Episode 67: A great umpire raises his finger against discrimination in cricket

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

After a first-class career as a pace bowler for Hampshire, John Holder became one of England’s finest umpires. He was a popular expert on Test Match Special and the regular Observer newspaper feature “You Are The Umpire.” On the first-class list from 1983 to 2009 , he joined the Test panel in 1988 and after only a handful of matches was chosen to be one of the first “third-country” Test umpires for a dramatic series between Pakistan and India. But his Test career was interrupted without explanation for ten years after his report on a controversial home Test match. As the latest guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their cricket-themed podcast he explains why, years after retirement, he brought a legal action against the England and Wales Cricket Board not only for himself but also to ventilate racial discrimination issues in English cricket.  In Peter’s absence in Pakistan, author and broadcaster Mihir Bose takes over at the Pavilion End.

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John vividly describes his early life and cricket upbringing in Barbados, born in the wonderfully-named hamlet of Superlative St George. (He is not related, knowingly, to Vanburn or Jason Holder. 4-5 minutes) As a schoolboy, he faced the terrifying West Indian pace bowler, with a suspect action, Charlie Griffith. He describes the even more terrifying Roy Gilchrist, just five feet 7, a rival  in the Lancashire League, who regularly bowled head-high beamers. 5-13 minutes

John migrated to England in his late teens. He describes his club cricket, and his introduction to Hampshire through a legendary star of the BBC, former West Indian Test leg-spinner Dr Bertie Clarke. His first Hampshire captain was the spectacular opening batsman Roy Marshall, who was often furious at being dismissed by bowlers he had targeted as inferior. He played with two even greater Hampshire openers, Barry Richards and Gordon Greenidge. 17-21 minutes

In his late 30s, with a Lancashire League career winding down, John resolved to continue serving first-class cricket as an umpire. It was the best decision he ever made. He took a formal course to learn the Laws thoroughly, which was not a requirement for first-class English umpires, mostly ex-professionals like himself, as late as the 1980s). He discusses the relative difficulty of decisions for umpires, the worst being bat-pad chances. 21-26 minutes However, the hardest task he faced was maintaining concentration in three-day matches when terrible “declaration bowlers” were brought on to facilitate a result. 49-51 minutes As a traditionalist and supporter of the human factor in cricket, he has not favoured DRS and technology, while acknowledging that they have increased the already very high proportion of correct decisions. 26-29 minutes

John relates his experience as the inaugural third-country umpire in the tense Pakistan-India series of 1989. He and John Hampshire made special efforts to build relationships with both sets of players and to damp down controversies and flare-ups (including stone-throwing incidents ignored by nonchalant local police). Their success helped to embed third-country umpires, a one-off initiative promoted by Imran Khan, in international cricket. 30-35 minutes

John tells of an attempt to bribe him by matchfixers in a one-day international, and his principled resistance. He believes that other umpires might have succumbed to such temptations, as players did. He reflects on the case of Hansie Cronje, whose matchfixing activities began with small incidents and rewards progressing inevitably, through entrapment, to bigger ones, and suggests why Cronje’s later death in an air crash might not have been accidental. 36-41 minutes

John was the first Afro-Caribbean to be appointed to the England Test match panel: none have followed him, and only one, his namesake Vanburn, has come through to the first-class panel. Legal factors prevent him discussing the Test match which he believes instigated his unexplained removal from the Test panel. However, he sets out in powerful terms the general factors which led him to launch his legal action on public-interest grounds against the ECB: the impact of BlackLivesMatter and seeing the actual footage of the death of George Floyd; the heartfelt statement by Michael Holding; the blocking of Devon Malcolm’s ambition to be a first-class umpire; the case, conjoined to his, of  Ismail Dawood, which suggested discrimination against Asian-origin people as umpires. The tribunal did not accept the public-interest argument, and the action is now extinguished, but John believes that it has exposed a long pattern of discrimination in the appointment of English umpires and cricket administration and staffing in general,  and helped to secure important admissions and actual action by the ECB. 41-48 minutes

John cites a figure on ECB staffing similar to an assertion by Lonsdale Skinner, interviewed earlier on the podcast. We are therefore repeating here the statement by the ECB on that occasion. Lonsdale Skinner: a cricket career blighted by racism We repeat our open invitation to the ECB to provide a representative as a guest on the podcast.

Get in touch with us by emailing obornehellercricket@outlook.com, we would love to hear from you!

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Peter Oborne, Richard Heller & Mihir Bose

Mihir Bose is an author and broadcaster, and former sports  editor of the BBC. He has produced many books on cricket and sport in general. His latest book is Narendra Modi: The Yogi Of Populism.

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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