The following column, written by Lasana Liburd, was first published in the Trinidad Express Sport Magazine on 29 July 2004:
“I have heard people say that we cannot get any worse,” said ex-West Indies legendary fast bowler and Sky Sport TV commentator Michael Holding, “and that we have reached rock-bottom and are looking to turn the corner. But I disagree.
“I have heard so many times that we are at ground zero but I think we are still in decline and it is going to get even worse.”
It was the fifth evening of the First Test match between England and West Indies at Lord’s and, an hour earlier, the host nation had completed a comfortable 210-run win at the famous London venue.
Holding, polite and approachable, had promised an interview to the Trinidad Express on the West Indies team and their travails.
A sigh and a stretching of limbs had come before he agreed—with an embarrassed smile.
In recent years, Holding has acquired a reputation as an outspoken critic of the West Indies set-up but it is clearly not a job he relishes or delights in doing.
Rather, the Jamaican’s commitment to his Sky job as well as a penchant for straight talk leaves him helpless in the face of his own beliefs just as he is too polite to decline an interview that he would probably prefer to avoid.
The Lord’s press box is filled with English reporters furiously pounding away at their laptops and there is no doubting the ruthlessness in those fingers.
For much of the tour, the small array of West Indian media representatives and past players have endured riotous laughter from their opposite number as the Caribbean tourists bumbled around on the field and often during their spells with bat and ball.
Abuse to crown abject performances, which saw the West Indies comfortably beaten 4-0 at home to England.
Little wonder, then, that Holding, who retired in 1988 with an impressive 249 Test wickets and WI’s best-ever Test match returns of 14 for 149, no longer feels the lure of the pitch while commentating at the various venues he frequented as a player.
“Been there, done that and moved on,” he said, lightly dismissing any suggestion of nostalgia.
Lord’s, the acclaimed home of cricket, was never his cup of tea anyway.
“Lord’s does mean a lot to 99 percent of the cricketers,” said Holding, “but I tend to think about the conditions of a ground and not the history of it when I think about a great Test venue. And I don’t see how a ground with a slope on it can be considered a great ground.”
Though not nearly as flippant, he was equally pragmatic when discussing the West Indian players who had just trudged off the ground after another comprehensive defeat.
At present, they are too weak in key areas to push the top cricket nations. Sloppy in the field, wayward and impotent with the ball and inconsistent with the bat.
Holding admitted that the extent of West Indies’ slide from the indomitable outfit of the 1980s had taken him by surprise.
“I don’t think it was something you could foresee,” he said, “it just gradually took place. At first, you noticed that the discipline had begun to gradually deteriorate and, although the talent was there, their performances began to slip. But eventually you came to the situation now where you have a lack of talent and discipline.
“Now I am not saying that we are totally devoid of talent but when you can’t bowl a team out twice, you can’t win Test matches and there is not enough talent in the bowling department.”
Not surprisingly, the dearth of West Indies fast bowlers is of particular concern to the man dubbed ‘Whispering Death’ for his elegant stride and fearsome pace.
“I think there is reasonable talent there but they won’t be able to develop because of the amount of pressure they are under,” said Holding. “They are coming into the squad as third-string bowlers and being asked to lead the attack. They will try to do it but they are not physically or mentally ready.
“We are asking too much too soon and it is retarding their progress. In the past, they would have been able to come in as a stock bowler and learn their trade.”
The West Indies leadership is another vexatious issue for Holding.
The current captain and star batsman, Brian Lara, is undoubtedly the most gifted player in the team, if not in the world.
Lara’s successes with the bat and the fact that he has already secured his place among the greats have made him virtually off-limits to West Indian cricket reporters.
But Holding is not intimidated by the Trinidad and Tobago star’s reputation or his sometimes fanatical following.
And Lara, in Holding’s estimate, is a poor captain, given his tactical deficiencies as well as his inability to stamp out the indiscipline within the squad.
He pointed to some of Lara’s field placements and bowling changes, not to mention his decision to put England in to bat after winning the toss, which was ridiculed by the international press. The hosts put on 391 runs for the loss of two wickets on the opening day.
“I think he is always trying to reinvent the wheel,” said Holding. “I think he is too taken up with trying to be seen as an innovative captain and as a dynamic captain. He has to stop trying to be dynamic and just do the simple things.
“For instance, you can’t insert the opposition if you can’t bowl them out. You don’t have an inexperienced bowling attack who can’t bowl teams out, [yet] win the toss and put your opponents in to bat.”
Holding would like 24-year-old current vice-captain Ramnaresh Sarwan to lead the West Indies sooner rather than later.
He used South Africa’s 23-year-old captain Graeme Smith, who was just 21 when he was handed the job, as an example that youth was insufficient reason to dismiss a candidate.
“We need someone who can show discipline and hard work and lead by example,” he said. “Someone who can show respect to the team and get respect from the team in return. I saw Sarwan captain the team in a One-dayer in Guyana and it looked a totally different team…
“Sarwan has been playing first-class cricket since he was 17, which is a long time.”
Holding credited the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) for implementing programmes like Kiddy Cricket, which he saw as a step in the right direction.
The increased player pool should be of great benefit to West Indies cricket in the future.
However, he warned that they must act quickly to prevent the problems afflicting the current squad from spreading throughout the ranks.
“The young Kiddy cricketers who are looking on must be able to take the right attitude and approach from what they have seen,” said Holding.
There is much to be done and one can expect forthright assessments along the way from one of the most respected voices in cricket. During West Indies’ darkest period, his wit and gallows humour have only added to his aura.
On the second morning of the Test, Holding was asked what advice he would offer the West Indies bowlers if he were the captain.
“Nothing,” he said, with a broad smile, “because I would have strangled them last night.”
Away from the television commentators and smirking British reporters, he admitted his yearning to see an improved West Indies outfit.
“I don’t expect them to win [this series]; that’s for sure,” he said, with his trademark smile. “But I hope that they pull their socks up at some stage and show that we are a Test-playing nation and we can be competitive.”
Holding will surely let the world know when he is satisfied.
Editor’s Note: West Indies lost the 2004 Test series to England 4-0 although, on 24 September 2004, they won the ICC Champions Trophy—the last time the Windies have won an international One-day cricket competition.