Part of the fearsome West Indies quartet from the 70s and 80s, Holding is still rated as the smoothest and sharpest pacer the game has seen. Now a commentator, Holding rarely pulls his punches, whether on T20 or bad umpiring.
Legendary West Indies fast bowler Michael Holding talks about “institutionalised and systemic” racism in sports, insists T20 is “not even cricket”, says the Indian team has vastly improved its fitness levels and explains how Virat Kohli is similar to Viv Richards. The session was moderated by Deputy Associate Editor Sriram Veera.
SRIRAM VEERA: The book is an enlightening, heart-wrenching, occasionally emotionally difficult read when you delve into the history of racism. You hadn’t spoken out a lot on this issue before last year. Why was that?
Because I don’t live it. I had taken a selfish view that this is a thing I experience just for a few months when I am away from home. When I go back home, I don’t live that experience. So I just go back home, I am happy and I am content to be where I am. If you look at history, it will show you that… in the long run, it was a wise thing to do. Because if you look at all the Black people and the people of colour that have hit out against racism and made a stand, their careers ended in no time at all. Look at (American footballer) Colin Kaepernick. He is a man who in recent times took that stand. His career came to an end immediately. That shows you when Black people and the people of colour decide that they are being victimised and they want to talk about it, they want to complain about it, they want to protest about it, the system, the institutionalised racism that is evident around the world, locks you out. And you basically are dispelled from society. Perhaps that would have happened to me if I said anything earlier.
Mihir Vasavada: Do you think the sports ecosystem is largely white — not the players but the administration, lawmakers, coaches, broadcasters, journalists. Everyone is white and white male at that.
Racism is institutionalised and systemic. That’s what we are trying to get rid of. Thierry Henry talks about how many Black players have never been able to become football coaches. We must get rid of institutionalised racism to achieve that.
TUSHAR BHADURI: Did some people think that bowling fast and the brand of cricket that your West Indies team played at that time wasn’t cerebral enough. Was there some subtle racism?
You could say there might have been some racist slant. But again, I would say those people were in a minority. Certain journalists who had certain amount of power and wrote for certain powerful newspapers would try to decry and degrade some of what we were doing. And of course people who were not really thinking for themselves and also want to find a reason to say that we were not as good will follow those journalists. But at the same time, we didn’t care. We went there to win. There is no way anyone could say we were playing outside of the laws of the game or outside of the spirit of the game. We played cricket to win and we wanted to beat everyone.
And later on, other teams tried to adapt the same tactic which we adopted. When we started off with four fast bowlers, one of the first cries was, ‘oh it is not a balanced team’. We were winning, we were not interested in ‘balance’, we were interested in winning Test matches. In 2005, when England selected four fast bowlers and won the Ashes, they didn’t say they didn’t have a ‘balanced team’. When (Steve) Harmison hit Ricky Ponting on his face at Lord’s and brought blood, people in the stands were cheering. When we did it, it was boos and we were criminals. But when they do it, it is fine.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: The West Indies team of that era was so intimidating that other cricketers wouldn’t have dared, forget racism, to even casually sledge you guys. Somebody once used the word grovel (Tony Greig) and the world knows what happened after that. How does this dynamic work? Especially for the Asian teams of that era that have complained of racism.
I have heard some members of my team say that they had racist remarks passed at them or passed around them. You know, I can’t say yes or no if that actually happened. During my entire career as a cricketer playing for the West Indies, no one on the cricket field passed a racist remark towards me. People will say because you bowled fast, they were afraid. But I don’t think that was the case. We in that team never said anything to anyone, we never abused anyone on the cricket field. Perhaps that is the reason why people didn’t really say anything to us. Because all that we did was go about our business and play as well as we possibly could. As for the Asian teams, perhaps they would have had remarks being passed at them, I don’t know, I can’t testify about something I am not aware of. But if that is the case, it is understandable because if it takes place off the field, it can take place on the field.
SRIRAM VEERA: In your book, (former South African cricketer) Makhaya Ntini talks about why he didn’t get into the team bus but would run to the ground from the hotel.
Yeah, he didn’t feel comfortable with the team. And he related a story that he would go for breakfast [first] and sit at a table. Other team members would come in and sit at another table. None of them would come and join him. Because of course, he was the first Black African to play for South Africa. But he was all alone at his table.
You know, it is not shocking to me. When you have a country with that sort of history [of apartheid], it takes a long time for people to accept that we are all human beings. The apartheid regime doesn’t just get washed away and everything goes back to normal. It will take time for people to understand, people to accept and for people to come together.
NIHAL KOSHIE: What’s your take on South African cricket’s transformation policy: six players of colour, including two Black players, are requirements. The criticism is that merit is not always rewarded.
In my book, both Makhaya Ntini and I agree that a quota system is never going to be the solution. We can understand why it has taken place as people are desperate for change – and as rapidly as possible. But the best solution is to make opportunities available for everyone. I had this argument with Dr Ali Bacher from 2003 that instead of going out and picking special talent and putting them in special schools, make sure all facilities all around the country are accessible to everyone. Don’t attempt to just pick the next Makhaya Ntini. As the chapter narrates, Ntini goes to the school and gets lost. He doesn’t even know the [English] language. He doesn’t know what’s happening. Don’t take him out of his community. Go to his community and improve the infrastructure so that they can develop themselves. It’s a lot easier on them that way because you are putting pressure on them when you take them out of their community. And of course, you will identify more talents; instead of picking one, you might get 3-4. Ntini might bring along a kid from his community who is good. That is the best way to get to where you want to be – getting the best to be selected.
The quota system just shows that you are in a hurry to be where you want to be. In my opinion, that should not last. You can’t keep on having a quota system forever and forever. Ntini talks about it – he is in the South African team and is being looked at as a quota player instead of being justified of his place. He was mentally strong and able to get over it. Not everyone is going to be like that, though. It can destroy your mind.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: What do you think about the West Indies of today? We hear youth’s love for basketball and then they win a T20 tournament and again talks of cricket revival begin. But it doesn’t last long. Why?
When you win a T20 tournament, that is not revival; it’s not even cricket! It’s going to be very difficult for the West Indies to get on top in Test cricket because of this T20. The T20 tournaments around the world are the bane of the game. When you are a poor country and can’t afford to pay as much as England, Australia, and India, the players will go on to play T20. That’s where West Indies and others are getting hit. Unless you can pay as much as the rest of the big countries, this will happen. Many West Indies players are not interested in playing for West Indies. I don’t want to call out names. When you are earning 600,000 or 800,000 dollars for six weeks, what are you going to do? I don’t blame the cricketers. I blame the administrators. They give a lot of lip service to Test cricket but all they are interested in is bringing in money into their cupboards… West Indies will win T20 tournaments which aren’t cricket; they won’t be a force in Test cricket.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: You haven’t found commentating in IPL interesting?
I only commentate on cricket.
SHIVANI NAIK: When your team bowled bouncers, the administrators changed rules. Now things have changed with the episodes of concussions and their long-term effects. Would you say cricket should relook that part of the game or continue with it?
What I’ll tell you is that I’m glad I’m on the way out. Because they are slowly but surely destroying the game. I wouldn’t even try to honour that with a proper response. You want to cut out bouncers from the game? Okay, well, stop footballers from heading the ball because that gives them concussion as well. And that is a study that has proven to be correct. You try and protect people as much as you can, yes, that is why people are wearing helmets and improving helmets now. That is why they do so much to try and protect them because people’s lives are important. But don’t turn it into a softball competition. Cricket also is a test of your strength of character. What you have got ticking inside your chest. That is why they call it Test cricket. If you’re afraid of the ball, why should you be able to excel when you’re afraid? So if you’re a coward, find another way to make a living.
SANDIP G: Do you think batsmen are reluctant to play the hook shot these days? More batsmen seem to be getting hit these days.
If you can’t hook, you don’t hook. You have too many people who cannot hook but are trying to hook because they have a false impression that their helmet will protect them. Years gone by, before the helmets came along, people who could not hook didn’t try to hook because they knew if they made a mistake, it could be a dangerous mistake. If you’re playing on a normal, plain surface and getting hit, it obviously means – 1) You’re not capable of playing the game that you’re trying to play or 2) You’re playing shots that you’re not capable of playing. Look at the history of the game. How many people got hit before helmets came along?
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: This whole shrinking of cricket that is happening… Looking at the bigger picture of Zimbabwe, even Sri Lanka, South Africa. There was a point when there wasn’t so much money but cricket was active in so many countries.
Michael Atherton wrote an article about it many years ago. He thought Test cricket would die and I said, ‘No, Test cricket won’t die in my lifetime but it will become more and more insignificant.’ England, they say, is the mother of cricket where the game started before all the colonialists took it around the world. The best months in England are supposed to be the summer months, right? Is yearly Test cricket being played? They play in May and early June. The next Test match is on August 4. This has been going on for two-three summers in England. So, it’s obvious that they are putting other forms of cricket over Test cricket. The shortest form of the game is attracting more and more people and companies to broadcast them. Test cricket just gets lip service.
SRIRAM VEERA: India, England and Australia have got power in cricket. You think they are using their power well? Some in India say the white guys used to run it and now it’s our chance. Even if we do something bad, let it be because they used to do it for so long, so let’s show them who is boss now.
The great Nelson Mandela was in jail for 27 years and when he became president of South Africa, if he had adopted that same attitude of ‘Okay. It’s my time in power. I will do to you what you did to me,’ South Africa would have been in a bloodbath. Great people don’t think that way.
Think of cricket as a universal game. Not something owned by India. We saw the big three of England, Australia and India trying to take over the game and they did for a period of time. They are still doing it but doing so undercover. It’s obvious that they are only interested in themselves. The same attitude that you talk of… ‘Oh we have the power. We will do as we like,’ it pervades the game.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: Is there a significant difference in the way India plays cricket now and in the past?
Well, it’s a totally different era when it comes to Indian cricket. When I played against India, probably two of the players were fit. Now everybody on the field is fit. You see how athletic they are, how dynamic they are. The skill level hasn’t really changed that much but when you have fitness, and change of attitude along with skill level, obviously the cricket will also change. What has also helped Indian cricket is that a lot of pitches in India, for domestic cricket and cricket in general, have improved. The ball bounces a lot more and since it carries, batsmen are able to cope on overseas pitches. In my time, once India left India, that was it. The pitches that they played in India were slow and low and it became dusty. When I did a series in India in 2014-15, when West Indies came and the tour was abandoned, each time I would do a pitch report with Sunny Gavaskar, I would joke and say, ‘Sunny, how come the pitches weren’t like this when we used to play here?’ Good pitches create good cricketers.
SRIRAM VEERA: What are your thoughts on Virat Kohli, his approach and his captaincy?
Virat Kohli is someone who wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s someone who will let you know exactly how he feels. I think he gets a bit carried away at times, but that is Virat Kohli, that is the man. He’s similar to Viv (Richards) in that regard. Viv, sometimes on the field, was over-expressive. But those are the personalities of those two gentlemen. They can tone down a little bit as well, but then, if you are a Mustang, it’s hard to tell a Mustang to trot. He’s going to gallop.
As far as his captaincy, I’ve only seen India when they were touring England and I saw them in South Africa. The only thing I’d say about Virat is that he tone down a bit so his team can relax because a lot of them, I think, are on tenterhooks.
SHAHID JUDGE: What do you think about social media-related problems players face?
When people talk about social media putting them under stress, all they need to do is to come out of social media. Social media is now being monetised. More people are following you on social media, people are telling me, the more advertisers you get, more money goes to your pocket. I was never interested in what the newspapers were writing or what the journalists were saying. And up till now, I have never joined a social media platform. I am not interested in that.
DEVENDRA PANDEY: These days commentators are under pressure since their fate is being decided by cricketers and cricketing boards. How do you maintain your honesty and self-respect as a commentator?
You know what the situation is going to be when you are working in India and for the ICC — what you can and cannot say. I accused some umpires of bad umpiring during the World Cup, that was the first time I worked for an ICC tournament for something like 10 years because they don’t want people to express the opinion they don’t like. Because that is the way they want to control the narrative of what is going on. They want people who will say what they want. I am not into that. I am here to give an honest opinion of what is taking place on the field because I have my integrity to live up to and that’s the only thing that I can take to my grave. I can’t take money or love or anything else to my grave but name.
SHAMIK CHAKRABARTY: How hopeful are you that things will change with regard to racism?
This is not going to be an easy read for anyone. My sister called to say that some chapters are difficult to read. It had to be a hard read because unless you recognise why you are sick, you can’t cure yourself. It was both cathartic and emotional and at times difficult to write. Because there was a lot in the book that I didn’t know… I had to go and research. I saw some pictures from the 40s and 50s about what they did to people. They did really degrading things to Black people.
I have hope that people are waking up. A few days ago, I was on Good Morning Britain (GMB) and I spoke up about all this. And this gentleman and his wife, a white English couple, slipped a note under my door. I will read it to you: “Dear Michael, just saw your interview on GMB. So very passionate and empowered, very eloquent. It has opened our eyes. Thank you very much.” I know there is a chance of things getting better. We have a chance.
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