‘The art of fast bowling’ by Michael Holding
Elegance and fear, beauty and terror – there is a man who blended these contrasting phenomena with unimaginable finesse every time he had a cricket ball in his hand. Michael Holding ran in towards his bowling crease like a race horse in its medium canter – long, elegant strides, perfect balance, eyes focused on the target, body moving further in a smooth rhythm. When the ball left his hand, it went like a cobra’s sting – sudden, sharp and venomous.
Michael Holding pounced on his prey without prior notice. He was, indeed, Whispering Death.
One of the quickest bowlers ever to grace the game of cricket, Holding was part of the fearsome foursome of West Indies’ fast bowling battery of the late 1970s and 1980s.
In a rendezvous with bcci.tv, Holding took a trip down memory lane to talk about the roots of his gloriously smooth run-up and bowling action, his fellow West Indian fast bowlers and the flawed image of big brute men cast on them.
The legend also spoke at length about fast bowlers he admires from different eras and picked his current favourites.
The good old days!
Tell us how you managed to combine the elegance of your action with the fearsomeness of your bowling.
What I did came natural to me. People told me it looked easy but it wasn’t easy. Fast bowling is hard work. It had something to do with the fact that I did athletics in school – not that I was very good at it, but I did it. That helped me get that rhythm and make it look easy. As far as the fear is concerned, I never meant to be fearsome on the cricket field. For sure I didn’t smile a lot, but that didn’t mean I wanted to be feared. With the pace that I bowled at, people thought that way. I just tried to enjoy myself.
Do you think it surprised batsmen when the ball came to them at that pace after such an easy action?
Yes, given how rhythmic my run-up and action looked, they didn’t expect the ball to come out as fast as it did. It wasn’t hard work in the sense that I wasn’t hopping and popping, running and pounding to generate that pace. I floated into the crease, which made it look easy, but at the point of delivery a lot of effort went into the ball.
Was the over you bowled to Geoffery Boycott in the 1981 Oval Test the best you’ve bowled?
I don’t think so at all. That one over has gone down in history. According to Boycott it was the best spells of bowling he faced. Geoff was trying to boost himself (laughs). After that he went all around the world telling people that he made me famous with that one over. But I remember bowling in Australia where I think I bowled a lot better than that. I remember a game in Perth when I got rid of Rick Darling and Greg Chappell in one over. I would rate that over above the one to Boycott. Some performances become folklore and after a while they become better than they actually were.
Given how the West Indies fast bowling attack was feared around the world, did you see yourself as a pack of wolves trying to hunt batsmen down?
I think the press tried to make us feel that way. Particularly the press in England tried to paint us as brutal people who bowl bouncers all day. I am not too sure if we thought of ourselves like that. We went out there as fast bowlers and did pretty much what we had to do to win Test matches. Everyone will recognise that whatever we did, it was within the laws of the game as the umpires wouldn’t have allowed us to transcend the laws. But because we were four fast bowlers, people were not accustomed to see that.
Other teams tried to copy what we did. I remember in 2005 England went into the Ashes with four fast bowlers. They won the series and they were praising the fast bowlers. No one said it was spoiling the game, no one said anything about too many bouncers. Steve Harmison – I think it was at Lord’s – hit Ricky Ponting in the face and the crowd was cheering. They clapped and applauded. When West Indies did that they jeered and said it was spoiling the game.
How did you all prepare for a Test and for a particular batsman?
There were no technicalities. There are so many things to help the current cricketers that weren’t available to us. We never had the video cameras, tapes and DVDs that they constantly watch and analyse the opposition. We had our memories – that’s all we had. We remembered what we did when we last played against a particular batsman and we remembered how the batsman played a particular ball. In the team meetings we would talk about it. But it was just from experience and memory. These guys have a lot more available to them. We seemed to do okay with our memories.
Despite being a group of four fast bowlers, you were all so different in styles. How did you complement each other?
We were all different fast bowlers and that’s why we worked so well together. Joel Garner was 6’8. He was the tallest among us. I think he might have been a fraction slower than the rest three of us. Colin Croft was a different type of bowler. He used to run wide of the crease and bowled very, very long spells. Andy Roberts and myself were the quickest and we bowled sharper, shorter spells. Andy was again a lot different to me. He’s about two inches shorter than I am and he had a slightly more slingy action. He was the brains of the quartet, I would say. He knew how to neutralise the opposition. I, in particular, learned a lot from him.
Who was your favourite partner to bowl with?
I liked bowling with Andy. That’s perhaps a bit biased of me, because we are friends and have been so since a very long time. We were both the 12th men for Jamaica and the Combined Islands respectively when we started our careers. We both sat on the bench and chatted about our bowling for a long time. When you were the 12th man there wasn’t a lot you could do. Since then we have been very good friends and we ruled together when we played for the West Indies. I have learnt a lot from him. I really enjoyed bowling with him. I would try to assess what he was doing to the batsman and then try to copy that.
Later on Malcolm Marshall came into the team and he was a dynamic, outstanding and a great fast bowler. By the time Malcolm got full-fledged into the team, I was pretty much heading towards the direction of the end. But when I was in my prime I enjoyed bowling with Andy.
Which fast bowlers have you admired?
Before I started playing I admired Wes Hall. I used to love watching Wes Hall. When I was a young kid, I didn’t understand the game. I was just running in and bowling fast. But I loved the way he bowled with a nice, smooth action. While I was playing I admired the guys I played with, of course, Malcolm Marshall, Andy Roberts, Colin Croft and Joel Garner. But I also admired the opposition bowlers such as Dennis Lillee. I really watched Dennis Lillee and I loved the way he ran in – he looked so smooth.
Since I stopped playing I liked guys like Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram. There was Shane Bond from New Zealand and Brett Lee from Australia. There are quite a few fast bowlers that I love watching and I really admire the way they bowled.
The current lot
How do you see health of fast bowling currently?
The problem is that now there’s so much cricket being played that you don’t get too many good fast bowlers. There’s just too much strain on the body and that forces the fast bowlers to retire early. Lasith Malinga and Brett Lee did that. You don’t see the kind of fast bowlers in the game that you did 25-30 years ago. You still have guys who bowl reasonably fast but you don’t have guys bowling 90 miles an hour for a long time.
What is your take on Dale Steyn?
Great fast bowler. I love to see him bowl. I love to see fast bowlers who have almost everything. He has pace, he moves the ball around and you can see that he is a thinking bowler. He’s not very tall, which makes him even more dynamic. Normally, you see fast bowlers are big powerful men 6’3 or 6’4 tall. You have got to have the entire package and looks alone won’t do it. What he has done really well is maintain his fitness and strength. That is very important for a fast bowler. He has done well and I am looking forward to seeing him continue like this for some time. I can’t say there’s a lot wrong with Dale Steyn. There’s only one thing. He tends to take the ball away from the right hander more than get it back in. But at the same time I don’t see anything wrong in what he does.
Do you think South Africa currently have the best fast bowling attack?
Not necessarily. I think England have some outstanding fast bowlers, particularly when they bowl in England. Morkel can be a bit inconsistent. I think Steyn is the most consistent fast bowler going around at the moment. He’ll go anywhere and get people out. Morkel, sometimes he will get wickets, bowl well in patches and at times won’t bowl well. England have a good pace attack because they have so many to choose from.
Steven Finn has come onto the scene and I think he is an outstanding fast bowler. Jimmy Anderson, he will swing the ball around. I think Chris Tremlett can be a good fast bowler. He just needs to maintain his fitness. England have a good pack of fast bowlers and it’s just a matter of who they will bring on the park. They will have some pains when they leave the country but in England they’re really dynamic.
Has any Indian pacer ever caught your fancy?
Oh yes, Javagal Srinath. I have always admired Javagal Srinath. Kapil Dev was an outstanding and great bowler, but I wouldn’t say he was fast. Srinath had pace. You couldn’t say that it was easy to come on the front foot to him.
There were a few other guys who were good, but they could bowl quick only for a couple of years. I don’t know what wrong the Indian fast bowlers are doing to lose their pace. They emerge as really quick bowlers and you think India has finally got a good fast bowler for long term. But in couple of years they’re bowling medium pace. I don’t know how they train or what their nutrition is like. But something isn’t working. I would like to see the Indian fast bowlers maintaining their pace for eight-nine years.