Posted by: tootingtrumpet | March 11, 2014

Summer The First Time – Fast Bowling

No description required, nor possible

No description required, nor possible

In 1976, I was 13 years old. A 13 year old boy is exactly that – a boy, but all around me, girls were turning into women. I couldn’t speak to them – they might as well have been, as William S Burroughs suggests, a different species. I was no closer to falling in love with a real life girl than I was to playing Test cricket that hot, dry summer. But if I could not fall in love with a girl, I could fall in love with something else, and I did. In August 1976, I fell in love with fast bowling.

I’d seen it before. Andy Roberts live and very quick at Aigburth in 1974, hurtling into the crease before sloping his body away to off, as the arm delivered the ball: fast bouncer or faster bouncer? Mike Procter fascinated me with his mop of blond hair and flapping shirt, that windmill in a hurricane delivery stride and the ball that – did it? – reverse swing from round the wicket to clatter into the right-handers’ stumps. Dennis Lillee, snarling and snapping, a pantomime villain with real weaponry, was another demon who frightened the children.

In July, I’d watched with my father as John Edrich and Brian Close had nobly, foolishly, bravely survived the barrage of bouncers bare-headed to reach the sanctuary of Sunday’s rest day and the chance for Closey to count his bruises and Tony Greig to reflect on the wisdom of his infamous “Grovel” interview. That wasn’t love, it was its close cousin, fear – a Hitchcockian nexus probably best left unexplored in early teens.

In the heat of England’s hottest summer in living memory, I closed the curtains and watched, on our new colour television, every ball of the Fifth Test on the scorched grass of Kennington’s Oval. There was King Viv’s 291 (more of which in a later piece in this series) and Dennis Amiss’ magnificent return to the colours, going back and across to counter what was coming at him. And what was coming at him, was the most awesome sight in cricket – in sport – Michael Holding.

At the top of that long, long run that gave batsmen plenty of time to contemplate their fate, there was a little shuffle and a look down for the mark and then the head would go back and the ground would float away as the silent strides settled the long, lithe body for the gather and release, everything pointing exactly where he wanted the ball to go. It was an example of something I heard later about chess play and mathematical proofs – and much later saw again at the ballet – it worked so well because it was so beautiful. The senseless Earth seems pleased with elegance, it rewards what transfixes the eye, it does exactly what the gods would do were they looking down, marveling along with us mortals.

I wanted to bowl like that; I wanted to run like that; I wanted to be… that. That human being who seemed made of different stuff, did different things, achieved different results. I wanted to be Michael Holding.

I was a chubby teenager who could bowl a bit, but, well, I had more chance of copping off with Caroline Munro than I had of being half the bowler Michael Holding was. But, already, I did not care. I had found a true love – fast bowling – and I knew that I could spend what children believe is an infinite time with it. Michael Holding, its most beautiful exponent, had called me like a siren, but instead of being dashed on the rocks (as England were – take a look), I knew that I had a lifetime of watching his successors. And I have – though they would never match that Summer – The First Time.

You can tweet me at @garynaylor999.

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Responses

  1. I was fourteen, and you might be on to something with

    that wasn’t love, it was its close cousin, fear

    . I think I held back from even appreciating the thrill at a distance, and I certainly didn’t have your appreciation of the different ways in which Roberts and Holding bowled. I remember being struck by Jeff Thomson’s slingshot-action in 1974-5, and Colin Croft’s angle into the batsman in 1980, but anything more refined eluded me, even an action as lovely as Holding’s.

    Looking back, 1976 was a difficult year in my appreciation of Test cricket, and those fast bowlers were largely responsible. My two favourite Essex cricketers had both been dropped by their countries – Keith Fletcher for struggling against fast bowling, and Keith Boyce for not being fast enough (it turned out to be his last full season for Essex as his knees started to rebel).

    Aged 12 or 13, I’d quite enjoyed being the best bowler in my year at school, and was something of a juvenile sadist bowling as fast as I could on the bumpy football pitches at Wanstead Flats to brother and friends. But by 1976, my adolescent frame was getting ever-ganglier, I think I’d realised from watching Close and Edrich that it was a scary business, and so I had biomechanical as well as psychological reasons for drifting and turning towards spin bowling.

    Cricket history has it that Clive Lloyd decided to do away with fast-medium bowling after the defeat in Australia in 1975-76; but looking up that 1976 series in England, it was more of a transitional year than I remember. Boyce had gone, but from the 1973 team that beat England, Vanburn Holder played in all five Tests, and Bernard Julien played in the first two. The trio of Roberts, Holding and Daniel came together for the first time in that third Test that you saw at Old Trafford, and I suppose bowling England out for 71 was no reason to look back.

    Thanks for the article,and I look forward to the appreciation of Viv’s 291. Three double-centuries in that series, another for Viv and as you say Dennis Amiss. Not forgetting Mike Selvey’s 4-41 in that third Test….

  2. PS. My little boy (aged 8) just looked at the photo and asked: “Is that Dickie Bird ?” !

  3. I’m glad you ignored the caption and did describe Holding. It was a highlight of an all-round, deeply pleasurable piece.

  4. Lovely stuff. There is an argument which I wholly subscribe to that the reason Australia had that golden era in the 90’s and early 00’s was because of the amount of times the West Indies came over to play and inspire the local kids of the 70s and 80s. I remember growing up in Victoria, other than wanting to be Dean Jones, Merv Hughes or still wanting to be Lillie long after he retired, in the back yard we all wanted to be anyone or everyone from the West Indies. (except for that one week each year where we wanted to bowl spin like AB!)

    • but you couldn’t get your arm so low!

      Yes – they were like creatures from another planet and played the game with a freedom of expression, but a discipline of technique, that’s seldom been matched since.

  5. Superb stuff as ever, Gary.

    For those of us of a certain age (I was ten in 1976), that summer will always hold a huge range of resonances. I saw Holding bowl during the Lord’s Test (to this day I’ve never seen another bowler get so close to the pavilion steps at the end of his run), but it was, as you say, at Old Trafford and The Oval that the gloves really came off.

    I too remember watching Richards tick through the 200s and speculating with my brother about whether he’d get to 300 (something I couldn’t really get my head around – nobody made triples in county cricket in those days and you had to go back to Simpson and Edrich, before I was born, for the last in Tests in England).

    I wasn’t there, but if I had to pick the Test from my childhood which holds the most lasting significance, that would be it. Holding destroying the stumps of a succession of hapless English batsmen, the pitch invasion when Greig was dismissed (bowled Holding, of course) for the second time. Holding smashing the hugest of huge sixes down to the Vauxhall End towards the end of the West Indies first innings. And the colour of the outfield – parched by drought in a way no other English ground has ever been, before or since.

    It was probably round about then – exactly then – that I found myself thinking that I really, really, liked cricket.

    I’ve never lost that feeling.

    • Cheers Brian – there’s a few of us with reason to thank 1976.

      I’ll do another one of these about big scores, because I had that feeling about 300 too – an unimaginably high score.

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