Holding pattern — Jamaica’s Michael Holding

It’s been 12 years since Michael Holding’s retirement from Test cricket. A key member of Clive Lloyd’s feared pace quartet and the legendary West Indies team which dominated world cricket for over a decade, Holding has since forged for himself a successful career as an international commentator. But, like so many other things, that was never really in his plans: Mikey never meant to lead such a charmed life. Georgia Popplewell reports

  • Holding at 45. Photograph by Georgia Popplewell
  • At Caymanas Park with filly First Degree. Photograph by Dellmar Photos
  • The official launch of the Michael Manley Cricket Trust at the Courtleigh Hotel, Kingston, in 1994. From left: former West Indian cricketers Roy Gilchrist, Jeffrey Dujon, Holding and former Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley (now deceased). Photo by Dellmar Photos
  • Interviewing WI captain Brian Lara after the dramatic Third Test against Australia (Barbados, 1999). Photograph by Dellmar Photos
  • Air Holding: Mike Brearley gets a taste of  “Whispering Death” (Sydney, 1975). Photograph by Adrian Murrell/Allsport
  • Who the Cup Fits: celebrating Jamaica’s victory in the 1989 Red Stripe Cup. Photograph by Dellmar Photos
  • Bagpipe break: Mikey tests his musical skills at the 1999 World Cup, Edinburgh, Scotland. Photograph by Craig Prentis/Allsport

“So. When you’re in Jamaica you’re —” My brain, numbed from an early-morning wake-up and the five-hour flight between Port of Spain and Kingston, scrambles to find the word. Michael Holding supplies it: “Floating.”

He explains: “These days when I’m here I don’t do a lot. I do basic things like, I might have a telephone bill to pay, electricity bill, water rates. I carry my clothes to the cleaners; I pick them back up. It’s a matter of coming home and refreshing the wardrobe and heading out again.”

Michael Holding’s travel schedule is unreal. A four-month stint in England ended barely two weeks ago; he’s spent the past weekend in Cayman, and tomorrow he leaves for Dubai via London — on the back seat of his big green Toyota pickup is a United Arab Emirates visa faxed to him this morning (on it he is “Michael Anthony Holding”, Profession: Businessman.)

Jamaica was never the physical centre of Michael Holding’s adult life. Since age 21, when he made his first international appearance for the West Indies (Australia, 1975), he’s been a travelling man.

“I thought when I retired I’d be spending a lot more time at home,” he says. “But I’m travelling even more now than when I was playing. I’m still pretty much living the same way I did: hotels, restaurants, not much home cooking.” He laughs. “But at least I don’t have to get up in the morning and bowl any overs or to do any stretching, or for Dennis Waight to be coming to tell us, oh, we’re going on a five-mile run.” Not that, slender still at 45, he looks like he isn’t capable; but, as he himself admits, he was never one for prolonging agony.

The truth is, Michael Holding hadn’t given much thought to his post-retirement game plan. (“There’s life after cricket,” his mother had warned; though he points out that, in his case, this is yet to be proven.) He did toy briefly with the idea of umpiring, “because I’ve had the dirty end of some umpiring decisions and I would love to find out how difficult that job is, to find out why these people have made such ridiculous mistakes.”

Any such ambitions were cut short, however, by an offer to do radio commentary. Here again, according to Holding — who envisages his life as being practically woven out of fortunate accidents — was serendipity, and he wasn’t going to refuse it.

Tell me how the commentary began.

“In 1988, I was approached by Ed Barnes, who was working at RJR, one of the radio stations here in Jamaica, to do some commentary for the Pakistan tour. I said: well, I’ll try it. A lot of things I’ve done in my life, I never sat down and planned them. Because I don’t believe too much in planning too far ahead. I pretty much live my life as it comes — I wouldn’t say a day at a time, because you have to live a little bit further than tomorrow. Same thing as when I played test cricket for the West Indies, it wasn’t like I ever sat down as a little boy and said: I’m going to play for the West Indies.”

 

Holding worked with RJR again in 1989. That year, Reds Perreira would organise for him to work for Caribbean Tempo in Trinidad, as well.

The turning point, both for him and for West Indies cricket coverage, came in 1990, the year mega-producers Trans World International (TWI) covered cricket in the Caribbean for the first time.

“Apparently they wanted two West Indian commentators to satisfy whatever arrangement they had with the West Indies Cricket Board,” Holding says. “And, of course, [Tony] Cozier was one automatically and I think he recommended to TWI that they should try me as the second.” Holding has worked on TWI’s Caribbean broadcast every year since then.

Holding doesn’t believe he’d showed any particular aptitude for the job in the beginning. “There’s nothing that I can pinpoint that makes me so different from anyone else that I could say has taken me where I am,” he says with characteristic modesty. “I suppose if opportunities were presented to other guys who were interested in doing commentary — because I know a lot of them don’t really take this commentary thing seriously and think they can make a career of it — they would have been able to achieve what I have achieved so far. I just got the opportunity, and I don’t think I did a very good job in my early years. I think because of the novelty of my being a former West Indian fast bowler, they gave me the opportunity to grow in the job.”

In 1993, Australia’s Channel 9, too, was seeking to add Caribbean flavour to its commentary team for the home series against the West Indies, and Holding made his first off-field appearance Down Under. His stint at Channel 9 netted him an inadvertent role in the 1994 film Muriel’s Wedding, where his voice can be heard saying: “that was a brilliant catch.” (“And I got nothing for it,” he chuckles. “I should ask a lawyer about that.”)

More productively, in Australia, Holding hooked up with John Gayleard, who would leave Channel 9 to become Executive Producer for cricket at the UK cable channel BSkyB. Gayleard invited Holding to work with Sky Sports on the West Indies tour of England in 1995, and since then he has worked with them every year except 1996, when he was engaged by Worldtel as part of the commentary team for the World Cup in Asia.

Just as his cricket career dovetailed with the new professionalism signalled by Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket in the late 1970s, so too has Holding the commentator been the beneficiary of a boom in international cricket coverage. In the UK, the opening of the market admitted Sky and Channel Four alongside the BBC, resulting in a sharp increase in the demand for commentators. Companies broadcasting to Asia, like Worldtel and ESPN Star, require talent as well.

In 1999, Holding signed a four-year contract with Sky Sports which engages him for the English summer, a season covering both international Tests and limited-overs matches, as well as domestic cricket. (“Sometimes I’m working games where there’s a dog and a man watching.”) He also has the option of joining Sky on their engagements outside the UK, and by the time this article is published he will have accompanied them on the England tour of South Africa. One of the stipulations of the contract — which was drafted on Holding’s behalf by West Indies Cricket Board President Pat Rousseau — is that cricket in the West Indies comes first, so Holding will always be available for the Caribbean cricket season.

The contract has come as something of a relief, for the glorious uncertainties of the game of cricket may be said to extend to the commentary box as well. “Before the contract with Sky, I was just working tour by tour and waiting to see if somebody would call me to do a job,” he says. The contract has given him not only a guaranteed income for the next four years, but has also released him from dependence on a faltering Jamaican economy. In 1996, he sold the gas station he had purchased as an investment some years before, and, apart from some shares in the Jamaica Lottery Company, he no longer has any business interests in Jamaica. “In fact, the more time I spend in Jamaica is the less I’m earning,” he points out with a laugh.

After an admittedly shaky start, Holding’s skill as commentator has grown tremendously. A strong and engaging character — in the personality-driven world of television — has helped as well. As one of two West Indian ex-Test players on the international circuit (Colin Croft is the other), demographics may also be on his side. He’s brought to cricket coverage a Jamaican plain-spokenness, a quirky sense of humour, and, for Caribbean listeners, a warm and familiar voice in the sea of English and Australian accents.

Perhaps it is because Luck is a lady that she has chosen to shine so brightly upon Michael Holding. Some of his biggest fans are women.

When I told people, especially women, that I was going to be interviewing you — I had several messages, some of which I won’t repeat — a lot of them said that you were the reason they followed cricket. Besides making you blush — how does that make you feel?

“Am . . . there’s a lot of talk, in England as well, about my voice attracting women and being attractive to women and that sort of thing. I suppose I don’t really pay too much attention to it. My brother-in-law took exception to something that came out in the Times in England once — he wrote to them about an article which came out and said that a lot of women listened to cricket because of my voice. He was saying that the gist of the article was that the women weren’t necessarily interested in the cricket, and it seemed to imply that I wasn’t a good commentator.”

But isn’t it a good thing if women are listening to cricket?

“I’m glad that women would be attracted to cricket for whatever reason. I want to see cricket grow, I want to see the audience grow, and I want to see the game being spread. And if that is the reason they want to listen to the game or want to watch the game, that is fine with me.”

Michael Holding is well aware of how fortunate he is. This is a man who insists he has become who and what he is because of — and only because of — West Indies cricket. An admitted classroom slacker, he says: “If I didn’t play cricket, and I had my couple GCEs or whatever and started working in society and wasn’t getting where I thought I should be getting, who knows what temptations would have been drawn in front of me?”

Nor has the Caribbean always been kind to its sporting heroes. While ex-cricketers increasingly find employment on the periphery, as coaches, umpires, managers, administrators, it’s unlikely that any of them is having as much fun as Mikey. “As I’ve said to the people who employ me,” he says, “listen, this is not work; if you want to see people work, go into some of what you call Third World countries and see people loading trucks and working in the hot sun and sweating. What I’m doing is not work.”

While others of his era have faded into the background, commentary has also prolonged his life as a public figure. “I think most of the places in England that I go they recognise me still as a past West Indian cricketer. India will recognise anybody because they’re fanatical about cricket. In Australia I don’t think I’m that recognised on the road as perhaps if I was to say something. As a matter of fact, a lot of places I go now, I refuse to speak, because as I say something people start looking around.”

But punditry also has its downside, and for Holding this has been the sometimes harsh reaction to his critiques of the game and its players. He’s been an outspoken critic, for instance, of the performance of the current West Indies team, joining Sir Viv Richards’s call in 1999 for the sacking of the entire lot. And long before the appointment of Dr Rudi Webster as team psychologist, he was sharply criticised for suggesting that West Indies captain Brian Lara see a psychiatrist. Yet he was also one of the few upbeat voices in the aftermath of the dismal Sharjah tournament in 1999, assuring the region that all was not lost.

What’s it like being on the other side of the fence? I know it hasn’t always been a bed of roses —

“I’ve come to accept that from the public at large. What I’m having a little more difficulty in dealing with is the players being so resentful of criticism and what they think are statements that don’t hold them in the right light . . . When I was a player, if somebody came to me and said, oh, this is what somebody wrote or said, it would just go in one ear and come out the next. It’s impossible for you to just forget it and disregard it totally, but I did not take it on board and let it affect me in terms of how my relationship with that person went. In the same way, I have bowled fast, bouncers, whatever, hit a lot of people throughout their careers, and a lot of them are still very good friends, because they have not taken it personally. They were big enough to understand that that is what it is all about, that it is a competitive situation, and off the field I have nothing against them.”

So you’re saying then it’s easier to work on a game not involving the West Indies?

“A lot easier. Also, I’m not emotionally involved when the West Indies are not playing, so I can relax and watch the game and just do my commentary. When they’re playing, even when I’m not on air I’m in the back of the box wondering and sweating: are they going to do well? Are they going to win? So I’m much more relaxed and happier when the West Indies aren’t playing.”

Let’s talk about South Africa. What are your thoughts on going there for the first time?

[sighs] “Well, I’ll be trying to go there with an open mind. Even though things have changed as far as the laws are concerned, I still don’t think it’s a very stable country. People might say okay, we’re having our own problems here in Jamaica, but at least people in Jamaica know me and I might be able to do a little bit more as I like in Jamaica because of that. In South Africa, if tensions start to rise, I wouldn’t want to be around, because I still don’t know how I would react to racial slurs or anything that is slanted racially.”

 

I suspect that when Michael Holding says he is “floating” in Jamaica, he’s referring as well to a certain attitude towards his homeland. These are trying times for Jamaica and Jamaicans. He cites a newspaper headline. It’s not a bad time for the greater part of one’s life to be unfolding elsewhere.

Yet it’s clear that the unlived-in state of his rambling house in Smokey Vale, in the hills above Kingston, frustrates him. “This is not how it needs to be,” he frets, “I don’t have the time I need to spend make it a home, and I won’t for another three years.” He wants to repaint: at present the exterior is light grey, with maroon and navy awnings — “West Indies colours”; he’d like something more contemporary. Inside, it’s bachelorville: neat, unused kitchen. Bar. Stereo. TV. Five remote controls. Yet there are distinctly un-bachelorish touches, like an embroidered tablecloth on the dining room table and a gorgeous navy and maroon rug he can’t remember if he bought in India or Pakistan. He thinks maybe he should sell. But not in this terrible market. He’d get way below what it’s worth. No, he won’t sell. And so on. One senses he’s been through all this before.

Holding admits, too, that he’s forfeited a personal life, which he says “went haywire.” That part of his life has remained untouched by serendipity; things there have just not fallen into place. He’s been married once, has three children, none of whom lives in Jamaica any more. “There are a few things in my life that I’m sorry didn’t work out differently,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I have regrets, because I don’t like to look back and talk about having regrets, but my life off the cricket field has not been as stable as I would have liked it to have been.”

But the view from Smokey Vale is magnificent. From up here, Kingston looks like any fine city. As we’re driving down the hill at dusk he slows the big green Toyota pickup: “Look at when the lights come on. The street lights, the yellowish ones, come on first. Then the others. Look.” It is a splendid sight.

Yet, minutes later he’s gleefully pointing out the crummy Off-Track Betting joint where he used to indulge his other passion, horses and horse racing.

 

Others have amassed more Test wickets (he has 249), a few have bowled faster. Yet, 12 years after his retirement, Michael Holding appears still on many a cricket fan’s dream XI, perhaps as much for his fluid, graceful, bowling action as because he is the sort of person anybody would want on their team.

I remember seeing him once with a crowd of unruly boys clamouring for autographs at an English cricket ground. He agreed to sign — but under one condition: that they form a queue and do it in an orderly fashion.

My hunch is that, all talent aside, he has received much of what he has because he is an easy man to like. In spite of his insistence that he owes everything to external forces — West Indies cricket, serendipity, luck — it seems to me very likely that he has played a part in attracting some of his blessings. As his Australian contemporary Dennis Lillee (a man to whom he bowled bouncers) put it: “Many have looked for a way to dislike him, but it’s impossible.” For every person who rankles at his critiques, there are probably several who value his straightforwardness and independent thinking, his disarming candour.

What is Michael Holding’s greatest strength?

“Oh hell.”

You could start with your greatest weakness —

“I wouldn’t know what any of them are.”

What do you like about yourself?

“Well . . . perhaps what I like about myself is that I’m an individual in that I’m not afraid to express myself and express my views. I don’t think I should have to be depending on other people to give me permission to say and do certain things. I’m not talking about arbitrary things; I’m talking about just normal, everyday things a man should have the right to do. I think I’m strong enough to stand on my own two feet and live my own life. That I enjoy and like about myself. Weaknesses . . . perhaps some people might say a weakness is not planning enough.”

But then, you say yourself that planning never worked —

“Yeah, but sometimes not just planning long-term but even just minor plans and putting things in place. I was never one for doing that, and as a matter of fact my subconscious has given me a lot of clues as to what I’m doing wrong. I used to get a dream many years ago — it was cricket-related, of course — that I was in the dressing room, and wickets were falling rapidly. I was batting at number seven — how come I’m batting at number seven, I don’t know — and I’m there desperately trying to take off my track suit and get my whites on and pad up, and I just cannot get it done. And I’m worrying now about people cursing me and saying I’m not ready and that sort of thing. And that’s the stage the dream gets to, and then I’d lose it or drift off to something else.

“I kept on wondering: why the hell am I dreaming this? Because when I’m playing cricket I am never, ever, in that situation. I’m always ready when it’s my time to bat. And the only conclusion I could come to is that my subconscious was trying to tell me to plan my life for the future, meaning, don’t just live every day as it is: think about what you’re going to do, make sure your future is financially secure to a certain degree.

“And it’s when I realised that and thought to myself: this great life I’m living, touring with the West Indies and winning and beating everybody, ain’t going to last for ever. I’ve got to find something to do when this great life is over. And when I realised that and started thinking more positively in that direction, the dream went. I haven’t dreamed anything like that for donkey’s years. So I suppose people could say that is a weakness, because perhaps if I had done that earlier, perhaps my personal life would have been a little bit different. But who knows?”

Not me.

“Nobody. No one knows.”