Michael Holding (left) and Geoff Boycott © Getty Images
On March 14, 1981, the great West Indian fast bowler, Michael Holding, sent down an exacting over to Englishman Geoff Boycott at Bridgetown, which would later come to be known as the most lethal six deliveries ever to be bowled. Jaideep Vaidya recounts the tale of how Boycott was wonderfully set up by “Whispering Death”.
England’s tour of the West Indies hadn’t begun on the best of notes. The Ian Botham-led side had been drubbed by an innings in the first Test at Port of Spain. The second at Georgetown had been cancelled without a ball being bowled due to the Guyana government’s refusal to allow the England team’s South African connect, Robin Jackman, to feature in the match in what was still the apartheid era. However, things looked bright for the Englishmen in the wretched Caribbean winter in Barbados during the third Test as they had Clive Lloyd’s men bowled out for 265 in the first innings, much thanks to the skipper’s brilliant hundred.
Graham Gooch and Geoffrey Boycott walked out on Day Two with an eye on an imperative lead. The only problem was — the Windies’s bowling attack featured Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Colin Croft and Joel Garner. The Kensington Oval pitch was well grassed; Boycott would later call it “a lottery and a farce”. Gooch managed to fend Roberts’s first over, but not before the Antiguan found the edge of the blade twice. Gooch survived and, then, it was time for Boycott to face what went on to be known as one of the most deadly overs ever bowled in cricket. If the Australian spin legend, Shane Warne, owns the bragging rights for having bowled the ‘Ball of the century’, Holding’s six balls to Boycott in that second over of England’s innings at Bridgetown would certainly merit being termed as ‘Over of the century’.
As Holding marked his run, the Kensington Oval was getting cramped by the minute. Fans who were too tardy in getting tickets were spotted sneaking in through gaps. “Whispering Death”, as Holding was known in the cricketing world, then began his deceivingly innocuous and languid run-up.
The first ball was almost a loosener, a warm-up delivery, but good enough to rap Boycott on the gloves and fall just short of second slip.
The next one was faster than the first. Boycott had no clue of when it beat him outside off. Two down, four to go.
The third delivery lethally cut in and hit Boycott on the right thigh. Holding was charged up now. He had three more balls in the over to terrorise Boycott with.
To the Yorkshireman’s credit, he somehow managed to find bat on the following two deliveries and save his wicket. “He middled none, but any lesser mortal would have been out,” wrote Gladstone Holder in The Nation.
Just when Boycott thought he can do this, Holding delivered the coup de grace in the final ball of the over. The cherry “went like a rocket”, by Boycott’s own admission, and sent his stumps cartwheeling towards wicketkeeper David Murray.
As the West Indies celebrated, Boycott turned around to have a quick glance at the crime scene before slowly trudging back to the pavilion. He had done well to score a duck.
“The hateful half-dozen had been orchestrated into one gigantic crescendo,” noted Frank Keating in Another Bloody Day in Paradise. Holding was more humble in his description in his book, Whispering Death, “I saw it as if it was slow motion. For a fleeting moment there was not a sound, as the stump came out and I realised what I had done. Then I was hit by a wave of noise that tumbled down from the stands.”
Holding went on to pick two more wickets, as the West Indies bundled out England for less than half their score, 122. Eventually, they won the match by 298 runs, with Holding scalping Boycott again in the second innings. However, the Yorkshireman gave the handful English fans at the Kensington Oval something to cheer about as he troubled the scorers this time around with a single run to his name.
Boycott was repulsed by the happenings. Not because of his (in)ability but the nakedness on that green Barbados pitch against what was the most feared pace bowling attack in the world. His tour diary, mentioned in his book, In the Fast Lane, is proof of his disgust. “For the first time in my life, I can look at a scoreboard with a duck against my name and not feel a profound sense of failure. For the first time I remember, I can write off an innings, whatever the history books might say, as being as near to irrelevant as any Test innings will be. It might have been a spectacle which sent the West Indians wild with delight, but had damn-all to do with Test cricket as I understand it.”
Boycott’s bile should take nothing away from Holding’s proficiencies. The Jamaican had proven himself on the flattest of tracks at The Oval during the West Indies’ tour of England in 1976. Perhaps it was just a passionate outburst from Boycott at the end of another abysmal English tour to the Caribbean in the 1970-80s. He did, after all, go on to describe Holding as “the fastest bowler I’ve ever faced”.
(Jaideep Vaidya is a multiple sports buff and a writer at CricketCountry. He has a B.E. in Electronics Engineering, but that isn’t fooling anybody. He started writing on sports during his engineering course and fell in love with it. The best day of his life came on April 24, 1998, when he witnessed birthday boy Sachin Tendulkar pummel a Shane Warne-speared Aussie attack from the stands during the Sharjah Cup Final. A diehard Manchester United fan, you can follow him on Twitter @jaideepvaidya. He also writes a sports blog - The Mullygrubber)