Book Reviews

Michael Holding on all that is not cricket with the world

S. Giridhar | Updated on October 08, 2021

The Jamaican paceman, known as Whispering Death, on the field, delivers a compelling vision for humanity with his Why We Kneel, How We Rise - a book that must be made mandatory reading in every school

About the Book

Why We Kneel, How We Rise

Michael Holding,

Simon & Schuster, 2021,

320 pages; Rs 442 (paperback)

What comes to mind first when we think of Michael Holding? To some it will be that distinguished baritone, one of the best to ever bring a passage of cricket to viewers thousands of miles away. To many, it will be that silky, feline run up as he passed the umpire with a silent whoosh to bowl at over 90 miles an hour. But decades later, whenever his name comes up, everyone will always recall first, Holding’s remarkable contribution through his speeches and writings towards a vision of an equal, humane and just world. Simply on the basis of, ‘Why We Kneel, How We Rise’, there has been no greater public spirited cricketer ever

Cricket lovers of my generation – we had commentary from Radio Australia in our ears by 5.30 am - will remember Holding’s difficult debut series as West Indies was trounced 5-1 in 1975-76 on the tour of Australia. And then Clive Lloyd the Windies captain wrought a transformation whose bedrock was a phalanx of the finest pace bowlers in cricket history. Over the next 15 years, as Holding and his fast bowling compatriots formed a pace bowling juggernaut - with great batsmen, including the peerless Vivian Richards, to complement them - that West Indies team became the greatest in Test history. For the West Indians and many across the cricketing globe, that period of supremacy meant much more than merely dominance on a cricket ground.

A book that speaks

Because we have heard the Jamaican for so many years on air, one does not so much read the book as hear him read it aloud to us. The voice is calm and reasoned as always; the hurt, the sorrow, the angst, the hopelessness and the hope are all pitched in the same even tone. Remember his ‘Wow’ in the commentary box? Just that one word to describe a brilliant ball or shot. Remember his ‘Huh’? To tell us that a shot, a delivery or a strategy was very ordinary. And here in this book too, even where emotion is right at the top, Holding’s cadence is perfect as he speaks to us on an even keel.

Uncanny as it may seem, the reader can sense where his voice is breaking and when he stops to have a sip of water. And in turn, he knows when to pause and allow the reader to wipe a tear too. I have not read a book in a long time, where I have felt this way. One must also commend the skill of Ed Hawkins, who collaborates in sparkling teamwork with Holding, to achieve this transcendental feeling.

Even when Holding was at his menacing best as a fast bowler, he let the ball do the talking. One cannot recall Holding or his comrades indulge in sledging or poor behaviour. The one occasion when he let anger overcome him - and he regrets that to this day - was when he kicked over the stumps in a Test in New Zealand as the umpires repeatedly refused LBW decisions. As an Indian, I empathise with him on that transgression, because even our mild-mannered B S Chandrasekhar was moved to frustration by Kiwi umpires. After many of his appeals were turned down, when a batsman was finally clean bowled, Chandra with dripping sarcasm asked the umpire. ‘I know he is bowled, but is he out?’

The sorrows and fears of athletes

When I committed to writing this review, I had an idea of what it would be about and even then I was not prepared for the experience. One had heard Holding, impromptu and unscripted, during a rain break in the Southampton Test match last summer, six weeks after a white policeman Derek Chauvin had knelt on George Floyd’s neck to crush out his life. Those were the weeks when the Black Lives Matter protests erupted in outrage. Next day, when SKY TV persuaded him to talk on their evening programme, he spoke heart-wrenchingly on racism, discrimination, the utter cruelty of it all. He did not hold back his tears. It was the most significant broadcast by a sports commentator ever.

And yet as I read the book, I marvelled at what Holding had compiled – it’s a book that must be translated in every language; to be made mandatory reading in every school; its pages framed and put up on every government office that has responsibility to ensure an equal order in districts, states and country.

This is not a book about racism in sports, it is about racism in society. The research is meticulous and he brings all that hard work to us in lucid, honest prose. There is a sureness with which Holding presents each facet of the monumental injustice. There are stark facts, figures and incidents that make compelling reading. He brings us the voices, fears, sorrows and frustrations of some of the most famous athletes in sporting history. And through the stories and experiences of Usain Bolt, Thierry Henry, Naomi Osaka, Michael Johnson, Ibtihaj Muhammad, Makhaya Ntini, Hope Powell and Adam Goodes, the author weaves for us the entire tapestry of his subject. The narration is such that it allows me to pause, absorb, go back, read again, almost as if he knows the reader wants the stories to singe and stay.

I feel tempted to quote from many of the conversations that these sportspersons had with Holding but let me exercise restraint and pick just one. Michael Johnson, celebrated double Olympics gold medallist tells Holding, ‘I think back to the discussions I’ve had with my son about how to behave if the police turn up. He’s twenty now but the first time we spoke about it was in his early teens…...My dad had that conversation with me, my brothers, my sisters. That’s ridiculous., absolutely ridiculous.’Holding closes out that chapter with words that wring the heart: ‘So even when Black people do great things, nothing changes’.

Every time he uses the word dehumanisation, one will involuntarily clench a fist – I bet images of Tommy Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico Olympics come to mind - and every time he writes that all we want is equality we will swallow a lump. Make no mistake, it makes harrowing reading.

Universal appeal

It is a book that transcends geographies, race and time. The Indian in Erode or Agra will make his or her own connections as will people across continents, with guilt, pain, fear and hope for they have seen, experienced, fought or closed their eyes to discrimination, inequalities and atrocities based on class, caste, colour, race, gender, religion and language. I also said hope, because everyone will resonate with Holding’s repeated urging that education will be the path for society and the world to improve. Holding is at his most passionate when he describes how a whitewashed history has been written and why that must change. ‘The decolonisation of the curriculum is the single most important change that we need to see’, says Holding. Everyone knows how fiercely protected that territory is but if there is one place to cut the Gordian knot, it is in the writing and teaching of true and fair history.

The history curriculum and text books may take decades to change but one can make an immediate beginning with this book. For children and adults to learn about the achievements, discoveries, inventions and heroics of the Black people. Holding talks of scientists like the black slave Onesimus who introduced inoculation much before Edward Jenner; about inventor Lewis Howard Latimer who patented the carbon filament for lamps (everyone knows Edison, how many have even heard of Latimer); about Septimius Severus the Black Roman emperor; how Christopher Columbus has an undeservingly high place in history; about Matthew Henson discovering the North Pole; the fact that the West Indians came to England on the Empire Windrush after World War II only because the English desperately wanted their workforce. He shares all these and many more examples to open eyes, minds and hearts.

In the last section of the book, ‘How We rise’, Holding, as direct as he was in the commentary box, says that Black people should not be considered for opportunities ‘purely because of the colour of his or her skin’. Change will work only if it starts at school and at the grassroot level, he explains through his conversation with Makhaya Ntini, South Africa’s first Black Test cricketer.Having earlier described how atrociously unequal society is, his vision of equality and equal opportunity is remarkable for its pride, courage and conviction. The fairness and confidence of the man makes you unconsciously straighten your back as you read.

Poignantly, in the final paragraph of the book, Holding says, ‘I will be long gone by the time we have a genuine level playing field, a day when the Black person is not stuck on first base and the white person is on third. It is going to take time. Maybe as long as my six-year-old grandson getting to the ripe age I am now.’ But he also finishes the book with hope, telling the child, ‘We’ve got a chance’.

(S Giridhar is one of the earliest members of Azim Premji Foundation and currently Chief Operating Officer of Azim Premji University. He has co-authored cricket books, writes regularly on public education and has written a book on India’s extraordinary school teachers.)

Check out the book on Amazon

Published on October 08, 2021

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

  1. Comments will be moderated by The Hindu Business Line editorial team.
  2. Comments that are abusive, personal, incendiary or irrelevant cannot be published.
  3. Please write complete sentences. Do not type comments in all capital letters, or in all lower case letters, or using abbreviated text. (example: u cannot substitute for you, d is not 'the', n is not 'and').
  4. We may remove hyperlinks within comments.
  5. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name, to avoid rejection.

You May Also Like