When Michael Holding talks about cricket, you listen, because anyone who has heard that glorious baritone simply cannot get enough of it. When Holding talks about fast bowling, you don’t just listen, you absorb every syllable, because it is nothing short of an education. Holding cannot stand the idea of being a coach, but through his words of wisdom, the former West Indian great has been a teacher nevertheless. Excerpts from a conversation with Sportstar:
How healthy is the state of fast bowling in world cricket today?
I think it’s reasonably healthy. I was a little bit worried about two years ago, because I didn’t see a progression of fast bowlers. I didn’t see too many guys lining up to come through. At the moment it’s interesting, there are a few guys who can develop into outstanding fast bowlers. The pressure put on these players by the amount of cricket they play will take its toll. I don’t know how long they will last. I don’t think you will see fast bowlers lasting 12 and 14 years like we have seen in the past. But, if they can get 10 years out of the game, and bowl really fast in that time, that will suffice.
Has the increase in limited overs cricket resulted in bowlers somewhat losing the art of setting up a batsman? It seems like they are either trying to take a wicket every ball or just trying to restrict the batsmen from scoring …
I think that is true for batsmen and bowlers now. I don’t see batsmen having the same kind of patience that was needed in the past. Everything is so compacted, everything is played over a shorter period of time that everyone is trying to do whatever they have to do as quickly as possible. The innings that Pujara played at the Wanderers, everybody was ridiculing him. Yes, it’s unusual to play 50-odd balls to get off the mark, but a lot of times in the past you’d see people trying to dig in, the way Pujara dug in.
Then nobody thought that was something to be ridiculed. It was just part of the game. Sometimes things are tough, and as a batsman you have to dig in. The game has changed, the outlook of those who are playing has changed and the expectation of the spectators has changed. It’s because there are so many games of the shorter version being played.
Speed guns these days have plenty of people bowling at 90 mph. How much do you trust these?
I’m not too sure. I just use it as a guide. I see it as something to entertain the people watching the game on television at home. I’m not too sure how accurate these speed guns are. The people who invented it, or those who bring it to the broadcast, will tell you how accurate the speed guns are. But I don’t really pay a great deal of attention.
Of current fast bowlers, who do you enjoy watching?
The one that I really enjoyed watching, and one that I would get up in the morning and rush to the ground to watch, just got injured again in the last series — Dale Steyn. I think he is a fantastic fast bowler. In the last five six years that I have seen him play regularly, I have enjoyed watching him more than anyone else. He has all the tricks. He has the control, he has the pace — sure he’s getting a bit older now and is not as quick as he used to be — he can move the ball around, he has the aggression, he has the temperament, he has everything. There are a few guys below his standard, as far as I am concerned, who are still good fast bowlers. There’s Kagiso Rabada, I think he has everything needed to develop into something special. Vernon Philander is a good bowler, but we are talking about out and out fast bowlers so he doesn’t get into the mix. Mitchell Starc has pace, he is also a very good bowler. I don’t see a lot of outstanding fast bowlers beyond this group. You don’t see a lot of quick bowlers around the world.
In India there is a bit of an obsession with pace, simply because of the lack of genuinely fast bowlers over the years. One Indian medium fast bowler once told me: Why do you keep asking about pace, ask how many wickets I’m taking …
That’s a reasonable argument. But, what you’ll have to ask them, what kind of conditions did you get your wickets on? If you have the pace, you can get wickets in almost any conditions. You will not lose your skill, you have that skill with the pace. You’ll find a lot of people who just won’t be bothered to bowl fast, because it is hard work. They may not be able to bowl fast over an extended period of time, they want to have a reasonably long career so they are satisfied with bowling within themselves.
At what pace does sheer pace become a factor?
I think once you touch 90 miles an hour and go above that, it makes a difference. At that pace, even a change of one and half miles an hour is a huge difference. When you’re in the mid 80s it doesn’t really matter. You will find that when a bowler is sending the ball down above 90 mph, batsmen play shots they wouldn’t normally attempt. They play at balls outside off, that they might have left alone at a lower pace because pace intimidates. And pace creates problems for batsmen.
There has been recent debate about the use or overuse of short-pitched bowling against tail-enders who may not have the technique to play such bowling or get out of the way … Mike Atherton for one has written about how dangerous it can be.
It can be dangerous. And there are laws in place that empower umpires to protect tailenders if it comes to that. All I am saying is that if I am playing for my country and you are playing for your country, whatever number you come in to bat, don’t expect that I’m going to bowl you half-volleys. It ain’t gonna happen. If you hang around, you’re going to get a short ball at some stage. But, a short ball, should be allowed. Nobody should have a problem with a short ball. When it gets extreme, where every ball is just bang, bang, bang … then the umpires have laws that they can use to restrict that. They can say to the bowler, that under this law, you can’t bowl this line of attack to this player because he cannot handle it. You find any number of tail-enders nowadays who can hang around and play the short ball because they are that good. But there are some who can’t and the laws are specifically there to deal with these situations.
Some fast bowlers enjoy intimidating batsmen as much they do taking wickets…
Most fast bowlers do. Not some, almost all.
Well, let’s put it this way, some are meaner than others. It’s sometimes said that if you are a high quality, top-order batsman, you should be able to get out of the way of bouncers …
It depends on how quick you are and how skilful you are with bouncers. I have seen fast bowlers pin the best batsmen in the world. I’ve seen Viv Richards get hit. It’s easy to say the top-order batsmen should be good enough to leave it, but if the man is quick enough, and skilful enough, he can hit you and he can put you in a lot of trouble no matter how good you are as a batsman. If he can hit you, and you put bat or hand up to evade the short ball you can get out. So, I wouldn’t just say if you are a top class batsman you should be able to get out of the way: it’s not that easy.
So, it’s not just about pace, it’s about direction …
That’s what I’m talking about. Skill. It’s not just about a big guy running up and banging it into the pitch. You have people who can seam bouncers. The batsman sees the ball pitched outside off stump and thinks he can leave it but it comes in and keeps on following you.
Of all the cricketers you watched, who bowled the best bouncer?
A.M. E. Roberts. He hit a lot of people. He had change of pace, seaming bouncers, cross seam bouncers, he had them all.
It’s said that there are advantages and disadvantages to being a part of a quartet …
I’m not so sure about disadvantages. I don’t know of any.
Well, you may not end up with as many wickets when you have three other quicks bowling alongside …
That’s not a problem for me. All I’m thinking about is getting 10 wickets for the team. That is why I think that team was so successful. None of us begrudged the other taking wickets. We all wanted to do well, yes. But it was more important that the team did well. If we bowled out a team with the two opening bowlers doing all the damage you think the other two were going to cry? No no, no no. We could get inside and put our feet up.
Over the years very few fast bowlers have been thought of as captaincy material. Why is that?
This goes back to where the game first started. The batsmen were the moneyed people. The fast bowlers were the poor, lower class people. And obviously the moneyed people were looked upon as the bright ones. Then as the game progressed, in West Indies, for example, the batsmen were white, and the fast bowlers were the black, lower class guys. So everybody thought the batsmen were the bright guys, the successful guys and that is just something that has got passed down through the game. You have had a few fast bowlers who have been captains, but too few and too far between. It has been a stigma that has been attached to the game from centuries.
But, fast bowling is not just about physical strength …
You have to think about how the batsman is going to play and plan his wicket. You have to react to how a batsman is playing and try to get him out. It’s not just about running in and bowling fast, fast, fast and hoping the batsman makes a mistake.
In recent times there have been rank turners in India, and others have tried to do the opposite when India tour … Is that hampering the development of fast bowlers?
That’s been going on for donkey’s years. I did a series in India in 2014 when the West Indies were playing there. I saw some excellent cricket pitches in that series. I would go out with Sunil Gavaskar to do the pitch report and I would joke with him: ‘Sunny, why didn’t we get pitches like this when the West Indies came here in the 1980s?’ These were good pitches. Slow, turning pitches is not new to India and I don’t think that is what is preventing Indians from bowling fast. I think it’s just the culture. They don’t want to put in the effort, they don’t want to put in the sacrifice that comes with bowling fast. India and Pakistan, different religions, but basically the same area, same people, and Pakistanis bowl fast all day.
In India, kids as young as seven and eight are in specialised coaching. Is that the way to do things?
I think that’s sad. At that age, wherever in the world you are, you should play just for the love and enjoyment of the game. Fine, you might have a friend, or a parent or someone older to tell you a few little basics because you don’t want to develop bad habits early. But this constant coaching, rigid coaching, I don’t believe in it at that age. For years people have come to me and said ‘Mikey can you coach my son, come to my school …’ I ask the age and they say 12 or 13. What? Coach at 12-13? No, no, no, no. Not interested in that and I won’t be doing it.
How did you learn your trade as a youngster?
I was a member of the Melbourne Cricket Club in Jamaica that played a lot of games in rural areas. We had guys who had played for Jamaica and West Indies in the club. And senior members of the club who had not played at the highest level but had played cricket for a long time. I learnt from them. It’s just a word here and there along the way, as we played cricket. But there was no one saying turn up at 9 a. m. tomorrow, we have a two-hour coaching session. None of that. Because, the first time my dad thought I could do something in cricket, he brought someone to coach me. The next day I told him, don’t bring him back. He was a former West Indies cricketer and I said don’t bring him back, because he is trying to get me to do this and that I’m not comfortable with. I was a teenager then. I don’t regret it.
So, you would never consider a full-time coaching role anywhere in cricket?
No, I hate coaching. I am happy to help people and give them some pointers. But if you offered me a job as a coach and tell me that I am going to make a living coaching, I would rather go to a dentist and have a tooth pulled! That should tell you how I feel about coaching.