Couch Talk

'There's too much lip service about the sanctity of Test cricket'

Michael Holding on his regrets over West Indies' behaviour in New Zealand in 1980, why Mohammad Amir deserves a second chance, and how crazy workloads are killing cricket

Subash Jayaraman: Michael, you played 60 Tests, 102 ODIs and hundreds of first-class and List A matches. When you made the turn at your bowling mark with the ball in hand, what usually ran through your mind?
Michael Holding: What is going through my mind depends on what happened the previous ball. It is of who the batsman is, and what the plan is.
SJ: Was that approach the same in the ODIs too, or did you pay more attention to Test matches?
MH: No, it does not depend on if it is an ODI or a Test match. You have a plan to a particular batsman, whether it is a Test match or an ODI. You form a nature of plans and you try and execute those plans depending on the conditions and exactly what you require at that time.
SJ: These days you see a whole flank of analysts playing such a huge role in deciding what needs to be done. In your days, how was it - did you plan on your own, or was it in consultation with other bowlers, the captain, wicketkeeper?
MH: We always had team meetings, and the team meeting is where you formulate your plan. At the same time, when you get on the field, you still have to adjust according to what is taking place at that time. There is no hard and fast rule as far as the plans are concerned. Yes, you have your specific plans, but they can't be rigid. The conditions will dictate how your plans work. If your plans aren't working the way you thought in the team meetings, you have got to be able to adjust.
SJ: Which experienced players in the side did you learn from?
MH: When I started playing for West Indies in 1975, I roomed with Lawrence Rowe. Then I roomed with Andy Roberts a lot after that and I certainly learnt a lot from Andy. Andy used to talk a lot about cricket. He wasn't someone that you would look at and think that he was very outgoing, and he seemed even unfriendly at times. If you got to know him, you would understand that he knows a lot about the game. He wasn't afraid to come up with suggestions on the field. Once he was off the field and sent out a 12th man, suggesting I do something in a particular game.
"Viv Richards was very claustrophobic. He did not like batting in an enclosure. If you were having a practice in the middle of the ground, you could bowl as fast as you want. In the nets, one bouncer and he would walk out"
SJ: A question from a listener, Ajay: before Rowe's career was unfortunately cut short because of an allergy to grass and his eyesight, was he a better batsman than, say, Viv Richards?
MH: I wouldn't say he was a better batsman, but he was certainly a lot more classical. A better batsman would mean he could produce more than Vivian Richards. Richards was a very sound player and a very strong player mentally. But I would certainly think that Lawrence was technically a more sound batsman than Viv Richards.
SJ: Viv Richards was named the best ODI player ever on ESPNcricinfo recently. How would someone go about bowling to him?
MH: Different people came with different plans against Viv Richards, and not many of them worked all that well. There is no specific plan that you can have to someone as good as that, in my opinion. When you think of people like Viv Richards and AB de Villiers and Virat Kohli and Tendulkar and Lara... it is a matter of just being as consistent with your line and length as possible. Don't give anything away, and hope that you produce a delivery that can get you a wicket. All batsmen when they get to the crease, that is when they are more likely to make a mistake. So you try and get those mistakes out of them, when they get settled in it gets a little bit harder.
SJ: I am assuming you bowled a fair bit to Richards in the nets. What were your experiences bowling to him?
MH: I didn't bowl to Viv Richards very much in the nets. When you are bowling in the nets, in the time I played in, not many bowlers ran in and bowled very seriously because a lot of the batsmen didn't have a particular like for batting in the nets. Viv Richards, in particular, was very claustrophobic. He did not like batting in an enclosure. If you were having a practice in the middle of the ground, you could bowl as fast as you want, you can bowl as many bouncers as you wanted. But in the nets, if you bowl him one bouncer, he would walk out. If you wanted to bowl fast, you would have to make sure there are no batsmen in the nets, and bowl and get somebody to throw the balls back at you.
But I did bowl to him in matches. Jamaica v Leeward Islands, Lancashire v Somerset, also Derbyshire v Somerset. He has had success [against me] and I have had my success.
SJ: Colin Croft said that he preferred bowling to batsmen who were trying to play more shots, because the more shots they played, the more chances of them getting out. He found it harder to bowl to defensive batsmen. How was it for you?
MH: What Colin Croft is saying here is totally correct. If there is a batsman playing quite a lot of shots, he is giving you opportunities for him to get out. But you have batsmen that play a lot of shots, and they can embarrass you.
At the same time, if you have a defensive batsman, it means that you have to produce a very good delivery to get him out because he is not taking too many risks. [But] he might not be that good to get runs anyway. He might have a reason for his defending, with not too many attacking shots. It is just a matter of what you think would get them out and what you think you need to do to make sure that they don't hit you when they attack.
SJ: Were there any batsmen you had any trouble dislodging?
MH: Lots of them. I bowled at a lot of great batsmen throughout my career. There is no way I could say that they were easy to dislodge. You get them out, yes. And then you say, "Okay, I have done a pretty good job." We are talking about batsmen like Sunil Gavaskar and Graham Gooch. Early in my career I bowled against the Chappells, and there were some Pakistani batsmen, like Zaheer Abbas, Majid Khan and Javed Miandad. Martin Crowe from New Zealand. I thought, "Okay, if I get these batsmen out, that means I have achieved something."
SJ: Geoffrey Boycott said that he some of the fastest spells he faced were from you, and he felt that you were still bowling within yourself, which was quite scary. Were there instances or particular oppositions that made you lift your game?
MH: There were lots. In my time playing Test matches in the '70s and '80s, you look at those teams, there are lots of names in those teams that are household names for a very long time. Every time I turned up at a Test match against Australia or Pakistan, you think to yourself, I have to bring my A-game here and make sure I am at the top of the world and I bowl well. England had some great players, but they didn't have particularly great teams in those days, because in my 12 years of Test cricket, I never lost a Test match to England. We lost Test matches to Australia, Pakistan. So, I have to say that Pakistan and Australia were two tough teams, that every time we turned up against them we had to play well.
"England played four fast bowlers in 2005 when they won the Ashes... It was great when they had four-five fast bowlers and were winning, but other teams doing so and winning was a problem. Sour grapes"
SJ: Was there a healthy rivalry in the team about who was going to get those five-for and six-fors?
MH: I don't think so, not in my mind anyway. They are there to make sure that you get all 20 wickets. Obviously each individual has his own pride in his performance and wants to take as many wickets as he possibly can. But I don't think there was any serious rivalry that any bowler would hope that the other one didn't [get wickets], that he could get more. That was never the case, and I have no evidence that that was the case in the team that I played in.
SJ: A listener, Aashish, asks: who did you consider, in your playing time, to be the best fast bowler outside of the West Indies?
MH: Perhaps Dennis Lillee. He has to go down as the best fast bowler outside the West Indies that I played against. There were a few others - Richard Hadlee, I wouldn't say he was fast, but he was fast enough. Imran Khan had a great deal of pace. But Dennis Lillee was the best.
SJ: A listener, Paddy, asks: who would be a quick from the '70s that would easily switch into this era with the bigger bats and flatter wickets and the batsmen more protected? And also someone from this era who is worthy of joining the fast bowlers of that era?
MH: I don't think fast bowlers of previous eras worried about who has protection or who has a bigger bat. If you are good enough, you are good enough to get them out. Of the current era, there are quite a few fast bowlers that I have enjoyed watching, and I rate them. Shane Bond, Dale Steyn. Shoaib Akhtar, when I first saw him when Pakistan came to Australia. Then he went a little bit wrong with his action. Brett Lee, I liked him.
SJ: During your playing career, there was talk that the laws of cricket had to be changed and perhaps there was discomfort at how West Indies accomplished their results...
MH: I don't think the laws were changed that much. They had some rules that were brought in about short-pitched bowling. West Indies continued to win even after the law was brought in about not more than two bouncers in an over. The law about balls going over a batsman's shoulder and his head - why would you want to bowl balls going that high? That wouldn't have affected the West Indies team. It did not affect the team and we continued to win even after the '80s. We continued to win till 1995, and that law was brought in during that time and we were still winning.
As far as fast bowling is concerned, we heard plenty of people saying: "Playing four or five fast bowlers is outside the spirit of the game." England played four fast bowlers in 2005 against Australia when they won the Ashes. I remember Steve Harmison hitting Ricky Ponting on his face at Lord's. All the people in the stands were cheering. It was great when they had four-five fast bowlers and they were winning, but other teams having the same type of bowlers and winning was a problem. So, as I said, sour grapes - when you don't have it you complain about it and when you have it you are happy to use it. So I don't worry about things like that.
SJ: When you bowled to Brian Close in 1976, he was getting battered all over. Do you ever look back and say that was an unfair contest?
MH: I didn't pick him. I didn't pick someone who was over 40 years old. He was representing his country, I was representing mine. If they pick a two-year-old baby to come out and bat, does that mean you are going to bowl all full tosses that he can hit away? You pick your cricketers, we pick our cricketers. It is a contest - your country versus my country.
SJ: Regarding the contentious 1980 New Zealand tour, a listener from New Zealand says his love [for the game] came from watching West Indies, particularly from that series. What really went on? Of course, there were some decisions that didn't go in your favour, but when you look back on it, any sense of regret at all?
MH: First of all, if he got his interest in cricket from watching the West Indies in that series, that is a sad way to start watching, because we didn't play cricket in that series. It wasn't cricket. That series was a farce. Secondly, yes, obviously, when things like that happen, you say to yourself, "That was sad." That was not something you want to see repeated on a cricket field and certainly not something that you would encourage people to do. It is just something that happened, and it was a reaction to something that was taking place during that series. We are all human beings, people will react adversely to adverse events. But, as I keep on saying to people - we go through life, people make mistakes. The important thing to do is to learn from your mistakes and not repeat them.
SJ: The case of Mohammad Amir - he is now playing domestic cricket, and he could play for Pakistan soon. This is from listeners Siva and Bharathram: when the spot-fixing controversy happened, it was one of the sadder sights watching you on television, getting emotional, and David Gower had to go to a break. How have you viewed that event since then, and what is your take on his comeback into cricket?
"When I hear that the last World Cup was the best ever, I shudder - obviously the administrators saying that are looking at the money. Certainly they've not looked at the cricket"
MH: Again, that is an example of what I am talking about. He was 18 years old when he went and made that mistake. It was unfortunate. It should never have taken place. You don't want to see that happening in cricket. But when you make a mistake at 18, I don't think that mistake should cost you your career for the rest of your life. You should be given an opportunity to correct that mistake.
I have seen in normal life, in normal day-to-day living, people have made serious mistakes - they have killed people when they are drunk driving and have been given other opportunities to continue their life. They serve their terms and they do whatever the court says that they have to do and they are given another opportunity. Why should a cricketer be any different? Why shouldn't he be given another opportunity, to show the world that he will come out a better person?
Mohammad Amir, as far as I can see, he was not the man who planned it, and it seemed to me that he wasn't all that keen about what was asked but he went through with it because apparently they agreed to do it.
SJ: You have been on television for quite a bit now. As a close observer of the game, what is your take on the health of the sport, not just in the Test-playing nations but all around?
MH: I have said it for many years now, for the last decade too much cricket is being played. They are playing more and more cricket. There is [always] some form of cricket somewhere of the world. Fast bowlers, in particular, cannot survive under these circumstances. The workload is too much. Even batsmen are having to miss series and Test matches because of the workload. I don't see how that can be healthy for the game. You want your best players to be playing at their top level as much as they can.
Secondly, it is too much lip service being given to the sanctity of Test cricket and nothing is being done to protect it. All the boards and all the administrators in the world are looking at the bottom line. When I hear, for instance, that the last World Cup was the best World Cup ever, I shudder, because obviously the people saying that are the administrators who are looking at the money that the World Cup has brought them. Certainly they have not looked at the cricket. There were 49 games and there were not more than four or five interesting games. Perhaps some interesting [individual] moments from those games, but as far as the games were concerned, we had some boring games. I can't understand how anyone can say that this was the best World Cup.