bowling a bouncer over someone's shoulder? Up by his chest or by his neck, that's when a batsman sometimes has to play.

Batsmen often complained that they never got to play any balls and that that was negative.
They never got to play because they couldn't deal with it. When England used four fast bowlers to beat Australia, and Ricky Ponting was hit on the face, people lauded it. It was all a matter of sour grapes. Those who didn't have it [fast bowlers] said it was unfair. As soon as they get it, they use it.

As a tailender yourself, did you have qualms about bowling a bouncer to a tailender?
I got it, and I gave it. It's part of the game. If you can't take the fire, you shouldn't be trying to cook.

Once you see something with the naked eye, you should be reporting it and having it assessed and measured properly. The difficulty is in the politics surrounding it, with people afraid to report certain players

Who were the best fast bowlers you came up against?
In my time, it was Dennis Lillee and Imran Khan. They had pace and they could do things with the ball. You had others who got a lot of wickets, but you wouldn't say that they were fast. Kapil Dev and Richard Hadlee were two. Jeff Thomson was extremely fast without being as dynamic a bowler as Lillee.

Dennis was pretty much the all-round fast bowler; he could do anything with the ball. Imran was another who could intimidate people out with his pace and also get them with movement, especially into the right-hander.

Who in your experience were the best players of fast bowling?
I played against too many. Australia in the early days had the Chappell brothers, and later on, Allan Border. David Gower, Graham Gooch, and Allan Lamb [England]. India had Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar. Pakistan had Majid Khan, Zaheer Abbas, and Javed Miandad. I bowled to a lot of great batsmen and none of them would back away from fast bowling. Some just played it a bit better than others.

What's the most important attribute in playing fast bowling - courage or skill?
A lot of skill comes into play. If you're intimidated by fast bowling, you're jerky - you'll play at deliveries that you don't need to play. Those who are comfortable with it judge line and length very well and know which balls to play at.

Gavaskar and Viv Richards, the guys who played without helmets...
They were fantastic players, as simple as that. They didn't need to wear helmets because they were good enough not to get hit.

Allan Lamb? Not a great record against others, but pretty handy against West Indies.
He batted well against fast bowling, perhaps because he was brought up in South Africa, on hard pitches that encouraged quick bowlers. When he came up against good spinners he didn't make many. West Indies didn't have any spinners, so he made runs against us.

Mohinder Amarnath had a great series in the Caribbean in 1983, but was a wreck at home a few months later. What do you put that down to?
It more than likely was a mental thing. He certainly couldn't have lost his ability in such a short period of time. Sometimes people get worn down by fast bowling. If you're being bombarded with it constantly, it can affect you mentally. I remember Zaheer Abbas once telling me in England about moving down the order: "Mikey, facing guys like you day in day out, year after year, it affects you. It's time for me to go down. Let the youngsters deal with it now." And Zaheer was a great player.

Were there any who just ran away?
I remember Vengsarkar backing away on his first tour of the West Indies, in Jamaica. It was a pitch on which a lot of guys got hit. But I can't remember him backing off later on in his career. None of the really big names ran away.

Who are the best players of fast bowling from the current lot?
I would say Ricky Ponting. Sachin Tendulkar - up to three years ago but not now. Michael Vaughan. Rahul Dravid, to a certain degree. VVS Laxman too.

What do you mean by a certain degree?
They play it reasonably well. I wouldn't say that they're exceptional players of fast bowling. They can survive because of their technique. They cannot destroy attacks. Inzamam too - he can make a hundred against any attack. Saeed Anwar before he retired.

A recent study found plenty of fast bowlers from the past to have been chuckers, going strictly by the law. Would you say with hindsight now that fast bowling involves an involuntary degree of flex? In other words, is it impossible to bowl fast within strict parameters of the law?
No, you can bowl fast within the rules, within 15 degrees. Science has shown that almost every bowler straightens his arm to some degree. So you have to have some amount of flexibility with the rules. Above 15 degrees you can see it with the naked eye.

What is your personal take on the 15-degree relaxation now allowed to fast bowlers?
I agree with the rule, but I'm not sure 15 degrees is correct. I'm no scientist, but if they say that it can't be detected with the naked eye below 15 degrees, I'll go along with that.

Isn't it a regulation that's impossible to implement?
No, it's not. Once you see something with the naked eye, you should be reporting it and having it assessed and measured properly. The difficulty is in the politics surrounding it, with people afraid to report certain players.

Since the flex can only be measured accurately in test conditions and umpires are expected to report using the naked eye, how can this system work?
When you see something that looks awkward to you, you can go into the TV booth or the production company van and then look at the slow-motion replays to make sure it's seemingly a chuck.

Then you send the guy to the lab to be measured. If it's a fast bowler, they'll know what speed he was bowling in the game. He has to be bowling at 90 to 95 per cent of that speed in the lab, otherwise they'll know he's holding back.

'What's the point of bowling a bouncer over someone's shoulder? Up by his chest or by his neck, that's when a batsman sometimes has to play' © The Cricketer International

Still, hypothetically a bowler can willfully go beyond the limit in match conditions and then go to the lab and bowl within himself, can't he?
If he goes into the lab and does not do what he does in the game, it is up to the people testing him to report to the ICC that they're not satisfied. That's written in the laws.

There is also the issue of hyper-extension and optical illusion. How can any umpire be sure anymore, when seeing is very apparently not believing?
Well, that's why there are problems, because the umpires will not call anybody on the field. I did something with Shoaib Akhtar at the end of the Test match in Karachi, when I compared him to RP Singh to show that both have hyperextension. When you look at Shoaib Akhtar and RP Singh from the front, you see a bent arm with one and a straight arm with the other. As I said, politics is preventing people from doing what they should.

What's the way out?
To get people in authority who have the backbone to do what is right, and not what is politically expedient.

Your first tour of Australia in 1975-76 - how important was that for the development of West Indies cricket?
That played a minor role. I think the most important factor was World Series Cricket under Kerry Packer. We bonded together a lot better as a team, and we became professionals in the true sense of the word. Kerry demanded that.

West Indies lost that series 1-5; was there extra satisfaction each time you beat Australia thereafter?
You could say that, yes. We enjoyed beating anybody, though. We wanted to beat the entire world, home and away, and prove that we were the best.

Viv Richards has spoken about the 1976 tour of England and how that series was about getting respect.
And especially to demoralise Tony Greig for what he had said: "When the West Indies are on top they look great, and when they're struggling they grovel." When he used that word, which had the wrong connotations coming from a South African, all West Indian people were up in arms. We wanted to show him that we were better than he thought.

Did that make you bowl faster?
Against him. Every time he came to the crease, the fast bowlers bowled faster.

What about sledging and trash talk?
We spoke with the ball. We didn't have to say anything. And none of them would ever dare say anything to us.

That one over to Geoff Boycott in 1981. Was that the best over you ever bowled?
No. People highlight it because it was Boycott. I've bowled lots of better overs without perhaps even getting a wicket.

The one black spot in your career would be Dunedin in 1980. [Holding kicked the stumps down after finally losing patience with the atrocious umpiring.]
The one publicised black spot (smiles). There were others. What I think about it now is not important. But you can watch the tapes yourself and see the circumstances.

When people talk of the decline of West Indies cricket, they blame American sport. Do you agree?
Rubbish, absolute rubbish. It's a natural cycle, first of all. You could never expect the West Indies team to beat everyone for ever and ever. We beat the world for 20 years. Before that we had some very mediocre teams. We might have had some great individuals, but they didn't beat too many teams. We went through a period when we had no fast bowlers as well. When India came to the Caribbean in 1971, there were no fast bowlers up against them. Just like now, we had some medium-pacers.

It will come around, and the West Indies will develop great fast bowlers again. It has been proven all over the world that, unless you have a fantastic spinner, it is fast bowlers who win Test matches. And when we develop fast bowlers, we'll win Tests again. The batting is not as bad as people make it out to be. You cannot have a team chasing a world record [418 at Antigua, 2003] against the best team in the world and say that the batting is bad. But you can't win Tests without bowlers.

Australia went through a period when they could beat no one; England went through one for nearly 20 years. Our problems have been made worse by the fact that there are so many other things for kids to do these days. But to use that as an excuse is just being lazy.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo