It is March 14, 1981. A Saturday morning in Barbados. The Kensington Oval – a dilapidated delight of a cricket ground, a top-edged hook from the cruise ships and fishing boats that pockmark Bridgetown’s port – is throbbing.
Fans are scrambling through gaps in the wall and clambering up stands to perch precariously on their tin roofs, all in a desperate attempt to catch a glimpse of the second day of the third Test.
On the field, England are batting. Having dismissed West Indies for 265, they are – for once – in the game. At one end of the ground, Michael Holding, the world’s fastest bowler, stands with ball in hand. At the other, Geoffrey Boycott, the epitome of Yorkshire cussedness, is taking guard. He doesn’t know it yet, but he is about to face possibly the greatest over ever bowled.
Fast forward 40 years. Boycott – now a proud grandfather to little Joshua – is no longer padded up and Holding’s luxurious Afro has been replaced by neat, cropped grey hair, although he still looks younger than his 67 years.
United by technology that would have been unthinkable in 1981, the pair are about to relive that over together for the first time ahead of its 40th anniversary on Sunday.
Boycott is sat in his living room in Boston Spa. It has taken time to convince him to sit in the centre of the shot – as ever, his wife Rachael proves more persuasive – although it is a largely futile exercise because as the conversation begins he continually hops about in his seat, fending off the throat balls once more.
Holding, a more relaxed presence, is in the garden of his house in the Cayman Islands (he also has a home in Newmarket, where he can more easily keep an eye on his beloved horseracing). A palm tree is reflected in the window behind him, and the only background noise comes in the faint trill of birdsong.
Mutual respect abounds between old rivals stitched together by six balls which have taken on their own mythology in the intervening decades. Now, it is time to hear their story.
Holding drops on a line and length immediately. Boycott, surprised by the bounce, fends to second slip where the ball falls short of Viv Richards.
Footage of Holding’s epic over has been viewed on YouTube more than a million times – proof of its own legend. Even so, watching it now is an unsatisfactory experience. There was no live coverage of the match, just a camera from a BBC news crew set up at long-on. The report only features three balls – the first, second and sixth – and the footage itself is so grainy and mucky that you can barely see the ball leave Holding’s hand, although that in itself was not a unique experience for batsmen of the day.
The news crew were in Barbados not for the cricket, but because the tour had been rocked by the Jackman Affair. The second Test in Guyana was cancelled after the island’s government refused to grant a visa to Robin Jackman due to his links with South Africa. The fall-out was toxic, with the series effectively put on hiatus for three weeks as the authorities attempted to thrash out a compromise.
While Boycott recalls England’s players spending the time being “sat on our bottoms in Barbados”, Holding had work to do. He had lost his run-up in the first Test in Trinidad, going wicketless in the first innings before claiming 3-38 in the second as West Indies won by an innings.
It is hard to think of Holding, arguably the most graceful fast bowler to have ever lived, suffering a mechanical breakdown, but his problems were real.
“It had been giving me a problem for a year or so because I had a knee situation,” Holding recalls. “If you do not have confidence in your body it affects you physically and mentally on the field but [his opening bowling partner] Andy Roberts sorted it out. His knowledge and how he assessed people, even his own team-mates, helped me a lot.”
Holding’s respect for Roberts is obvious even now, and actually helps explain why he was even bowling to Boycott in the first place. As the senior bowler, Roberts took the first over, Boycott watching from the other end as Graham Gooch fended him off. Holding took over from what is now the Joel Garner End at the Kensington Oval (Garner was fielding at gully).
“I remember being sat in the dressing room after we had finished batting,” says Holding. “I was feeling sweaty. Dennis Waight (West Indies physio) was going through the usual stuff, loosening us fast bowlers up. Clive Lloyd walked over to me and quietly said, ‘Which end do you want?’ Lloydy was getting to the point where he was thinking I should be taking over from Andy as the lead fast bowler in the team.
“But Andy and myself went back a long time. We started playing for our islands at the same time, we were 12th men together so I had known him for donkey’s years and I didn’t like the idea that Lloydy was thinking it was time for Andy to move over. I just looked up at him and said, ‘Whichever end Andy doesn’t want’ to send him the signal that I was not going to take over from Andy like that. He got the message.”
Lloyd adjusted his plan: Roberts would give it his all with the wind for a short burst, and then Holding – three years younger than his partner – would take over from his end. But, as Holding puts it, that plan soon “went out of the window”.
Pitched perfectly outside off stump at high pace, Boycott prods and misses. The ball goes through to wicket-keeper David Murray.
By the time he strode out to open England’s innings in Barbados, Boycott was 40 years old and knew in his own mind that his time at the top level was running out. West Indies, in contrast, were nearing the peak of their powers, their potency summed up by an attack that still rolls off the tongue 40 years later: Roberts, Holding, Croft and Garner. Fast bowling’s Fab Four. It would take skill, a bit of luck and tons of courage to make runs against them.
“When you think of fast bowling you should remember that many Test series have been won by teams with one outstanding fast bowler,” says Boycott. “Harold Larwood in 1932-33, John Snow 1970-71, Frank Tyson in 1954-55. But here you were with four of them!
“We knew what was to come and I knew against the new ball with Andy and Mikey that West Indies pitches would be quick. Remember I was 40 years of age, way past my best. I should not even have been playing at 40. Forty against fast bowling! You’ve got to be wrong in your head.
“When you play fast bowling, if they move the ball around at pace that is difficult. If it doesn’t move but it bounces, that is very difficult too. If it moves and it bounces and it’s over 90mph then, sorry, you have no chance.”
Even so, West Indies were wary of their old foe. Boycott averaged 51 in the Caribbean – he toured there three times in total – and formed, with Gooch, one of the best opening partnerships in England’s history. So Boycott’s wicket was still prized, even at this stage of his career.
“When you are bowling at someone like Geoffrey Boycott with his technique and the value he puts on his wicket, when you get him out you know you have done a good job,” Holding says. “Yes, Geoffrey was 40 – I remember watching him play against people like Sir Garfield Sobers. I knew he was past his very best but he was not one to give away his wicket so once you get someone out like that you have earned it.
“When people are backing away and you get 5-40, great, but those wickets are not as valuable as getting someone whose wicket you had to earn. That is what I admire getting people like Geoffrey Boycott out.”
Again quick and accurate, this time the ball nips back in and beats Boycott’s bat, hitting him above the hip.
Looking at photographs of that day brings to life a lost world. West Indies are a shadow of their former selves now, although still good enough to regularly beat England on their own pitches, and Test matches in the Caribbean are now watched mainly by wealthy, middle aged British tourists. Test cricket cannot be fitted so easily into working lives anymore and it is Twenty20 that pulls in the crowds.
But not in 1981. Then, Test cricket was the dominant format – there had only been two World Cups, both held in England and both won by West Indies – and the locals could not get enough of watching their heroes.
This was the era of Fire in Babylon, with Caribbean memories still piqued by Tony Greig’s insistence five years earlier that he would make West Indies “grovel” during their 1976 series in England. Those comments, coming from England’s brash South African-born captain, were fuel to the tourists’ flames, and they duly dispatched their hosts 3-0.
Five years later, their status as the world’s best side was well established. England were a team in transition – led by a 25-year-old Ian Botham – but beating them was still a priority, particularly given that many had been stung by their treatment in county cricket, where unreconstructed attitudes towards race still prevailed.
“I didn’t have any extra motivation but I know for sure some of the guys who played county cricket had extra motivation because of the way they were treated in a county team,” Holding reveals. “I won’t call names but some brought home stories and told us some things so there was extra motivation.”
This is a subject close to Holding’s heart. He has spent the winter writing a book about racism. Entitled Why we Kneel, How We Rise, it was spawned by his emotional account of the prejudice endured by him and his family during a Sky Sports package around the Black Lives Matter movement, which has seen him nominated for a Royal Television Society award.
“People said I couldn’t let it end there,” he says. “It is a history book as well as a teaching book. I have interviewed people like Naomi Osaka, Michael Johnson, Usain Bolt, Adam Goodes from Australia who talks about the treatment of Aboriginal community. When I took on the job I was very nervous because I did not think I could deal with it properly but I’m glad with the way it came out.”
While it is tempting to view every West Indian triumph over England through a post-colonial lens, the truth is relations between the teams were actually very good – despite the bruises inflicted on English bodies. Rewatching footage from the era, it is also striking how quiet the West Indian attack was.
“I can’t remember them once ever saying anything abusive or nasty,” Boycott says. “They bowled to get us out, to knock our heads off and were highly competitive. I accept that. It is part of the game. If fast bowlers are not allowed to intimidate there is no point watching. It is what makes a great batsman, to stand up with courage and have the technique to handle them.
“But they were brilliant off the field. Malcolm Marshall was fantastic to me. I loved him. The first morning of a Yorkshire v Hampshire game, Malcolm used to get his luggage out in the car park and shout at me: ‘Are you hooking today Boycs?’ I said: ‘If you are bowling I’m not’. But now there is this sledging, cussing nastiness and abuse. It is wrong.”
Holding nods in agreement. “It has gone on too long. They say we are old fogies, we don’t keep up with changes. My argument is not all changes are for the better.”
By now, the crowd is coming to the boil, the din swelling as Holding runs in. This ball is short, nasty and quick. Boycott fends it off his throat, the ball looping up but falling short of gully.
Boycott knew Barbados well. He had scored three hundreds, including two double centuries, there in warm-up matches and played two Tests at the Oval. It had been good for batting. But he was horrified when, a few days before the game, he saw the pitch as the groundsman, Tommy Pierce, was applying a few finishing touches.
Holding still laughs at the memory. “There was a story going around that when Tommy was out on the pitch the day before or perhaps two days before the Test started you saw all the grass and said to him: ‘What the hell is all this greenery?’ And Tommy said: ‘Mr Boycott, that there is grass and in the Caribbean grass is green’. Is that true?”
Boycott chortles. “It is, it is. I said to him, ‘Are you kidding, are we playing on this?’ I told him this lot don’t need any help, they are the best in the world anyway.
“I knew it was going to be tough for batting. I remember watching the first over Andy bowled at Goochy, he got two thick edges. One went for four through the slips. I thought: ‘This will be good.’ Your pace and bounce was not a surprise but the biggest surprise was how a fast bowler of your pace could get line and length right from word go. That is not easy.”
Boycott might be in his ninth decade but his recall is as sharp as Holding’s pace that day. He can remember every moment with exquisite precision and soon the old master batsman is taking over as he starts to mimic playing the short ball again, watching the ball, guiding it downwards from his armchair.
Boycott was wearing a helmet in the 1981 series but had spent most of his Test career without one, evading express bowlers such as Wes Hall, Graham McKenzie and Peter Pollock through his quick eyes and strong heart.
“I was never scared – you can’t play fast bowling scared,” he says. “Apprehensive about whether they will get you out? Yes. But without helmets you learned from an early age, and in a tough school at Yorkshire, to watch the ball.
“You had to listen to the ex-players like Maurice Leyland, Arthur Mitchell and Bill Bowes. If they saw you not watching the ball in the nets, and I got to bat against Fred Truman as a teenager, then you would not play in the first team. When he bowled you would get it. If you took your eye off the ball and got hit without a helmet you were off to hospital so you better learn quick.
“I wore a helmet later because I was getting older and I felt when helmets were introduced that if you did not wear one it was silly. It was like you were waving a red flag at the bull: ‘I’m so clever and good I don’t need a helmet.’ I never thought it was smart to rile a fast bowler. They were good enough and fast enough as it is.”
Short and fast, this one follows Boycott and again he fends it off his throat, the crowd roaring as it drops short of Garner at gully. Something special is unfolding.
The Kensington Oval is a very different place now. The old wooden bleachers and corrugated roofs are gone, replaced for the 2007 World Cup by gleaming, ultra-modern stands which offer a more comfortable seat, but a fraction of the old atmosphere.
There were England supporters there in 1981 – including the cricket-loving Mick Jagger. They were mainly housed in the Members Stand, the most reserved section of the ground, the only place where people sat still and clapped politely.
But this was long before the advent of the Barmy Army, and the ritual takeover of Caribbean grounds by beery supporters belting out ‘Jerusalem’. This was a boisterous, full-throated Bajan crowd, and while there was no repeat of the first Test in Trinidad – when a local voodoo priest had run onto the field in an attempt to place a curse on the tourists (as if they needed any more bad luck) – there was no shortage of characters. The most recognisable came in the form of the slim, lemon-suited Redvers Dundonald King Dyal – one of the island’s most renowned residents, who could be seen delivering solemn judgment on England’s batting.
Holding shut it all out. He had a job to do, and his focus was on one thing: dismissing Boycott.
“Throughout the over, when you are bowling, you are not conscious of the crowd,” he says. “You know there is a buzz going on but you are concentrating so much on what you are trying to do.”
Here it is. Last ball. Survive this and Boycott can get to where he needs to go – the non-striker’s end. Holding charges in, leaps in the air and delivers. The ball is fuller and quick. Before Boycott has even had the chance to get his bat down, his off-stump is somersaulting 30 yards behind him. There is a moment of stunned silence before the crowd erupts. Boycott looks back on his wrecked wicket before walking off, scarcely able to compute what has just happened.
Holding had a long run up – around 22 lengthy strides, a distance which meant he would occasionally be starting his approach near the sightscreen. It was also close to silent, his boots appearing to barely scratch the grass – a facet of his game which earned him one of cricket’s greatest nicknames, ‘Whispering Death’.
A batsman facing him generally had around seven seconds to plot his response – in cricketing terms, an age for Boycott to draw on his decades of experience.
“I know I’ve had pace and bounce and one that has cut back. Wow! I’m trying to think on my feet here. If I am not careful I’m going to get it at my throat and I can’t keep it down. Fast bowlers know you can play the ball chest height if you have skill and courage, ride it and keep it down. But once it gets that extra 12 inches or more higher you can’t get over the top of it so it goes uppish. Very difficult.”
As he speaks, Boycott is moving around his chair, ducking and weaving as he imagines bouncers whizzing at his head.
“I was remembering Bobby Simpson. He grew up playing in Perth and I had seen him play at the Waca years earlier. When the ball was pitched short of a length and bouncing like it did in Perth in those days, he did not back away but he stood on leg stump and let the ball go over the top of the stumps even though it was straight.
“He trusted the bounce to go over the top. I’m thinking if I keep playing this off my throat I’m going to get out here so I played inside the ball and it took the off stump, knocked it flying. It was as simple as that. I don’t think I could have done much else.”
The West Indies were jubilant at seeing England’s totem toppled so emphatically. A picture taken that day by the cricket photographer Patrick Eagar captures the moment in all its exquisite brutality: Boycott, staring at his two remaining stumps; fans erupting in the background, many looking in serious danger of plummeting from the top of the stand to the turf; and, captured mid-air as he jigs in delight, Desmond Hayes at short-leg.
“I remember seeing Dessie leaping so high he came back down on the middle of the pitch,” Holding laughs. “When that stump went cartwheeling the whole ground erupted. People were running on the pitch.”
Along with Sir Donald Bradman’s farewell innings, it is probably the most famous duck in Test history – precisely because of what had gone before it.
“It has to be the best over I faced because he got everything right,” Boycott says. “Six out of six in your first over – wow, that is unique at that pace. I remember talking to Clyde Walcott at the end of the day. I said, ‘Clyde you would not have got many runs on this either.’ He did not say a word.”
Holding, for his part, thinks he bowled quicker, and better overs. But after 40 years is willing to concede it was a “freak of nature”.
“It was a perfect storm as far as I was concerned – everything just clicked. It will go down in history by people looking at it as the one of the best overs ever but because I know the circumstances and what was in my mind, I would not put it as my best ever over.”
Boycott did not fare much better in the second innings, making one off four balls, again falling to Holding. “There was a crew filming the match and they had Mikey’s over to me,” he says. “I went to the Holiday Inn where they were staying and watched it in slow motion. That’s how I knew that I had stayed inside the line. In the second innings I thought: ‘To hell with that. I will do what I always do, get in line and cover up my stumps.’ What happened? After I got a single off the pair, the ball steepled into my throat and I gloved it to Joel Garner at gully like I thought I might do in first innings! That was what I was trying to avoid on that sixth ball.”
It was a remarkable moment, one which still thrills four decades on, and yet it was largely forgotten within 24 hours. That night, Ken Barrington, England’s popular assistant manager and one of the country’s finest ever batsmen, died of a heart-attack in his hotel room. The players were devastated.
Boycott, always able to compartmentalise better than most, recovered his composure, making a century in the next Test in Antigua, the inaugural match at the old Rec. He went on to play a further 12 Tests before retiring with an average of 47 and 22 centuries to his name.
Holding would tour England again in 1984, the infamous 5-0 ‘Blackwash’, and played his last Test in 1986, retiring with 249 wickets at 23.68.
The over, meanwhile, took on a life of its own. Both men wrote autobiographies and dedicated sections to it. At one stage it had its own website and the poet Roger Bonair-Agaird relived watching it in his poem To Mimic Magic. “Even on the black and white/we could tell the ball/was a wicked duppy / it moved furniture/ spat and reared at the batsman’s /throat shot past his chest/like a comet.”
After 45 minutes of conversation which have flown past, the latest meeting of these two old warriors is over. Both have relished the joshing, and reliving old times – even if, for Boycott, the memories are bittersweet.
There is, however, still time for one final exchange. “People keep on coming to me and giving me all sorts of things about this over in Barbados but I have not paid too much attention to it” says Holding. “I keep telling people Geoffrey says it is the best ever over because it was him involved in it”
“Yeah well,” comes back Geoffrey. “I know you were good but I made you famous.”
There is a short pause before he delivers the pay-off.
”Not intentionally, mind.”