Test of Character

Published: 2016
Pages: 352
Author: Murtagh, Andrew
Publisher: Pitch Publishing
Rating: 4.5 stars

John Holder is not an obvious choice for a cricketing biography. He played for Hampshire between 1968 and 1972 without ever being capped or being entirely sure of his place in the side. Later on he was a First Class umpire, and eventually was to stand in eleven Tests, but he was never a headline grabber, whether for the right or the wrong reasons.

Personally I have always had strong memories of Holder or ‘Hod’ as he was known to his teammates. My familiarity with him was for two reasons. First of all he played for Hampshire, the county my father was an avid follower of. It also fascinated me, in the way such things appeal to nine year old boys, that he shared a surname with his better known contemporary, Vanburn of West Indies and Worcestershire.

No one ever suggested to me that the only two Holders I had heard of were related, although in my imagination they were always long lost brothers. Vanburn’s name does crop up occasionally in Test of Character, in passing, so I can now be absolutely confident the two are not related. That is despite the fact I do now know that both hailed from neighbouring Parishes in Barbados, not of course a large place to begin with. I realise too however that the lack of any kinship should have been obvious throughout, given that with all due respect to Vanburn, John is and always was much better looking.

Not unnaturally given the book is a biography, Murtagh begins with Holder’s upbringing in Barbados. It is a variation on the theme of every biography or autobiography I have read concerning a black Bajan, but no less interesting because of that and Murtagh deals with that part of his subject’s life in just the right amount of detail. Much more unusually the reason why Holder ended up in England was because he was one of those attracted in the mid 1960s by London Transport’s call to the Commonwealth for staff. The experience of a young Bajan in that situation makes for particularly interesting reading. I had expected to read some unpleasant tales of prejudice and discrimination, but there aren’t really any, although that may at least in part be due to Holder being, particularly for a fast bowler, a remarkably tolerant and easy going individual.

In the end Holder resigned from Hampshire in the close season of 1972. He already knew he wasn’t going to be offered a new contract, and that a back injury that had stopped him in his tracks in 1970 was never going to completely clear up. One misapprehension I was under when I opened the book was that Holder was not a genuinely quick bowler. Until I opened Test of Character he was, in my mind’s eye, more of a medium pacer than a real quick. It turns out that the coaches at Hampshire tried to change his natural chest on style to the sideways on action so beloved of the MCC Coaching Manual. The resultant twisting of his torso seems to have aggravated a latent defect, and he never recovered his full speed after that. I had also forgotten that I only ever watched him play on Sunday afternoons, and of course all bowlers were limited to a 15 yard run up in the early years of the Sunday League. It is crystal clear from Murtagh’s account however that when he joined Hampshire Holder was genuinely quick – had he and Andy Roberts been able to function together then I suspect the Championship pennant would have flown over Northlands Road in Southampton for most of the 1970s, and not just the solitary summer of 1973.

It was in 1973 that author Andy Murtagh made his bow for Hampshire, so it looks like he came along after Holder left, but in truth that isn’t the case. They spent much time together as two of the junior professionals at the county waiting for their chances to shine and were clearly always friends, thus in writing Test of Character Murtagh has adopted the same conversational approach that he did in last year’s splendid biography of Barry Richards.

It is very easy to imagine Murtagh and Holder meeting up after all these years, sometimes with others, and reliving those times when they were all striving in pursuit of a common goal, in their case a successful career as a professional cricketer. We’ve all done it, and had amazing evenings as a result, laughing and joking about the old days with friends we’ve barely seen for years. The problem comes for any outsider who happens to be around, as they will generally be less than enthused by most of the memories. This is one trap that Murtagh sidesteps completely. The meetings must have generated literally hundreds of memories that he and his former teammates delighted in recounting to each other, but Murtagh manages to ensure that all of those that get into print will entertain the outsiders who are reading the book.

One of the most tedious techniques open to a biographer is to go through his subject’s career on a match by match basis. Murtagh does exactly that with Holder, but in a thoroughly entertaining way. They are a fine double act, who take it in turns to play the straight man and they produce an absorbing account of what life was like as a county cricketer a couple of generations ago. The cricketing stories are many and varied, although the great Richards crops up a good deal, as does another aggressive opening batsman, the Hampshire legend Roy Marshall. There are plenty of tales about David ‘Butch’ White, a fine pace bowler who led the Hampshire attack through the 1960s, and of course about Holder himself. Away from the game Gordon Greenidge seems to crop up in more humourous situations than most, a disproportionate number of his escapades involving paint or related products.

His county career over Holder returned to Barbados, but he couldn’t settle and soon returned to England. He played in the Leagues for a while until, in 1983, he became a First Class umpire, a job he did for the next 26 summers. Twice he reached the highest echelon of umpiring. He stood in ten Tests between 1988 and 1991, and one more in 2001. The reason for his not being included in the Test panel for 1992 seems to have been as a result of his catching the England side of 1991 tampering with the ball, but why he came back and stood in just a single Test in 2001 remains a mystery. Murtagh decided it was not a necessary part of his role to delve deeper into the reasons for that. It is the one point in respect of which he and I disagree.

More than half of Test of Character is taken up with Holder’s umpiring career, but that is no less entertaining than the story of his playing career. It is one long stream of anecdotes, all of which are very well told. Almost all are unfamiliar, but even those few incidents that are better known are all written up from a slightly different perspective than previously. Holder’s views are seldom too controversial, but are often thought provoking. He also provides some fascinating insights into the personalities of the men who he played with and, the more so, those he took charge of. Peter Roebuck, David Steele, David Gower and Graham Gooch are just four of many who Holder sheds much light on. In fact such is the variety of cricketers who Holder and Murtagh talk about that I do have one complaint, that being the lack of an index. The fact it is going to be trickier than it might otherwise have been for those of us who like to have an occasional scribble about the game ourselves to pinch Murtagh’s material is, of course, neither here nor there to those who just want to read a good book about the game, and on that subject there can be no issue. Test of Character is a superb book that I wholeheartedly recommend.

Leave a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until they have been approved

More articles by Martin Chandler