Born in Superlative, blessed with stand out looks and given a moral compass, yet Andy Murtagh’s warm-hearted biography of John Holder is also well-titled for a man who left Barbados for an English winter with no coat, just might have had his capacity to bowl fast coached out of him, and later, as Test Match umpire, declined a bribe and found that an attitude born out of straightforward honesty was an an attitude that didn’t fit.
John Holder has a first-class hat-trick to his name, took 13 wickets in a Championship match and stories from his playing days are fondly recalled by Andy Murtagh. The liking he feels towards his subject is very clear, although this part of the book also aches rather with the playing career that might have been. As team-mate Richard Lewis points out the key to bowling is the ability to repeat an action, from which rhythm and confidence, and while John Holder was seriously quick, attempts to rectify a problem with bowling no balls by changing his action from chest to side on proved problematic.
He left the Hants staff in 1972 without getting his county cap, but having been a presence in helping a young Gordon Greenidge mature, whose career at Southampton at one point survived by one vote. 15 years later with his playing career coming towards its end, John Holder was umpiring him on the county circuit, his career as an official on the rise. Promotion to Tests followed, England versus Sri Lanka in 1988 then Australia in 1989, a career that was going well until the end of the series against the West Indies in 1991, the farewell of Viv Richards at The Oval. It turned out to be his last Test for a decade.
As to why, umpire Holder pointing out, reporting, ball tampering by England unwelcome with an upcoming series against Pakistan is the context given. It is plausible enough as an explanation; reporting transgressions may, of course, have been unwelcome at other times as well, suggestive that some of his colleagues would simply have turned a blind eye as necessary.
And the experience of prejudice in his career? Episodes outside the game certainly, also behind the decision-making that left him (very) disappointed after just doing his duty? Test of Character reasonably enough given the time horizon does not try to probe the opaque processes of long ago, or the character, the mental suppleness, of those making the decisions, but it may have been a factor. Mistakes made with LB decisions in some games are given fair airing in the book, the explanation for him being dropped as a Test umpire seemingly not that, which leaves a man who was just ‘a bit too honest’.
More cheerfully there is fair recognition that cricket gave black West Indians of his generation openings, three team-mates at Southampton at the start of the 1971 season, in an era when cricket was treated more as a game, and those involved felt that they were on to something that was a lot better than ‘real work’. A career in his case that lasted more than 40 years; an informed man about the laws of cricket, an educator, his ‘You Are the Umpire’ with Paul Trevillion, a success. An attempt to bribe him in Sharjah before an ODI fixture was recalled with something like disdain in interviews that have appeared on YouTube.
John Holder first appeared for Hants 2nds against Gloucester at Dean Park in 1965, the scorecard a prompt about the large part luck plays in careers. Both Mike Procter and Barry Richards played for the visitors; as did fellow umpire to be David Shepherd, ‘Shep’, remembered for hopping on to one leg when the score was 111, and for whom an MBE for services to cricket. And John Holder, for services to careers made with a good conscience? If presented with a re-run hopefully he would do it again.