When Death Whispers

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. James Baldwin

English cricket captain Tony Greig’s “I intend to make the West Indies grovel” comment in 1976 may well be the most effective motivational speech in the history of sport, albeit with an entirely perverse twist. The toxic cocktail of a metaphor redolent with racist innuendo and Greig’s own South African antecedents served to motivate Clive Lloyd’s swashbuckling Windies gladiators to great heights. The legendary Viv Richards plundered 829 runs, while sporting a tricolor Rastafarian wrist band. In his words “green for the land of Africa, gold for the wealth that was stripped away, red for the blood that was shed.” 

As dominant as Richards was, the coda to this infamous “blackwash” of the hapless English was delivered by a hitherto unknown young Jamaican fast bowler, who recorded the best bowling figures ever (14 wickets for 149 runs at the concluding Oval Test) by a West Indian. On a flat track, the graceful Michael Holding combined pinpoint accuracy with lightning pace to run through a shell shocked English batting line-up. Watching Holding bowl evoked Ali at his magical “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” best, or Jordan’s equally irresistible glide to the hoop, earning Holding a place in the pantheon of all-time great athletes. And the moniker “Whispering Death”.

Fast forward to 2020, and Michael Holding whispered again, delivering his finest spell yet, only this time in the form of an incisive and moving discourse on racism to mark the start of the English summer, and a revival of cricket in the time of corona and #blacklivesmatter. 

To start with – call it a limb loosener for a first delivery – Michael makes the observation that technology has caught up with and exposed racism in America. This might seem somewhat trite, but is nevertheless worth noting in light of the vilification of social media platforms in terms of accountability for content. As Daily Show host Trevor Noah did in his powerful YouTube video, Holding focuses as much on Amy Cooper’s “weaponisation” of white privilege as he does on the gruesome George Floyd video – both captured and transmitted on ubiquitous smartphones and 4G networks, the former tweeted by the bird watcher Chris Cooper’s sister. 

Next, as an example of the existence of equally omnipresent subconscious racial bias, Holding cites a 2016 Yale study that highlights the implicit bias of American preschool teachers against black children, black boys in particular, leading to a vicious circle of detention, resentment, more detention, eventually incarceration. Had he been in the commentator’s box with Holding, the late Bob Willis – England’s main strike bowler in the 1976 series and a Dylan aficionado – would doubtless have invoked the maestro’s powerful ballad Hurricane from the 70s. If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street. ‘Less you want to draw the heat.

Holding observes that nobody is born a racist, it is learned and the brainwashing begins at an early age. “Nobody is taught anything good about black people,” he says. Jesus is white, with blond hair and blue eyes, while Judas is black. He further cites the example of Louis Howard Latimer, the unheralded inventor of the carbon filament which enabled Edison’s incandescent light bulb. Perhaps knowingly, Holding is channeling Mohammed Ali’s irresistible “Mama How Come is Everything White” tirade in his famous BBC interview with Michael Parkinson. 

Michael’s conclusion is the equivalent of a spitting cobra that rears up at your chin from barely short of a length. “Until we educate the entire human race, this thing will not stop. What people need to understand is that this stems from hundreds of years ago. The dehumanisation of the black race is where it started. No, you don’t get over things like that”. History is written by the conquerors, says Michael. And so are school curricula. I could not agree more. Enough already with the anodyne To Kill a Mockingbird, Toni Morrison’s Beloved should be required reading for American middle and high school students, for it depicts the institution of slavery for what it was – the ultimate degradation and yes, dehumanisation, of an entire race, a crime against humanity every bit as repulsive as the Holocaust. Read it, feel it, then let’s have an educated debate about bringing down Confederate monuments. And while we’re on the subject, let British kids learn about the condescending racism at the heart of colonial rule. Forget reparations, a universal acknowledgment of reality would go a long way toward healing. 

Holding’s words, delivered at The Rose Bowl in 2020, hit home with unerring accuracy, every bit as deadly as the lightning bolt that crashed through Tony Greig’s defences at The Oval in 1976, but with one important difference. At 6’6” and a bat held aloft at address, Tony fully expected a speedy yorker directed at his feet, yet was powerless to cope with it. We, on the other hand, barely aware of our own innate biases, didn’t see it coming, least of all from a man who embodies languid Caribbean cool and who, unlike Ali, has never raised his head above the parapet in terms of protest or activism. And how we cope with this projectile directed at our hearts and minds, the degree to which we internalise the underlying message – this is the challenge of the moment. 

One final note, in the name of objectivity and fair play that is so integral to the game of cricket. As Holding himself readily conceded, the late Tony Greig was not a racist, and by all accounts neither were other members of his English team. For one, you cannot change your middle name to Dylan, as Bob Willis did, and carry bigotry in your heart. Other members of the team, including the cerebral Mike Brearley, were quick to distance themselves from their captain’s comments. Tony himself deeply regretted his unprepared remark, to the extent of endearing himself to a West Indian crowd by grovelling – literally, down on his hands and knees – at the Oval. The great Ian Botham, who made his English Test debut shortly thereafter, should be feted as much for his principled stance in support of the sacking of his mate Viv Richards by Somerset county as he is for his exploits on the field. And finally, kudos to the English opening batsmen for taking the knee in solidarity with their West Indian opponents at the start of the Test in Southampton last week. 

Fittingly, on Sunday an inspired West Indian team pulled off an unlikely victory against a world champion English side, surely bringing a smile to Michael Holding’s craggy visage after the emotion he was man enough to bare earlier in the week. We hear you Mikey, and we’re with you all the way.





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1 Response to When Death Whispers

  1. Harish Raghavan says:

    Well written

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