John Holder: 'I rocked the boat and got punished for doing my job properly'
“I learned that if you rocked the boat you got punished. The black boy embarrassing English cricket, getting uppity. You’ve got to be put in your place, so they removed me from the Test panel. But they didn’t put me in my place, I wasn’t going begging to be reinstated. I kept my head up.”
John Holder doesn’t really like speaking out. As he says: “It’s not my style.” Or at least, it hasn’t been – until now. As the most senior black match official in the history of English cricket his words carry a unique status. All the more so because they’re expressed with the easy clarity of a man who feels free to speak his mind.
In the course of an hour of sunny, good-natured chat Holder casually reels off nuggets from a distinguished life as player, umpire and now retired grandfather.Former Test umpire John Holder sues ECB for alleged racial discrimination Read more
He once had to stage an umpire’s sit-down with team captains Kapil Dev and Imran Khan over ball-tampering in a Test series in Pakistan. He has just had a Covid‑19 vaccine after a morning spent queueing up with other elderly Lancashire residents (it didn’t hurt). And – oh, yes – he was offered £10,000 by a Singapore-based gambling syndicate to fix the penultimate ODI between Sri Lanka and West Indies at the 1993 Pepsi Cup tournament in Sharjah.
“If I could somehow make sure the Sri Lankan opening batsmen put on 85 they would pay me £10,000 in cash,” he says of a game where Sri Lanka were reassuringly thrashed. “I said: ‘Keep your £10,000’ and that was the end of it.”
Holder has always been a courtly, by-the-book figure. A popular voice on the Ask The Umpire feature on Test Match Special, he was the man with the coat and the hat in the 1990s era of umpires as weirdly prominent household names: Dickie, Shep, the others.John Holder (centre), with David Shepherd (left) and Dickie Bird at the Sharjah Stadium in the United Arab Emirates, 1993. Holder says he was offered money to fix a match during that tournament. Photograph: David Munden/Popperfoto/Getty Images
Aged 75, Holder has, against expectation, become something of a firebrand, too. Three events in the past year have helped transform the last black man appointed to the elite umpire’s panel into a voice of conscience in the national summer game.
The first is that same unwanted quality of uniqueness. At a time when society is attempting to confront barriers within its power structures, it has fallen to Holder to point out it is 29 years since a non-white match official was elevated to the ECB’s main umpire list. In a sport bound up in the communities of post-colonial Britain it seems a startling anomaly.
This has become personal. Shortly before Christmas, Holder’s legal team issued a claim in the employment tribunal against the ECB for unfair dismissal on grounds of racial discrimination. The claim relates to him being dropped from the Test umpires panel in 1991. Holder left his employment as an ECB umpire at the statutory retirement age 11 years ago and is outside the time limit for a claim under employment law. His solicitors have requested a special interest exception because the alleged discrimination is continuing and they say there is a public interest in seeing it resolved.
It is here the third point of interest emerges, two extraordinary allegations that speak to Holder’s claim against the ECB.
The first is a direct accusation of ball tampering against Graham Gooch’s England team in the 1991 series against West Indies. There is an obvious added element of spice here. Gooch was also England captain the following summer when Pakistan were demonised by parts of the English media and cricket establishment for their own manipulation of the ball to achieve reverse swing.
“That was really a major event in my umpiring life and something I will never forget,” Holder says of the alleged tampering incident. “It was Saturday at the Oval just before lunch. I was standing at the Vauxhall End. I’ve always believed that if umpires watch players on the field you can often tell if something untoward is going on from a player’s body language or whatever.
“Phil Tufnell is walking back towards his bowling mark and I could see both his elbows working. I thought, when you’ve got the ball in your hands you don’t polish the ball like that, you polish the ball in one hand.”Phil Tufnell bowling next to John Holder during the Oval Test of 1991 between England and West Indies. Photograph: Graham Morris/www.cricketpix.com
“When I saw both elbows going then I got hold of the ball the following over. I looked at it and I swore under my breath, because on one side it was scratched. It had around 10 big scratch marks on it.”
Tufnell has never been found guilty of ball-tampering. As a spin bowler he would seem to have no personal incentive to scratch the ball. Contacted by the Guardian he said: “I have never attempted to change the condition of the ball in any way other than as allowed within the laws of the game.”
Holder says he raised the issue immediately with the England captain. “I called Gooch over as he walked past. I said: ‘Skipper, can I talk to you for a moment? Can you give me a reason why this ball is in this condition?’ and he just shrugged his shoulders and said in his very soft voice: ‘I don’t know.’ And that was it.
“Really and truly that’s the mistake that we made. The law allows us to change it for another ball. But I knew also that the authorities would do nothing about it. Whenever anything potentially controversial happened they try to bury it and brush it under the carpet. The player, whoever did it, knew exactly what he was doing.”
Holder wrote the incident up in his umpire’s report and sent it to Lord’s. He never heard anything back. Two months later he received a letter out of the blue stating that he had been summarily dropped from the Test panel. “With no explanation given. I was devastated. I was absolutely devastated. I feel that was a massive injustice.”
There was no reporting on the alleged ball tampering incident at the time, but it was mentioned in Jack Bannister’s book Jack In The Box, published in April 1994. Bannister had been commentating on the Test at the time and noticed what he thought was something untoward going on. According to Holder the book infuriated the then-TCCB, the ECB’s direct forerunner. “They went ballistic. They denied that [the ball tampering] happened and denied that it was reported. Well, those are two massive lies.”
The story didn’t end there. The summer after his sacking Holder acted as third umpire for the Pakistan Test at Old Trafford in 1992, the same summer Pakistan’s own ball tampering became a huge issue in England. “Gooch was the England captain. During the intervals when England were batting he would come into the umpires’ room to examine the ball and he clearly wasn’t happy with the condition of it.
“I thought: ‘What a hypocrite. It was OK last year in the Test match versus the Windies when your boy scratched the ball. But now these fellows are doing it and doing it far more effectively, now they’re cheating.’ There is a massive hypocrisy.”Wasim Akram between batsmen David Gower (left) and Graham Gooch during the England v Pakistan Test at Old Trafford in 1992. Photograph: Graham Morris/www.cricketpix.com
Contacted by the Guardian, Gooch said: “After all this time, nearly 30 years, I do not have any recollection of the conversations referred to. John Holder was a highly respected umpire in my time as England captain, and I believe we had a good relationship on the field. I do remember as England’s opening batsman encountering the challenges to my technique of facing reverse swing for the first time during the summer of 1992.”
In a further twist to that extraordinary summer, Holder was also the standing umpire two weeks after the Oval Test in one of the most bizarrely storied county championship matches.I’ve never seen that sort of thing happen in any cricket. It feels like a cover up John Holder
Lancashire played Essex at Old Trafford over the last weekend in August, with a Sunday League game sandwiched in on the Sunday. Essex needed a four-day win to boost their hopes in the championship. Lancashire needed to win the 40-over game – which they duly did. Lancashire then declared to leave Essex a relatively easy chase in the four-day match.
It was later alleged by the fast bowler Don Topley, who played for Essex in both games, that a deal had been cooked up to fix the results in a mutually favourable fashion. This has been angrily and repeatedly denied by players on both sides, including both captains Derek Pringle and Neil Fairbrother, who are on the record as rejecting in the strongest terms Topley’s claims.
Holder was disturbed by the teams’ actions at the time, and remains doubtful. “When that declaration came I was shaking my head in disbelief as I walked off the field because it didn’t make any cricket sense at all. With their attack on an easy-paced pitch, Lancashire had no chance of winning that match. That result is dodgy to say the least. It makes no sense. You have to say that game was gifted to Essex.”
No evidence came to light to back up Topley’s statements. But the claims were alarming enough to spark a police investigation. Holder reveals he was never actually interviewed by the police or the TCCB, despite being one of the standing umpires in the game. The TCCB report into the affair was not publicly released.
Holder had raised the alarm on ball tampering two weeks earlier, and seen his concerns buried. He has wondered since if the two incidents might be linked. “Maybe they realised I was too honest. It just didn’t make sense. [Not to interview Holder] … that was not accidental. There’s no way that any team would have declared then. I’ve never seen that sort of thing happen in any cricket. It feels like a cover-up.”
It is, of course, tempting to ask why Holder has not spoken out on these incidents previously. He points to a feeling of powerlessness. “I rocked that boat after the Oval Test and I got punished for that, for doing my job properly. I have no doubt if I had raised my voice and said something they would have found a way to get rid of me. Despite what happened I loved the job and I would do it again if I was 30 years old now. I loved umpiring.”
It is a source of sadness that it should end in a legal action. Holder’s lawyers maintain he was sacked from the panel with no explanation and no chance to respond. “The ECB are in a position where they’re trying to cover their back now. If they were taking the issue of race and inclusivity seriously there is no way it could be 29 years since a non-white umpire was appointed to the first class panel.”
Holder feels strongly on this subject and his words are uncompromising. They also reflect a reality where the last black cricketer from an English state school to make a Test match debut was Michael Carberry a decade ago.
“The ECB has been arrogantly going along making grand sounding public statements but doing very little. When it talks about diversity and inclusivity and equal opportunities it’s a nonsense. Their actions show they mean nothing. It just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
“The ECB needs to be forensically examined, and measures taken to stop the garbage that is happening there. The people who have allowed this 29-year gap to happen, who have not employed one non-white person in a match official position, they need to answer to it.”John Holder at home in Rochdale, Greater Manchester. “When the ECB talks about diversity and inclusivity and equal opportunities it’s a nonsense.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian
The ECB maintains that it is concerned by the anomaly Holder points out, and that various BAME officials have been appointed to the reserve list, and to roles peripheral to the actual business of umpiring.
An ECB spokesperson said: “It’s really important to us that cricket is a game that can be enjoyed and experienced equally by everyone. Whilst we have taken important strides forward over the past year to make the game more inclusive and diverse, there is much more we want to do in the months ahead to deliver lasting change.
“An anti-discrimination code will be introduced across the game ahead of the 2021 season, while the establishment of an independent commission will hear evidence of inequality and discrimination, and provide recommendations on the actions needed to tackle them.”
The ECB has also expressed a desire for mediation over Holder’s claim, and a willingness to discuss the issues he raises. It is to be hoped some form of shared reconciliation can be reached.
Holder is still the only non-white British umpire in 150 years of Test cricket. He should be on the inside of this debate, not a voice on the fringes.