This month sees the UK cinema release of the hotly anticipated ‘Fire in Babylon’, a film charting the glorious supremacy of the West Indies cricket team in the late ‘70’s and ‘80’s. At a time of civil unrest in the Caribbean, the West Indian cricketers struck a wonderfully defiant blow at the forces of white prejudice world-wide. Michael Holding was part of the formidable bowling attack that ripped through opposition batsmen. His long, graceful run-up generated high pace that brought him almost 400 international wickets, 249 of them in Tests. As well as his native Jamaica, he played county cricket for both Derbyshire and Lancashire. He is now a respected commentator on the game, eloquent and fearless in expressing his views. Far from his playing nickname “Whispering Death”, he was nothing but friendly and forthcoming when I met him at Lord’s to talk about his contribution to the film.
- When were you first approached to be involved in the film?
Early last year I got a call from these people doing this documentary on West Indies cricket, and asked would I like to be interviewed? I agreed straightaway, I had no problems with it. I was happy to hear that someone who was not West Indian would be doing a documentary about West Indies cricket, because if a West Indian did it they could easily be seen as biased. I did an interview in England first, then a very very long one in Jamaica. They interviewed so many other people, guys that were involved in the West Indies team in that era.
- Did you have other involvement in the film other than being interviewed?
I did a bit of narrating as well, but just a few short bits. As for the actual production, and say on what should be in and be out, no nothing to do with that. The director and producers did all that.
- Why do you think it took so long for somebody to make this film?
I think perhaps the people that are involved in this film are people who really love West Indian cricket and are disappointed to see the direction which it has gone; the low ebb that it’s reached. Perhaps they are trying to stir some emotions among the West Indian cricketers and the kids in the Caribbean. Sure it’s a commercial project but I think that’s part of it as well.
- Do you think it can have an effect?
Yes definitely, I have seen it. A lot of youngsters in the Caribbean have lost the purpose of cricket and what it means to Caribbean people. Cricket is the only thing we do together as a Caribbean. Every island has its own team for football, netball, basketball, and athletics. The only thing we do together is play cricket. Some islands have never produced an international cricketer, but they still say “we” and “us” about the West Indies team. I don’t think a lot of cricketers in the Caribbean today appreciate what it means to so many people, especially people who are from the Caribbean but don’t live there. They want to be associated with greatness, with success, and be able to walk around and say; “yes I am from the West Indies, look how good our team is”. I think youngsters from the Caribbean need to understand that that is important.
5. Do you think it can have any effect on the players currently playing in the team?
I don’t think so, no. I think you have to start with youngsters. As I say, you can’t bend an old tree, you have to start with the saplings!
6. At the time that you were playing did you all feel that you were making history?
Speaking for myself, I can’t say that as a youngster playing for the West Indies I thought about the political impact we were having. I was out there enjoying myself, playing cricket, trying to do the best for myself and of course for the West Indies team. Later on in life, when I started to travel a bit more and I got to meet West Indians living away from the Caribbean. Then it came home to me exactly what it meant to those people.
7. Do you resent the idea that your team just had natural talent and didn’t need to work hard for success?
Anyone who said that needs to understand that hard training and hard work started with that West Indian team. We were the first team that worked as a unit, doing the sort of training and exercise that you see teams currently doing. It started when we were playing World Series cricket with Packer. He assigned a fella called Dennis Waight to the West Indies team. He was from a rugby background, and you got to be fit to play rugby. He went to Clive Lloyd and said; “skipper, for professional cricketers, professional sportsmen, I think you are crap! You’re not anywhere near as fit as you should be.” And Lloydy of course gave him permission to do whatever he thought was necessary. And that is where the training started. Kerry Packer saw us train, getting fit, beating the World Series Australian team, then demanded that they started training and doing what we were doing. We had always had individuals who would do their own stuff to be fit, but as a team, it was the West Indies who started doing all that training.
8. Your run up is regarded as one of the most beautiful sights in the game. Did you always have such a long run up, and did anyone ever try and change it?
No, no-one ever tried to change it. It was something that came naturally to me. I did it because it made me feel comfortable. It helped me with my bowling, it helped me with my rhythm in getting up to the crease. I was never a big strong guy, it just helped me to bowl fast without using too much upper body power. As I try to explain to some people, that’s why an airport has a long runway. A plane won’t just stand there and take off, it has to have that runway to build momentum and get up to speed to take off, unless they are a Harrier Jet! And the Harrier Jets burn too much fuel to take off from a standstill position. I was not big and strong, so the big run up helped me to bowl fast.
9. Who do you think would’ve come out on top if the West Indies top order had faced the West Indies pace attack?
Of course I am going to be biased and say the fast bowlers would come out on top! But we had some great batsmen. The West Indian bowling attack could never come up against the West Indian batting line up because we were all from different islands. Viv Richards and Andy Roberts from Antigua, they would play against each other, same with Laurence (Rowe) and myself from Jamaica. We would also have a lot of inter island rivalry, a domestic tournament, and we had a lot of top class batting against top class bowling, but never four against the batting line up. It was always evenly matched. Barbados had Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall, (Wayne) Daniel, and Sylvester Clarke, Jamaica had Courtney Walsh, Patrick Patterson, and myself so that was always a match that people would turn up for because it was all fire! They had Greenidge and Haynes as batsmen, we had Laurence Rowe and Herbert Chang as some of our batsmen so that was always a highly fought intense game.
10. How did Clive Lloyd unite the team?
Clive Lloyd was older than us, so he was looked on as a father figure, and Clive Lloyd looked upon us as all his children. Clive, in my opinion, didn’t care where cricketers came from. It didn’t matter to him if you were from his home country Guyana, Barbados, Jamaica or Trinidad. He wanted the best team, and I think a people respected him for that. We’d had a lot of politics in cricket in the Caribbean in years gone by, people being selected because they were from a specific island. When Clive Lloyd became captain of the West Indies team he had a lot of power. He was successful so the selectors gave him leeway. He was quite happy to pick the best cricketers wherever they were from and because of that he got all the respect in the world. He respected the players that played under him and we respected him. And he never embarrassed anyone in anyway if they did good or bad, it was just a happy family with him as a leader.
11. Were there certain things that you liked to do before a game? (@gingerrob)
No not really. I was never a superstitious person that would want to do any sort of routine. All I wanted to do was to get myself warm, stretched, and ready to go out.
12. Has there been any revision in how your team is viewed now?
I think a few people might have changed their opinions. We got so much stick for bowling bouncers; people were saying that we weren’t playing in the true spirit of the game. But when England won the Ashes in 2005 with their four fast bowlers, Harmison bowling bouncers at Ricky Ponting at Lords, hitting him in his face, everybody in the stands cheered! So people recognise now that it’s part of the game. Perhaps they also recognise that what we did then, we were just early!
13. Who were the bravest players of your team’s fast bowling?
I played against a lot of great batsmen. The Chappes, Sunil Gavaskar, Zaheer Abbas, Javed Miandad, Majid Khan, Gooch and Gower, none of those guys took a backward step. I can’t say that any batsmen would say they enjoy facing four fast bowlers, but some just handle it better. They will go out and fight to the bitter end. Some batsmen, you know you have got them when they are walking out because they’re not going to be as brave as others. It wont be obvious to people in the stands that they‘re not enjoying it, but on the field you will be able to see it, so you have the psychological advantage already. But I played against a lot of batsmen that you knew when they were walking out that it was going to be a battle.
14. Is there a player that you were surprised didn’t make it big?
I can’t say that when it doesn’t happen that it comes as a surprise, because if you’re a sportsman you can detect certain things. You can see talent, but when you don’t see the strength of character that it takes to go along with it, you know they’re not going to go very far. For spectators it may be a surprise, because you aren’t seeing what we are seeing as sportsmen. There have been a few talented people around the world who haven’t got anywhere near as far as they should, because they haven’t got that strength of character. I wouldn’t want to be calling names and embarrassing them!
15. Having played county cricket, did you feel that players in England didn’t have the same hunger to succeed as West Indians?
Definitely. Especially when I played in the 80’s. I came to England to play against county teams, then I played county cricket in the late 80’s. There were so many cricketers that were happy in county cricket because they were making a good living. They didn’t have to bust a gut to get to the highest level because the salary wasn’t that much more. They were comfortable, they were getting a sponsored car, being well paid, employed five or six months of the year. They could then go to South Africa or Australia for the other 6 months of the year and earn again. So they didn’t need to be playing Test cricket which was a lot harder, and more in the spotlight; people writing about them and criticising them. Things have changed a lot with retainer contracts, it’s a lot better now to be a player for England. It’s a lot more rewarding than playing county cricket so you’ll have more who strive to play for England. I think that has gone a long long way to getting a competitive England team.
16. How do you think the dominance of the West Indian team helped the battle against racism at the time?
A lot of people recognised that with the West Indian team doing well on the field, they could get as much prominence off the field; get the rights that they wanted and needed, especially in England. Then they could walk around with their heads held high, they could get as much respect in their jobs as the West Indian cricket team was getting on the field. I am very happy to know that that team and me being a part of that team made a difference to their lives and improved conditions for them, gave them the impetus to go out and fight for better.
It’s good to know at the end of the day that those things happened on the periphery, that those people benefited from what we were doing on the field.
17. Did you ever experience any racism?
Oh yeah, we got it a lot! My first tour here to England, ‘76, we received a lot of letters through the post, from big strong people who would pretend they were kids. You know kids aren’t going to be writing what they wrote: ‘go back to your trees in the Caribbean’, and that sort of thing. You read it and say to yourself ‘this person has a sick mind’. But at the same time you know it’s a minority and you forget it, you move on.
18. Did it motivate you?
Not really. What I will say really motivated the team in ‘76 is Tony Greig’s statement about him making the West Indians grovel! That motivated us a great deal. The letters didn’t put fire in your eyes because you know it is a minority. If I was living in the society maybe it would have had a greater impact but I knew at the end of the tour I was going home.
19. Can you see any parallels with the England team that won the Ashes this winter, focused game by game, and being a team?
Yes for sure. To be very successful you have to have a team spirit and a team focus. You have to be thinking about what we all can do, not just what each individual can do. Obviously each individual performance helps the team performance. But you can’t just focus on what I can do, you can’t say ‘I have a century I don’t care what else happens’. It has to be about the team. I don’t want to say it’s only Andy Flower, but since he has come into this team you see a lot more of that focus on what the team can do, how far can this team get. I think that certainly is showing on the cricket field, because these guys are playing some very good cricket. OK, they didn’t do that well in the World Cup, but England haven’t done well in one day cricket for a long time. I don’t think they have worked out what team they want, who should bat where, or what each person’s job is. But the Test team, they are doing well.
20. When did you last have a bowl?
Woah! About eight years ago in a charity game, and I don’t think I will have another bowl on a cricket field. I’ve had enough of that.
21. Can you see the West Indies challenging top nations in Test cricket again with Kemar Roach, Fidel Edwards and Jerome Taylor in the line up? (Honhaar Goonda)
We have some talented cricketers in the team right now but I don’t think we’ll really get back to the top until we get more organised in the Caribbean. As you can see from the names that you mentioned, there is talent. Young Daren Bravo has come in to the team as a batsmen, he certainly has shown that he can be a good player. So there is talent still in the Caribbean, but I don’t think there are enough kids playing cricket at the moment for the cream to rise to the top. There is a lot of mediocrity getting to the top. Until we can encourage kids to play the game and we can make a pool with which to draw from I don’t think we’ll get back to the heights that we should.
22. So you think that’s the way to fix West Indian cricket?
Definitely. You have got to have a lot of kids playing the game. There is nowhere near the number of kids playing the game that we had 40/50 years ago.
23. What do you think Australia can learn from the way the West Indies have struggled since their dominant era?
I don’t think they will be in the doldrums as long as us. I think Australia have a better infrastructure, they have their academy, they are much more organised in the respective states, and I think they have a big pool still to draw from.
24. You worked in a bank before becoming a professional cricketer, did you learn anything in that job that helped you in your career?
Nothing to do with that helped me with cricket! I was in the computer centre with Barclays, who were in Jamaica at the time. I have always been a man who loved figures; when I went to university I did computer science. I didn’t last very long in the bank. The manager called me in at the end of a tour when I played for Jamaica and said to me that I had to make a choice between cricket and working in the bank, and it wasn’t working in the bank! I was still a young man, I had no responsibilities, I was living with my parents so the job wasn’t that important.
25. At what point did you start to think that the Stanford project wasn’t going to work out?
When I got on his board and attended a few meetings. I got to understand how he worked and operated and I knew it wasn’t going to work. I knew exactly why he was involved and I didn’t want to be a part of it. I didn’t last very long on the board!
26. Did that have anything to do with your dislike of T20?
No, not at all. Before I got on the Stanford board I told him that I wasn’t interested in being involved in the T20 because I didn’t think it would help West Indian Test Cricket. I only got involved with Stanford when he started to spend a lot of money helping with the infrastructure in the respective islands. He gave 19 islands in the Caribbean a quarter of a million US dollars to help them with their coaching and their training, to get infrastructure, bowling machines etc. I figured that could help West Indies cricket. But when I got on the board and started attending meetings, I got to know the man better. I saw where he was coming from and I thought this man isn’t really interested in West Indies cricket, he has got other motives. I didn’t want to be involved with him and his other motives so I left.
27. Have you ever commentated on t20?
Never, I haven’t even watched one. It’s not because of the form of the game, it’s because I think it’s destroying Test cricket by the amount of money associated with it. People are leaving Test cricket early to play T20, and I think it’s damaging Test cricket.