David Holford © Getty Images
David Holford scored 768 runs in 24 Tests at 22.58. He also snared 51 wickets in 24 Tests at 39.39 © Getty Images

David Holford, born April 16, 1940, was a useful late middle-order batsman and a tidy leg-spin bowler who played 24 Tests for West Indies with limited success. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the career of the man who partnered his cousin Garry Sobers in one of the most memorable recovery acts in Test cricket.

Starting with a bang

The start to the career could hardly have been better.

As he walked to the crease in the first Test at Old Trafford, at the other end stood captain, cousin and cricketing giant, Garry Sobers. The great man was at the sublime peak of his supreme career in 1966. That meant David Holford could take all the time in the world to play himself in, get over his nerves and fine tune his timing, while genius flowed unbridled at the other end.

Holford did just that. Putting his head down, he stood firm at one end, while Sobers performed his magic at the other. By the end of the day, the two cousins had put on 60. Holford was unbeaten on 6.

The following day, the strokes slowly started to follow the dictates of his bat, the on-side was pierced frequently. Sobers continued to plunder the bowlers, somehow managing to hit bouncers from David Brown through the covers. When David Allen got Holford caught in the short leg by Mike Smith, the unknown cousin had hit 32. The stand was worth 127. He had scored a fair proportion of the runs on the second morning.

His first bowl was more spectacular. When Sobers put him on, Lance Gibbs had already tied the Englishmen into knots, five batsmen already back in the hut and the score just inching into the eighties. Holford’s fourth delivery pitched on the leg-stump, turned across the face off the defensive blade offered by Fred Titmus, and hit the off and middle. The 26-year-old was ecstatic. He added the scalps of Jim Parks and Ken Higgs as England were skittled out for 167. Lance Gibbs picked up five with his off-breaks. Holford finished with 15-4-34-3 by turning the ball the other way.

In the second innings, Sobers and Gibbs did most of the work with the ball. The guile of Gibbs was as potent as ever, and at this stage of his career whatever Sobers touched turned into gold. With the two scalping 8 wickets from the 83 overs between them, Holford was not required to do much bowling. He finished with one for 49 from his second innings efforts.

However, his greatest feat was reserved for the second Test at Lord’s. West Indies trailed by 86 in the first innings, and were 95 for 5 on the fourth morning when Holford walked in, once again with Sobers at the other end. In the first innings, Holford had been bowled by Brown after the previous delivery had struck him a painful blow on the knee. Smarting from both the injury and dismissal, he gritted his teeth and proceeded to play out of his skin.

Initially, the older cousin farmed the strike, protecting his kin from the English artillery. With time, it became obvious that no such kid gloves were needed. The pair batted together for 5 hours 18 minutes, and Holford incidentally ended up facing slightly more of the bowling. The West Indian captain declared just after Holford reached his maiden Test century. The score stood at 369 for 5, Sobers was on 163 and Holford 105. The younger man’s knock contained just six boundaries, such was the dour restraint he displayed that day. The Test was saved and the partnership remains one of the greatest rearguard acts ever witnessed in Test cricket.

One of the nine Barbadian cricketers selected for the tour, Holford had not quite been a definite choice for the Test team. However, an impressive unbeaten 107 against Lancashire brought him in contention, and finally sealed his place as a No. 7 batsman and the additional spinner to Gibbs and the slower varieties of Sobers. After his heroic deeds at Lord’s, he did not do too much in the three remaining Test matches on the tour. Especially his bowling was often unimpressive. Yet, he ended the tour with 759 runs 38 and 51 wickets at 26. His bowling feats included eight for 52 against Cambridge University. Only Sobers had more wickets on the trip. As an all-rounder, Holford’s efforts were more than impressive, if one excluded the superman captain’s 1349 runs at 61 and 60 wickets at 20.

And then it fizzled out

Expectations were high when Holford played his next Test match at Brabourne Stadium in Bombay. And he did not disappoint. He picked up two wickets in the first innings, three in the second and scored 80 against Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Srinivas Venkataraghavan, Salim Durani and Bapu Nadkarni. There was every indication of the emergence of an all-rounder of quality. And then he was afflicted with pleurisy and had to fly back to Barbados.

After this Holford was never the same cricketer again. Four Tests against England at home in 1968 got him 50 runs at 7.14 and six wickets at 55.83. He still made it to the Australian tour of 1968-69, perhaps with the backing of Sobers. Despite a fighting second innings 80 at Adelaide which went a long way to prevent an Australian win, he could manage only 16 in the three other Test innings on the tour. Moreover, his bowling went steadily downhill even in the land where leg-spinners thrived.

After this he struggled to make it to the Test team and, when he did, successes remained infrequent.

Holford made his mark for Barbados Colts under the legendary Everton Weekes as early as 1959. Two years later, he made his way into the Barbados side. However, at this juncture he flew to Canada to pursue his studies in soil science. For a while his cricket career took a backseat. He returned in 1965-66, with a degree in agriculture under his belt. That very same season, he picked up 18 wickets in 4 First-Class matches for Barbados and was rewarded with a place in the side bound for England.

While his cricket at the highest level stuttered and stumbled after 1968-69, he took over the reins of the Barbados side and soon became known as an astute captain. Hence, when Sobers was asked to nominate his successor in 1973, Holford was one of his preferred names —  even though he had one solitary fifty and less than a dozen wickets in Test cricket since 1969. Family ties perhaps did play a role but that was not the only guiding factor. The selectors, though, opted for Rohan Kanhai, and, subsequently, Clive Lloyd.

Holford remained a force to reckon with in domestic cricket, although his national appearances grew increasingly infrequent. Yet, it was as a 36-year-old veteran that he enjoyed his best moments with the ball. At Barbados in 1976, after Andy Roberts, Michael Holding and Bernard Julien had shocked the Indian top order, the veteran leg-spinner ran through the rest of the batting in a space of eight overs and one ball, claiming five for 23. Unfortunately, he would play only two more Tests.

With Clive Lloyd opting for a four-pronged pace attack, seldom did an aging leg-spinning all-rounder fit into the scheme of things. Holford’s final Test match was played at Kingston against Pakistan in 1977, and he ended with as much glory as he had managed on his debut. In the first innings, he accounted for the dangerous duo of Asif Iqbal and Wasim Raja to enable West Indies take a crucial first innings lead. He followed it up with an useful 37, before accounting for the same duo once again just when they looked like a serious threat. He added the wicket of Imran Khan as well. West Indies clinched the hard-fought series 2-1 and Holford ended his career by playing a vital role.

In his 24 Tests, Holford scored 768 runs at 22.58 and captured 51 wickets at 39.39. He could perhaps have found a spot in the impoverished West Indian side with the stars roped in to play in Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket. However, quite surprisingly the veteran Bajan found a place in the WSC West Indies team. He played both the seasons as the preferred spinner, with reasonable but limited success.

Thus, after his Test career was over, Holford appeared in just two more First-Class matches. He retired with 99 games, scoring 3,821 runs and scalping 253 wickets, averaging 31 with both bat and ball.

After hanging up his boots, Holford managed West Indian sides and was also a chairman of selectors. Outside cricket, he worked as a successful agronomist, and also picked up a degree in computer science.

At the highest level, Holford was at best a handy batsman and a rather unremarkable leg-spinner. However, he possessed a shrewd cricket brain that was respected by the biggest names of West Indian cricket. Some even go as far as to call him the best captain West Indies never had.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)