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.
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