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Jonathan Agnew: ‘Seeing Michael Holding bowl was special but facing him on debut was horrible’

BBC cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew took 666 first-class wickets as a fast bowler and played three Test matches for England

Here, he recalls his awe at Michael Holding’s bowling in the first Test he attended as a teenager – and facing the same bowler on Test debut eight years later.

ENGLAND v WEST INDIES, The Oval, August 1976

“I was 16 and I was on the Surrey ground staff for the school holidays for the first time. Alf Gover, the great coach, had sent me. Coming from a farming village in Lincolnshire it was quite something.

“I remember David Steele going past, this strange grey-haired old guy, and cheekily saying hello and good luck to him. I remember the sun shining very brightly and how brown and dry the ground was.

“It was absolutely packed and the Harleyford Road end was alive with the beat of steel drums, clanking cans and whistles blowing and all the West Indian fans having a great time. The noise, energy and vibrancy of the occasion made a big impression on me.

“I was down at ground level watching. I remember Wayne Daniel was bowling very fast and spraying the ball all over the place without any real control. But when Michael Holding bowled, the pace was blistering. He had a long, flowing run and beautiful athleticism.

“As an aspiring fast bowler I sat there and thought ‘This is special’. It was one of the flattest pitches ever but what Holding did was mind-blowing. He was very young but got 14 wickets in the match. I remember watching him clean bowl Chris Balderstone, who played professional football as well as cricket, and whom I went onto play with at Leicestershire.

“I’d been inspired by watching Peter Lever from Lancashire. But as a kid to sit and watch Holding from different perspectives made me very aware of the level to aspire to. Dennis Amiss changed his technique to make a big back and across movement to deal with it and scored a double hundred.

“But of course West Indies won. I went on to play against three of that great West Indies team from that day – Michael [Holding]Viv [Richards] and Clive [Lloyd].”

ENGLAND v WEST INDIES, The Oval, August 1984

“Eight years later at the same ground I was making my Test debut and Holding was still going strong. This time it really was a very quick pitch – not what you wanted to face the West Indies on at all! It was horrible.

“When I batted Holding went for the yorker and I just managed to jab it out and get a single, which I suppose was what I wanted. But then you had Malcolm Marshall bowling at the other end!

“There was never any sledging. Not a word from any of them. They didn’t have to do it. They were just so superior and they knew it. I remember watching the highlights afterwards and not remembering anything about the game.

“I do recall that Ian Botham got his 300th Test wicket, Jeffrey Dujon. We were more or less even with them for the first half of the match. I didn’t get any wickets in the first innings but in the second I got [Gordon] Greenidge and Viv Richards.

“They were three down quite quickly and we were in a really good position but Desmond Haynes got a century and turned it around. In our second innings Peter Willey phoned me up when I was the next in to bat. He was laughing his head off and said ‘how do you feel?’

“We lost but I was not out at the end. I was quickly surrounded by West Indies supporters and they stole my kit. They frisked me and took my helmet and gloves. A policeman found them lying outside the ground later and they were returned to me.

“I count Michael Holding as a very good friend of mine now but having to face his bowling then was just horrendous.”