Michael Holding was born on 16 February 1954, the youngest of four children to Ralph and Enid Holding who lived in Kingston. The family was passionate about sport, and only a few days after Michael was born his father enrolled him as a member of Melbourne Cricket Club at Kingston. At the age of three he was diagnosed with asthma, but by his early teenage years he no longer needed an inhaler. He led an active life, playing sport in the scrubland and wooded areas near his home. Though his family would often watch the cricket at Sabina Park, Holding preferred to play Catchy Shubby Cricket than watch.
In late 1975 the West Indies team embarked on a six-Test tour of Australia. Earlier that year the West Indies had defeated Australia in the final of the inaugural World Cup, and the teams were considered to be the best of their day. Fast bowler Bernard Julien was out of form and his place in the team was given to debutant Michael Holding who opened the bowling with Andy Roberts. He picked up a groin strain in the second Test and bowled as fast as 97 miles per hour (156 km/h), quicker than Jeff Thomson, Australia's fastest bowler. According to Wisden in his debut series, Holding "had shown himself to be Roberts' natural opening partner and indeed was timed to be faster than [Jeff] Thomson, [Dennis] Lillee and Roberts", and considered that when West Indies captain Clive Lloyd chose to give Julien the new ball rather than Holding it was a mistake that cost the West Indies the match. Australia won the series 5–1, and though Holding's 10 wickets in 5 matches cost on average more than 60 runs each, Wisden believed that he had performed well enough to establish himself in the side and had the potential to bowl faster still.
India visited the West Indies in March for a four-Test series. The defeat by Australia had left Andy Roberts exhausted, so he was rested for the matches against India and Holding took over as leader of the West Indies bowling attack. He finished as his team's leading wicket taker (second in the series to Indian leg spinner B. S. Chandrasekhar) with 19 wickets at less than 20 runs each and helped his team to a 2–1 victory.
The West Indies toured England in 1976, and though Holding was unknown in the country the British press picked up on his performance in Australia and there was a sense of anticipation about his bowling. An early psychological blow was landed by the West Indies in a warm up match against the Marylebone Cricket Club when Holding struck Dennis Amiss on the head, leaving a wound that needed stitches. Amiss was a veteran player and likely to open for England in the forthcoming Tests and seeing him struggle against Holding's pace was a warning of things to come. In the lead up to the series England captain Tony Greig was confident of his team's chances, saying in an interview "I like to think people are building these West Indians up, because I'm not really sure they're as good as everyone thinks. You must remember, that the West Indians, these guys, if they get on top they are magnificent cricketers. But if they're down, they grovel, and I intend, with the help of Closey [Brian Close] and a few others, to make them grovel." The comments outraged the West Indians, and to the team the use of the term "grovel" in particular "smacked of racism and apartheid".
The West Indies fast bowling attack consisted of Roberts, Holding, Wayne Daniel, and Vanburn Holder. The first three used the bouncer liberally (Wisden notes that Holding in particular bowled "exceptionally fast"), and England's John Edrich and Brian Close suffered in particular (Close was 45 when the series started in June, and Edrich turned 39 during the second Test). In the first innings of the fifth Test, played at the Oval, Holding took 8 wickets for 92 runs which remained the best bowling figures of his first-class career and were the best bowling figures by a West Indies bowler at the ground. He took a further 6 wickets in the match to finish with 14/149, which remain the best match figures by a West Indian in a Test match. The West Indies won the five match series 3–0.
According to an urban myth, during a Test match between the West Indies and England when Holding was to bowl to English player Peter Willey, the commentator at the time, Brian Johnston, described the action as "The bowler's Holding, the batsman's Willey" (a double entendre, as "willy" is British English slang for a penis). However Wisden states that there is no record of Johnston or anyone else actually saying this (although a colleague of Johnston's, Henry Blofeld, recalls the incident occurring during a Test match at The Oval in 1976.) In a limited-overs international between England and West Indies on 26 August 1976 at Scarborough, Michael Holding's return from long-leg deflected off the nearer wicket and scuttled along the pitch to break the far one with Graham Barlow and Alan Knott, on his only appearance as England's captain, stranded in mid-pitch. The dumbfounded umpires, David Constant and Arthur Jepson, rejected the run-out appeal for reasons that remain obscure. The West Indies played 26 first-class matches on the tour, winning 18 and losing just 2, making them the most successful side to tour England.
After the 1976 series against England, Holding enrolled at the University of the West Indies on a scholarship to study Computer Science. As a profession cricket did not pay well, so Holding was preparing himself for employment off the cricket pitch. A shoulder injury sustained towards the end of the 1976 tour of England prevented Holding from joining the West Indies squad to face Pakistan in March 1977. During the series Lloyd approached Holding about a joining a World XI team captained by England's Tony Greig to play against Australia in World Series Cricket; there was still animosity between Greig and the West Indies players over Greig's comments before the 1976 Test series in England. The series was the brainchild of Kerry Packer after his television channel, Channel 9, missed out on the rights to broadcast Australia's home Test series. Players would be paid more than they had been before, and with his earnings from the series Holding was able to buy his first car and later a house. When it became public the Australian Cricket Board and England Cricket Board threatened to ban players taking part. Packer responded to the pressure by signing the whole West Indies team to compete in the series alongside a World XI and an Australian team. Relegated to playing at football ground, the series suffered from poor crowds. The negative press surrounding the World Series – players were labelled mercenaries – bred a sense of camaraderie in the West Indies side, contributing to the team's dominance in the Test arena for years to come.
In March 1978, after the first season of World Series Cricket, Australia embarked on a Test tour of the West Indies. Australia were severely depleted because the ACB refused to pick leading players such as Greg Chappell, Ian Chappell, and Dennis Lillee because they had played in the Packer series. Holding suffered a recurrence of his shoulder injury and so missed the series, but otherwise the West Indies began the series at full strength. Eventually external pressure on the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) not to select players who played in the World Series resulted in three players being dropped and Clive Lloyd's resignation as captain. The rest of the team refused to play in protest and were replaced by second-choice players. The second year of World Series Cricket was more successful than the first and matches were played in front of much larger crowds. Though contracted to last three years, the competition ended after two because Packer and the ACB came to an agreement regarding broadcasting rights.
A less amusing incident for which Holding is also remembered was kicking over the stumps in anger at an umpiring decision in New Zealand in 1979/80. The tour had gone poorly almost from the beginning: West Indies had just finished a long tour of Australia, and were perhaps resentful about having a tour to unglamorous New Zealand immediately afterwards (their leading batsman of the time, Viv Richards, refused to tour). West Indies felt that the umpiring had been incompetent and against them throughout. After an appeal for caught behind was turned down, Holding turned and kicked the stumps in frustration.
Holding was the bowler in what is often described as "the greatest over in Test history", which he bowled in 1981 in Bridgetown to English batsman Geoff Boycott. The first five balls increased in pace, causing Boycott to have to react very rapidly to avoid being hit. The final ball saw Boycott clean bowled, to the great delight of the crowd.
In 1984, he along with Vivian Richards set the record for the highest 10th wicket partnership in ODI history(106*)
Holding opened the bowling with Andy Roberts in 33 Tests, and the pair claimed 216 wickets at an average of 25.27 runs each, making them one of the most successful new ball partnerships. Despite modest batting talent, he holds the record for the most sixes in a Test career for any player with fewer than 1,000 career runs. He hit 36 sixes in his Test career, placing him at 32 in the all-time list. Remarkably almost a quarter of his Test runs came by way of sixes.
In 2009 Rudi Webster said "It is difficult to overestimate how much the players in [the West Indies team led by Clive Lloyd] were admired and idolised on the cricket field. And off the field they were loved and respected for the manner in which they conducted themselves and for the role they played as outstanding ambassadors." The Federation of International Cricketers' Associations began a Hall of Fame in 1999 and Holding was inducted into it. The FICA Hall of Fame ended in 2003, but all the inductees were given official recognition when they were included in the ICC's Hall of Fame on its inauguration in 2009.
Holding has written two autobiographies the first of which, Whispering Death, was published in 1988 before he retired and the second, No Holding Back, over 20 years later in 2010. After retiring from cricket Holding ran a petrol station in Kingston called "Michael Holding's Service Centre", employing several people who were members of Melbourne Cricket Club of which he was a member. The business was initially successful, though Holding found it stressful. Broadcasting began to take up more of his time, and while he was away the petrol station suffered so in 1995 he decided to sell. He also considered taking up umpiring, though not as a profession, and considered pursuing qualifications to umpire in domestic matches in Jamaica but his time was taken up with managing the petrol station and broadcasting.
Holding's career evolved after his retirement from active play. He had never aspired to becoming a commentator but was friends with a producer at Radio Jamaica who invited him to comment on cricket. This led to him working around the Caribbean, but at this stage work was not regular enough to be his main source of income. Holding made his transition from radio commentator to television in 1990 when cricket in the Caribbean was broadcast on television around the world for the first time. Two local commentators were chosen and Holding was picked alongside Tony Cozier at the latter's recommendation. He became a broadcaster as a member of the Sky Sports cricket commentary team, as well as being a semi-regular member of the Channel 9 cricket commentary team in Australia led by Richie Benaud.
The ICC created the Bowling Action Review Committee (BARC) in 1999, and on the recommendation of the WICB, Holding was one of the founding members of the committee. The role of the committee was to monitor players suspected of throwing using various video replays. The process of assessing a bowler’s action has since become more scientific with more technology used and though the committee disbanded in 2005 it was influential in the ICC establishing the 15 degree maximum for bowlers straightening their arms in delivery. Even when working for the BARC, Holding was a strident critic of the ICC so in 2007 when he was approached to join the newly formed ICC cricket committee he thought a friend was playing a joke on him. Holding joined the committee and though he was initially optimistic quit in July 2008 in protest against the ICC's decision to overturn the result of the Oval Test between Pakistan and England, which was changed from a forfeit by Pakistan (who chose not to take the field in protest against being accused of ball tampering) to a draw. The forfeiture was later reinstated, and Holding resolved not to rejoin the committee.
Holding has stated "I don't think [twenty20] is good for the game... It has its place but it will be bad unless those in charge manage it properly and I do not think they can because they are blinded by money. I can see Test cricket dying because of this." Despite this he was initially supportive of the Stanford 20/20. He believed the tournament funded by Allen Stanford could revitalise Caribbean cricket (the fortunes of the West Indies team declined from the 1990s onwards). However, with the conception of the Stanford Super Series involving the England Cricket Board in 2008 he became critical of the venture as he felt that funds which had previously been invested in domestic teams were no longer of interest to Stanford.
On Thursday 9 May 2013, Michael Holding received an Honorary Degree and Life Time Achievement Award at the University of East London.