Dumbstruck: 'His mouth gaped," wrote Frank Keating, "and he tottered as if he'd seen the Devil himself"
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Many people can recall outstanding deliveries, such as Shane Warne's
"ball of the century" to Mike Gatting at Old Trafford in 1993. It's not
often that a whole over stands out in the mind quite so dramatically,
but one which is still talked about came at Bridgetown in March 1981.
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
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".
Michael Holding: magnificently brutal
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Boycott spent the rest of the day replaying the sixth ball over and over
in his mind, and at the close of play he went to a journalist's room to
watch a video of the fateful over. He studied the replays several times
before he told them that he had seen what he wanted to see and was going
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."
Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? E-mail us with your comments and suggestions.
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)