35 years ago, Geoff Boycott drove Greg Chappell for four to bring up his 100th First-class century in what was only the second Test since his self-imposed banishment. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the day that saw the talismanic Yorkshireman get to his much-awaited landmark.
Deadly blow for entertainment?
Groucho Marx, the legendary stage and screen comic, had once watched an hour’s cricket at Lord’s before exclaiming, “This is great, but when does it start?”
Does it not seem too much of a coincidence that he passed away on August 19, 1977, merely four days after the end of the Ashes Test at Headingley? After all, for someone who sees an hour of cricketing action without realising what all the fuss is about, a Geoff Boycott innings lasting ten and a half hours can be just that decisive push to propel him off the edge.
To be fair, we have no hard evidence that Marx was abreast of the latest news of the cricket world in his last days. He spent them lying in Cedars Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles, allegedly exclaiming to the doctor, “Die, my dear sir? Why, that’s the last thing I’ll do.”
Nor do we have any conclusive ground to claim that Boycott’s agonisingly watchful 110 unbeaten runs on the first day had anything to do with the death of the king – Elvis Presley breathed his last at Graceland on scheduled fifth day of the Test match.
Perhaps the demise of two great entertainers was symbolic, because the hero of the hour in Leeds – in spite of the two headline-grabbing issues mentioned above – was that quintessential son of Yorkshire, the seldom-any-frills maestro Geoffery Boycott.
Lifting the Boycott
Having come back from his self-induced, three year sabbatical from Test cricket – which had not really made him popular with the establishment – Boycott had batted seven hours for 107 in the third Test at Nottingham, during which he had characteristically run out the local hero Derek Randall. As England chased down a small target of 189, he had remained 80 not out in the second innings, spending five more hours at the crease. His return to the highest form of the game had been a triumphant, protracted yawn-mingled roar. He had, to some extent, upstaged the five wickets on debut scalped by a newcomer called Ian Botham.
Before moving to Leeds, Boycott had sojourned a while on the wicket in Birmingham, scoring 104 for Yorkshire against the bowling of Bob Willis and Eddie Hemmings of Warwickshire. It had been his 99th hundred in First-class cricket.
The media had built up the occasion, endlessly speculating about the possible feat that could be attained on home ground – a century of centuries.
“I avoided all their attentions as best I could, but the pressure mounted steadily,” Boycott recalled. On the eve of the match, he had difficulty in sleeping, complaining about the air-conditioning in his room and ultimately breaking his life-long discipline, popping a few sleeping pills. Further along the corridor his opening partner and captain, Mike Brearley, was fully absorbed in Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel.
The following day, Boycott got up late, feeling restless, tired and hoping that Brearley would lose the toss. But, he won, England batted and the captain was out edging Jeff Thomson off the third ball of the match – perhaps going back to his Herrigel.
As time went on, Boycott began to feel better. A minor alarm proved false when, at 22, Rodney Marsh dropped him low to his right off Max Walker. By lunch, he had progressed to 34.
The rate of scoring increased ever so slightly in the next session. At tea he was on 69, and England three down and close to 200.
After resumption, Ray Bright got one to turn and Marsh clutched at a deflection, jumping animatedly up and down in appeal, “which grew more passionate the clearer it became that umpire Bill Alley was unmoved”. Boycott later claimed that it had brushed his wrist band.
Not everyone agreed, though. Least of all the Australians, and the disagreement was shared by some of Boycott’s teammates. Graham Roope later recalled, “He got a big nick on one just before I went in, Tony Greig was in with him at the time… Marsh caught it…. I was next in. I tell you how much it was out … I got up off my seat and put my gloves on and he got given not out and I sat down very quickly.”
“They thought they had me,” Boycott said later, “but then the Aussies thought they had me many times over the years and they didn’t.”
In the meantime, the batting remained careful, painstakingly devoid of the smallest element of risk.
In The Times, John Woodcock described it thus: “Boycott kept plodding along, taking infinite care not only in the production of his strokes, but in checking his guard, clearing out his block”.
As shadows lengthened on that blisteringly hot day, captain Greg Chappell ran in to bowl. Boycott recalls, “I saw it then with something approaching elation … as soon as it left his hand I knew I was going to hit it and I knew where I was going to hit it. Long before it pitched I knew what I was going to do, as though I was standing outside myself.“
He essayed a perfect on-drive, and Roope, the non-striker, had to jump out of the way. The ball raced to the boundary. Having made sure that the landmark had indeed been reached, Boycott lifted both his arms and then folded them over his head. He was the 18th cricketer to reach the milestone, and the first one to score his 100th century in a Test match.
Elated Yorkshiremen ran into the field. The official attendance was 22,000, but at tea, the gates had been opened and there were probably a lot more. Here is how Terry Brindle of Yorkshire Post saw the situation, “Hundreds of youngsters, and many of their fathers, too, enveloped a hero they had long waited all day to acclaim. He was swallowed from view, trying desperately to shake a hundred hands at once, trying equally desperately not to be hoisted on to a dozen pairs of shoulders. And when the more delirious of his admirers left, Boycott faced a swell of congratulation which echoed and re-echoed round the ground until it seemed it would never end.”
As Roope tried to shield him from the fans, one overenthusiastic soul pinched Boycott’s cap and ran off to the Western Terrace. And Boycott, in perfect step with his obstinate batting display, refused to resume his innings until he got it back. After Joe Lister, the Yorkshire secretary, had asked for it over loudspeaker, it was handed back to the police, and eventually the reluctant fielders relayed it back to the batsman. Play was held up for about 10 minutes.
The dour display of batting did not dampen the celebrations. A spectator of the day, Freda Watson, had this to say to the Yorkshire Post, “My dad had a full pint of Tetley’s. When Geoff struck the on drive, my dad and I and the rest of the crowd jumped in the air. However, my dad slipped and poured the entire pint of Tetley’s down the neck of the lady sitting in front. She didn’t notice for at least 15 minutes.”
Herbert Sutcliffe and Len Hutton, two other Yorkshire greats who had each scored a century of centuries, were present for at least part of the match.
By close of day, Boycott was on 110. After celebrating the evening with an uncharacteristic glass of champagne at dinner, he resumed the next day and went on to score 191 in 629 minutes and 471 balls, and was the last man to be out.
As England won the match by an innings, and with it the Ashes, Derek Randall executed a victorious cartwheel and Boycott became only the fourth Englishman to be on the field through the entire course of a Test match.
(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)