Jason Holder was named a Cricketer of the Year in the 2021 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, after impressing with the ball and with his leadership on a tour embarked on in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and as the Black Lives Matter movement gathered pace. He was profiled by George Dobell.
In a year partially defined by racial divide, a group of West Indian cricketers came to England’s rescue. When they arrived on June 9, there was barely any team sport going on in the world. And while the Caribbean had been largely untouched by Covid-19, in the UK concert halls and conference centres became emergency hospitals and morgues. Faced with weeks in lockdown, the West Indies players would receive only 50% of their normal tour fees because their board were grappling with the implications of the virus. Who could have blamed them had they stayed at home?
But they came. And, after they proved the viability of sport in a bio-bubble, Ireland, Pakistan and Australia followed. For English cricket, contemplating financial disaster, it should not be forgotten that West Indies came first. Leading from the front was their captain, Jason Holder. With his soft voice, old-world manners and a physique that wouldn’t shame a superhero, he had something of the Golden Age Hollywood star. Now, he graduated into a statesman.
For the tour had another context: the recent murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. American police had killed black people before, but Floyd’s death sparked global outrage. Former England opener Michael Carberry was the first to make the Black Lives Matter movement relevant to cricket. His testimony of a sport “rife with racism” won support from black players past and present. Within weeks, it became apparent cricket had a significant issue. Holder and his squad were determined to show solidarity. After discussions with the England management, both teams wore a BLM logo on their shirts, while the squads, plus backroom staff and officials, would take a knee before the first ball in each game. It was a rare example of cricket uniting in a humanitarian gesture – and a defining image of the summer.
“It was about educating,” says Holder. “The world needed to understand what was going on. A lot of people might not have experienced racism, but there are many from the Caribbean who have. We’ve guys in our team who have been racially abused. We needed to stand behind those people, and show we supported the movement. We knew it would have a massive impact.”
West Indies’ players also raised a gloved fist – a nod towards the civil rights-inspired protest at the Mexico Olympics of 1968, though Holder had also raised a clenched fist on reaching his maiden Test century, in April 2015, as a mark of respect to Nelson Mandela. But West Indies weren’t in town just for the gestures: they had a series to win.
“We felt our message was enforced by playing solid cricket,” says Holder. “In the past, we haven’t started series well, but we drew on it for motivation It sparked something within the group. We’ve always had that ‘flamboyant’ tag. We’ve always been seen as saga boys. But I want people to know we’re more than that. Living in the bubble, and standing up for injustice, brought us closer. We were proud to be standing shoulder to shoulder with our brother.”
JASON OMAR HOLDER was born in Bridgetown, Barbados, on November 5, 1991. Although his parents divorced before he went to primary school, they remained on good terms, and played a full role in his upbringing.
“Manners come first,” was the mantra of his mother, Denise. School reports tell of “a dignified bearing and spirit… stirred by intellectual curiosity” at an age when other boys were still running around with untied shoelaces. Physically and metaphorically, he was head and shoulders above the rest.
The Holders were not a cricket family. With his height (6ft 7in) and ability, Jason could have chosen a different sport: his elder brother, Andre, a couple of inches taller, won a basketball scholarship to the US. But his father, Ronald, enrolled him on a summer programme at the Empire Club aged eight, before his mother took him to the prestigious Wanderers Club. Between there and The St Michael School, where West Indies seamer Ezra Moseley was coach, his gifts were nurtured. At nine, he made the Barbados Under-13 side; even then, he was the tallest. By 17, he was playing first-class cricket.
When Holder was offered the West Indies one-day captaincy, at 23, Denise urged him not to accept. But Clive Lloyd, who made the offer, reasoned that West Indies had a man who could lead them for a decade. Within a year, and without any first-class captaincy experience, he had the Test job, too. He dismisses the idea this may have compromised his development, but there have been moments when a willingness to take responsibility has hurt him. During the 2015 World Cup, he assumed the role of death bowler, and against South Africa leaked 64 in his last two overs after his first five had cost nine. An analysis of one for 104 remains the most expensive in West Indies history.
It was a wiser, better, cricketer who flew to England in 2020 – the No. 1 all-rounder in the Test rankings and, after one match, No. 2 in the bowling. His career-best six for 42 in Southampton helped inflict on England their only Test defeat of the year. Moving the ball both ways, from a nagging line and length, it was a masterful demonstration. England hit back. No side had won a Test at Old Trafford after inserting the opposition; Holder attempted it, in vain, twice. But he insists it was the execution that went awry. And it is true that, late on the fourth day of the Second Test, West Indies were 242 for four, perhaps an hour or two from securing a draw and, with it, the Wisden Trophy.
Asked if he could move into politics like Sir Frank Worrell, he says, with feeling: “No chance.” But as the conversation moves on, the potential politician, the embryonic statesman, the natural leader with a sense of justice, returns to the surface. “More has to be done so world cricket doesn’t die,” he says. “Smaller territories are going to feel the financial brunt of Covid-19 most. The ICC have to step in. And if they’re not prepared to distribute revenues from global events more evenly, then the touring team should be entitled to a portion of revenue from bilateral series.”
One way or another, you suspect Holder will still be a giant, still striving to make a difference, still leading from the front, well beyond the boundary.
This piece was first published in the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2021.