Our home away from home

July 27 will see The Oval stage its 100th Test. In an article first published in issue 17 of The Nightwatchman (an Oval special), Michael Holding reflects on the socio-political dimensions of the West Indies win in 1976.

The wicket at The Oval in 1976 didn’t offer much. It was slow and the ball stayed low. It was my first Test at the ground – I decided to bowl full and straight, and take the wicket out of contention. If you see most of my dismissals [Holding took 14 wickets during this Test], they were either lbw or bowled. The ball still did a bit in the air, although it was a really hot summer by English standards.

The atmosphere was electric, and the crowd lapped it all up. The Oval being quite close to Brixton meant that the West Indians just kept turning up. They loved it here because they could really show their support for the team. They could have their musical instruments and drums – a proper carnival. Those days, we didn’t have all this furore around safety and whether people would get hurt and attacked, so it was pretty much a free-for-all. As you know, they ran onto the field a few times when English wickets fell, especially Tony Greig’s. So it was all fun and frolics and nobody thought anyone would get hurt. Though Dickie Bird [the umpire] was worried about the crowd running onto the pitch.

When we heard what Tony Greig had to say before the series, we decided to send him and the England team a clear message: what he thought when he used that word – grovel – was definitely not the case. He was trying to imply that when things go well for us, we are happy and jolly but as soon as things get tough, we crumble. As things went, West Indies had a fitting response for England, and we had won the series 2-0 even before we got to The Oval for the fifth and final Test. So when he went down on his knees after West Indies declared in the second innings at The Oval and it was England’s turn to bat again, he pretty much crawled off the field.

I was surprised when he did that, but it showed the nature of the man. He was responding to the crowd shouting: “Grovel, Greigy, grovel!” A lot of people in those days, including the West Indians and I, thought: Tony Greig – white, born and raised in South Africa, he must have been aware of the racist connotations of the word when he said it. But when he got down on his knees, he dispelled those rumours and thoughts. If he was being racist, he certainly wouldn’t have grovelled. Later on in life – in those days the opportunity never arose to have much conversation – he recognised and admitted that he had made a mistake and that he didn’t understand the full extent of what it meant.

As far as the socio-political dimensions of what was going on for the West Indians in England, I don’t think too many of us [players] really had it in the back of our minds that we were also fighting for them. We knew they were enjoying what was going on. It made them feel a lot better and prouder to be walking around England. But I didn’t think deeply enough at the time of the social and political impact. It’s obvious – looking back after many years – that there was a much deeper social meaning to and impact of our victories. I feel very, very proud now that we were able to do that. I’ve been coming to England for many years and I have several friends there – English and West Indian. And I know what it meant to them, the social impact it had and the change it influenced.

The wicket I enjoyed taking the most in that game was Tony Greig’s. Every time we got Tony out in that series because of his comments it was very, very heartening. Lawrence Rowe didn’t play too badly in that Test match either [he scored 70], but nobody remembers the runs he got because of Viv’s score [291]. Then, there was the second-innings partnership between Fredericks and Greenidge when we went back out there to get some more runs – that was fantastic batting by the two of them as well. We had some incredible performances in that Test.

Those were great days. For us, The Oval felt like playing at home. And it was always a special way to end the English summer. In fact, one of the fond memories I have of that Test involves a close friend from Antigua. He lost his job because he was at the cricket! He was meant to be at work when the camera caught him in the crowd waving a big flag – his boss saw him on the telly and that was that. All’s well that ends well though because he then moved to New York and found himself a very good job.

When we went back [to The Oval] in 1980, I had forgotten all about 1976 and this was just a new Test. 1980 was a horrible summer and a lot of the Test matches were drawn because of bad weather, so it was a totally different Test match and series, and the circumstances and atmosphere were different too. I wasn’t thinking then about what had gone on in ’76. We were just trying to win another series. While we had to settle for a draw in 1980, I had another good run at The Oval in 1984, and always enjoyed going back there when I played county cricket for Derbyshire and Lancashire.

If I think only as a fast bowler, I preferred playing at Leeds because the pitch there was a lot more helpful to the bowlers. The atmosphere – not at the cricket ground – but the amount of swing and assistance you got was a lot more conducive for pace bowling. So if I think purely of the 22 yards, I want to say Leeds is my favourite cricket ground in England. But if I take everything into consideration, The Oval is a lot more appetising.

The Oval also has a much more relaxed atmosphere compared to Lord’s. And although it wasn’t a great pitch in 1976 or 1980 because it was so slow and low, I think in general – especially in much more recent times – it is a much fairer cricket pitch. For one, it has no slope so it doesn’t matter which end you’re bowling from particularly as a spinner or fast bowler. The pitch has also been more consistent. And that’s what you’re looking for as a cricketer. This hasn’t always been the case with the pitch at Lord’s.

The atmosphere too is much more enjoyable. Lord’s is known as the home of cricket. People tend to think of it as holy and sacrosanct. People should be able to go there and enjoy themselves and feel free to express themselves – they shouldn’t feel inhibited. I know a lot of people who go to Lord’s and feel stifled, but feel much more relaxed at The Oval. They walk around the ground as if it is their own.

For the West Indians – both cricketers and fans – The Oval was our home away from home. I don’t really reminisce or feel nostalgic when I go there now as a commentator. I left the game too long ago to think that far back. Besides, things have changed. The crowd can no longer take their musical instruments into the ground or buy tickets in bulk – earlier one person could buy tickets for the entire community but that doesn’t happen anymore – and, more importantly, the West Indians aren’t playing very good cricket. People won’t turn up to watch West Indies and feel as joyful and celebratory as they did when we were playing good cricket and winning. There’s still a reasonably good atmosphere when Pakistan and India play at The Oval, or most grounds around England. They’re vociferous and support their teams tremendously. But for the West Indies, the glory days seem like they belonged in another lifetime…

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This article first appeared in issue 17 of The Nightwatchman, the Wisden cricket quarterly. To read more go to www.thenightwatchman.net

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