36 years ago, on a slow, amiable track Michael Holding ran in to produce one of the fastest and most brilliant displays of pace bowling ever. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the day the famed ‘grovel’ series concluded with the Jamaican picking up 14 wickets.
August 17 has seen a lot of memorable action at The Oval over the years.
In 1946, Vijay Merchant had scored an excellent 128, the highest score for India in Test cricket till then, before he was run out by the Arsenal winger Denis Compton kicking the ball onto the stumps from mid-on.
In 1964, against Australia, Geoff Boycott had spent nearly five hours to complete his first Test hundred – a precursor of 21 more three-figure scores, and many, many more hours at the wicket.
However, the most spectacular display of cricketing action was witnessed 36 years ago, when a 22-year old Michael Holding bowled at sustained, scorching pace to rout the Englishmen on the last day of a hostile series.
The final Test of the ‘grovel’ series
It was final Test match of the infamous ‘grovel’ series – in which animosity was flared and fanned by the ill-advised use of the word by English captain Tony Greig . Not much was expected on the flat and slow track with West Indies already 2-0 up in the series. It was expected to be a run feast, and indeed the first two innings witnessed two double centuries of contrasting character.
Viv Richards blasted his way to 291 in the first innings, West Indies piling up 687. England did well to respond with 435, riding on a 203 by Denis Amiss.
On a bare, dusty and docile track, captain Clive Lloyd’s decision to go in with four pace bowlers was questioned by a lot of experts, who would look pretty sheepish in a decade or so. On the fourth morning Holding demonstrated that with the ball travelling at the rate of knots through the air, the pitch was largely redundant. His eight first innings wickets were either bowled or leg before.
It was the final moment of retribution for the islanders. The moment Holding bowled Tony Greig, a horde of jubilant West Indian fans ran into the ground in a frenzy of celebration. Denis Amiss recalls, “Before he (Greig) came in they were bowling at a nice pace of about 85 mph, but when Tony came to the wicket it went up to about 90 and three bouncers and over. I've never been as pleased to see an England captain bowled.”
It was Dickie Bird, the umpire, who christened Holding ‘Whispering Death’. “I couldn't hear him when he was running in. It was the most fantastic piece of fast bowling I had ever seen,” the legendary umpire once said.
Leading by 252, Lloyd decided not to enforce the follow-on. Holding needed a rest, and Wayne Daniel was injured. Roy Fredericks and Gordon Greenidge seized the opportunity to flay the English bowlers mercilessly, adding 182 in just 32 overs when the innings was closed more as an act of humane than cricketing considerations. That was the famed period of play when Tony Greig approached the biggest West Indian section of the crowd, got on his knees, and with a gesture famously captured on camera, tendered an apology for his pre-series statement.
However, with Amiss and Bob Woolmer putting on 43 before close of play on fourth day, and the pitch as benign as ever, the match seemed to be heading for a draw.
August 17, 1976
Yet, Holding had different ideas.
“I was 22 years old and just ran in and bowled. I didn't even think about the conditions - you don't at that age. I tried to bowl as accurately as possible because there was no way I could bowl a bouncer. I was getting good inswing and I kept the ball full. It was my best Test as far as figures are concerned, but I bowled better than that in different circumstances. At The Oval it was simple: bowl fast and bowl full,” Holding said.
Within the first few minutes on the final day, he had induced snicks from the openers and had knocked over the stumps of John Balderstone.
Once Peter Wiley had succumbed to Vanburn Holder, captain Greig came in to bat for the last time in the nightmarish series. And Holding charged in, rhythmic and graceful, poetry in motion, the Rolls Royce of fast bowlers, and sent his stumps on a stroll with a lightning-fast yorker.
Alan Knott battled hard to reach his second fifty of the match before Holding sent his middle-stump on a protracted cartwheel. The final nail in the coffin was drilled when the hapless Bob Willis, carrying a bat more to preserve tradition than score runs, was trapped plumb. Holding finished with six for 57, following his first innings haul of eight for 92 – 14 wickets in the match, nine of them bowled and three leg before.
In contrast to the previous Tests – when he had famously terrorised Englishmen, particularly Brian Close at Old Trafford, with scary short pitched stuff – Holding adapted himself to the slow wicket and pitched well up. Says Mike Selvey, the opening bowler for England in the match, “I don't remember them bowling any bouncers because of the pitch. Holding just bowled fast from the Vauxhall End and he bowled straight. It proved his rank as one of the greatest bowlers in Test cricket. It is hard to overestimate how well he bowled. It was fast. It was straight. It was accurate. It was awesome.”
For the first time since Don Bradman’s men had toured in 1948, England lost a home series 0-3.
(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)