Michael Holding stands tall, confident and imposing as he emerges from the commentary box hidden in the grandstands above SuperSport Park, in Centurion, near Pretoria. He looks more boardroom than boundary in his black suit and red tie; he’s still fit and lithe. You could easily imagine the six-foot-two giant tearing to the wicket and sending a rocket past your nose.
This is the youthful looking 60-year-old, with his silky smooth Caribbean accent, they call Whispering Death. A dramatic epithet that stuck around a lot longer than most of the batsmen he bowled to from Lord’s to Lahore. It sprang from an observation from umpire Dickie Bird that you could never hear the light-footed Holding as he ran to the wicket.
Holding was a lethal weapon for the West Indies, once the world’s most feared team that never lost a test series, home or away, for 13 years. In his pomp, Holding was one of the fastest and meanest.
On this trip to Africa, Holding is as passionate and fiery as ever as he holds forth from the commentary box. Sadly the team he bowled for with pride is not so fiery. Holding worries the future is even grimmer.
“We had four cricket teams at the school when I played at Kingston. Now at the same school, we have one team. It’s just a senior team and you struggle to find eleven people that want to play cricket. I was asked to help out with the coaching on one occasion about five years ago. When I went and saw the guys that were turning out to practice, I was shocked. Sometimes at practice when you expect lots of people trying to make the final eleven, we were trying to find eleven people,” he says.
With three formats of the game; tests, one day internationals (ODIs) and twenty20s (T20s), Holding believes players are overwhelmed and overworked.
“I’ve been saying it for many many years; there is too much cricket being played. When you think of the volume of cricket each country is playing; the fact that they have got to think about rotating players, especially the fast bowlers, and picking so many different teams in so many different formats of the game, I am not too sure if the game itself is benefiting,” he says.
Many sides, without huge budgets, like the West Indies, can’t afford test cricket. Instead they focus on the lucrative shorter formats – ODIs and T20s – which are less gruelling than the five-day tests. The shift also means larger pay cheques for players.
“Test cricket is supposed to be the highest form of the game and you are not seeing that among other countries. Again you are not seeing that among countries because of the fact that there is so much cricket being played and so much time being afforded to other formats of the game instead of test cricket,” he says.
As South Africa, the best test team in the world, squares off with a former best team in the world, the view from the stands is grim. On this December day in Centurion, the stands are as empty as the practice nets were at Kingston in Jamaica.
“The mere fact that people are watching less test cricket now as before means the finances are not there for test cricket. They are certainly there for the shorter format. You see much more people turning up for the shorter games. Television companies tend to pay a lot more for the shorter format. So there is a lot more money coming in through that format,” says Holding.
“I was here for the Australia test series in South Africa. I thought it was going to be a grand series and it turned out to be a pretty good series – too short in my opinion. But I expected to see full stands; I expected the grounds to be sold out every day with the standard of cricket that was expected to be played and the standard that was played. And it wasn’t. The atmosphere was not what I expected to see.”
As a fast bowler, a Twenty20 match – which is four hours long – is too quick even for him.
“Everyone knows I am not a fan of Twenty20. They call it cricket, I don’t. That is why I just say Twenty20… I don’t blame any of the players at all for dedicating so much time to it. Cricket sportsmen do, in particular, have very short shelf lives. If someone is giving you a lot of money to do something that’s not very difficult, you’re going to take that money and make sure when you get to the age you have to retire you have a sound foundation. I don’t blame any cricketer at all for playing it. The people I blame are the administrators. They don’t play the game. Their sole job is to administer the game and look after the game and they are not doing a very good job of it,” he says.
It’s a sign of the times that many of the West Indies big hitters made themselves available only for the shorter format game against South Africa. It’s not the only time test cricket has suffered. In October, West Indies players walked out on their test series in India over a pay dispute.
“This is not the best West Indies team available, but a lot of things have passed under the bridge in regards to availability of cricketers. We hear people talk about being available for the shorter format of the game and not the longer game but that’s just the trends and the way it’s structured. [West Indies] will play a lot better at the shorter format of the game, if Chris Gayle and Darren Bravo and Kieron Pollard are available for the World Cup. Someone mentioned that they were winners of the Twenty20 World Cup not too long ago. That is a form of the game the West Indies are doing a lot better at. That’s a form of the game that the poorer countries are doing better in,” he says.
Change could be in the Caribbean breeze. The West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) led by Clive Lloyd, former captain and World Cup winner, is trying to turn cricket around, says Holding.
Holding hopes that offering salaries for the first time to first class level players will help to entice more. The large sums of money on offer from the emergence of World Series Cricket was the spur for Holding to dump a career in computer programming at university and focus on his cricket, he says.
“A lot of things need to come with that. You need proper facilities. You need to make sure kids want to play it at school. You need to make sure they are developed when they get into the first class level, otherwise you are having all mediocrity. There is no point in paying nine mediocre cricketers to play. You won’t improve the standard of cricket just by paying them. It doesn’t work that way. You need to make sure the infrastructure is there to move one level to the next to get to first class level, otherwise there is no point,” says Holding.
“I played a lot of cricket as a kid. When I was ten years old, I played my first cricket match. The structure we had in the Caribbean then, and in Jamaica in particular, was very good. You could move though into those higher levels.”
There was a time batsmen prayed not to face the fire of the West Indies. In the 21st century it is a sad fact the West Indies pray for their stars Gayle, Bravo and Pollard to deign to play.
These days, Holding lives far from cricket in Miami in South Florida. He dearly wants to see his team return to greatness. He stares longingly over the African horizon at the thought.