'The pain was incredible'
I am often asked who the fastest bowler I faced was, and the answer is always the same: Michael Holding. I first played against him in 1976, during the infamous series where our captain, Tony Greig, was quoted as saying, "We will make the West Indies grovel." It was also the series when Clive Lloyd changed the way Test cricket was played.
By the time we got to The Oval, we were already two Tests down. I had made my Test debut only a year earlier, batting at No. 7.
In the first three Tests in this series, I had gone in at 4, 5 or 6, but Headingley saw the departure of John Edrich and Brian Close, and the makeshift pair of David Steele and Dennis Amiss opened. But at The Oval, Steele was going down and I, a novice non-opener, was going to partner Amiss.
A pre-Test dinner with some lovely steak and red wine was customary in those days. After the dinner we would sit with the captain to discuss match tactics, most of which had been blown out of the water by the fantastic batting of Viv Richards and Gordon Greenidge, and the bowling of Holding and Andy Roberts. This evening I was seated next to the great Sir Leonard Hutton who was on the selection panel, and since he had faced Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller a lot, I was very keen to seek his advice on how to tackle Holding and Roberts.
During the evening I duly asked him for some help. He thought for some time, cutting a piece of steak and sipping some wine as he did. He kept turning to me periodically, and just when it seemed he was going to say something, he would stop. Fifteen minutes later, he finally spoke. "If I were you," he said, "I would try and get down to the other end!"
The pitch was a batting paradise. Lloyd won the toss, and Richards batted like I had never seen anyone bat before, plundering an imperious 291. West Indies declared at 687 for 8, and Dennis and I survived 12 overs on the second evening. The bounce was true, and I was feeling good about my batting because I had been in good form all season. But little did we know that Whispering Death lay in wait for us.
Holding's feet hardly touched the ground as he ran in. He moved in silkily and his body swayed like a cobra's: it would have been magnificent had I been watching from the outside. But here I was more intent on watching the ball, moving back and across as Colin Cowdrey had taught me.
Holding was bowling with only one fielder in front of wicket at cover-point. He bowled, and I moved back and across. I saw that the ball was pitched up, so I moved forward, feet first, and then into the shot.
Before I knew it, the ball had smashed into my pad. Even though I was wearing state-of-the-art buckskin pads, the pain was so incredible that I thought I had been shot. A small explosion of whitening emanated from my pad and a loud appeal from the bowler and the fielders. Dickie Bird was not known to give too many lbws. But this time he had no choice: the ball would have broken the middle stump.
That opened the floodgates, and though Dennis scored a masterful 203 and helped us avoid the follow-on, we lost by 231 runs. Incredibly Roberts, who opened the bowling with Holding, returned with match figures of 1 for 139 to Holding's 14 for 149. The pitch had nothing in terms of movement, swing or extra bounce for the bowler, but Holding didn't need any assistance: six of his victims were bowled and two leg-before. He just kept coming back and bowling quicker and quicker, and stumps flew all over the place.
This article was first published in Wisden Asia Cricket magazine. Bob Woolmer passed away in March 2007