Twenty minutes into our interview, Michael Holding starts to cry. He is in the middle of a story about a holiday he took with his mother when he was a little boy. His mother’s skin was brown, his father’s was black. Her family had objected to that and cut her off when she married. “We went on a trip to New York and we were staying with one of our aunts in Rochester We were upstairs and she got up in the morning and looked through the window and she saw a black girl and a white girl playing together in another backyard, having great fun, and she pointed them out to me and she said: ‘Look at that, we have hope.’ That was 50 years ago.”
Holding turns away from the screen and puts his fingers to the bridge of his nose. “I’m sorry. I’m getting emotional thinking about it now.”
The 66-year-old Holding says he is “a very private person”, but he has laid himself bare this year.
In July, he opened Sky’s coverage of England’s Test series against West Indies with a powerful monologue about the Black Lives Matter movement. The next day he broke down on Sky News while talking about his own experiences of racism. The clips went viral. They reached an audience who had no interest in cricket, no idea who he was.
He has become a patron of the MCC Foundation, but he is not really interested in talking about sport. His thoughts are bigger than that. “I know people keep on talking about what’s going on in different games. I don’t concentrate too much on that. I think more about society. Because it’s society that needs fixing, not the individual sports. If society never changes it doesn’t matter what sport does. All sport can do is help show the way, it can’t solve the problem.”
The foundation is working to open up access to the game in the UK, funding a network of 55 cricket hubs, and around the world, in South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, where it has been building nets, training coaches and providing kit to local players.
During lockdown, when cricket was suspended, the foundation was repurposed while the MCC went into a partnership with Westminster council to fund a project to feed homeless and vulnerable residents in the local community. Their money paid for more than 27,000 meals.
“I’ve seen and heard of the things the MCC are doing, not talking about, but doing,” Holding says. “And I’m very happy to be involved, because they’re absolutely brilliant. But this is a much bigger problem and it’s not going to be a simple thing to fix.”
Holding believes the answer is in educating people. Including the prime minister. “I heard Boris Johnson say you can’t edit history. Well history has already been edited. What we need is the real history, the entire history, what we have is the edited history, and it was edited to suit one race.”
The MCC is confronting its own past. This summer it removed two portraits of its first honorary secretary, Benjamin Aislabie, who owned slaves in Antigua and Dominica.
“We have to start somewhere, but all this is just scratching the surface. I don’t want people to sit back and think: ‘OK, now this is happening everything is fine.’ That’s why I was so upset when the players stopped taking a knee. Because this has not ended yet.”
Holding isn’t on social media, and doesn’t pay much attention to the people who have pushed back against the protests. But he has no time for people who talk about the politics of the BLM movement. “This is a humanitarian movement and anyone who cannot see that has a problem. Anyone who cannot see that is a part of the problem. I have no business with the politics of Black Lives Matter, I’m talking about the principles of it.”
Those principles are straightforward. “Give everyone the same opportunity. Give everyone the same justice. Give everyone the same rights.” He says taking a knee was “a simple gesture, but a powerful gesture”. And he worries now players have stopped doing it “people will forget about this moment and move on. Because this is going to be a long, long road.”
He has been walking it for a long time, but until now he has kept his journey along it all to himself. Holding’s speech on Sky was all the more effective because it was so startling. His family had no idea how he felt, his own daughter was shocked. Same with his friends. “They said to me: ‘I never knew you felt that way.’ Well they wouldn’t, because I’d never expressed any of this.”
Holding learned early in life that you shouldn’t worry about things you can’t control and this was something he couldn’t change. “So I just accepted it: ‘OK. I have no control.’ On my first tour of England, I was unaware of what West Indians went through in this country. Gradually I got to understand their emotions, and how they felt about us winning.”
Same with his teammates who played in county cricket. “They would tell me about their experiences and I would say to myself: ‘That’s rough,’ but because I wasn’t living it, it didn’t impact on me. I was being selfish. I was thinking to myself: ‘I’m not going to have to deal with it when I go home.’ So I allowed it to bounce off me.” He says Viv Richards was much more politically active than he ever was.
As Holding got older, and did more living, it did begin to have an impact on him. But he still didn’t speak out. “There are times when I’m in certain environments, around certain people, and they’ll do and say certain things, and I might grin, because I don’t want them to realise how upset I am about what they have said, but inside I am grimacing. I just told myself: ‘I won’t have to put up with this when I go home.’ So I internalised it all and moved on.”
That all changed this summer. “The killing of George Floyd changed everything.” When his producer at Sky asked him whether he would talk about BLM on air, Holding agreed. “Because it was the right time. Things were happening, you could see people getting involved. More and more people were awakening to what was going on. Especially younger people.”
For the first time in his life, it felt as though something could change, that he, in his own small way, could help it happen. So he spoke up. “This is something I’ve had inside of me for years, for years and years, and as time has gone you try and get a thicker and thicker skin, but when someone gives you an opportunity to reveal it, you reveal it.”
That thick skin seems worn thin. But he knows his decision to open up has helped change minds. He has heard it in letters, texts and emails from different people, in and out of cricket, and from all around the world. He hopes that’s how change will happen. “If you can touch more and more people like that, that’s how we will make a difference.”