The Barbadian Keith Boyce was born on October 11, 1943, and passed away on October 11, 1996. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the career of one of the most athletic Test cricketers.
Visualise a batsman who could light up any ground against any attack with his array of powerful strokes; think cameos that change the course of a match in an hour. Think power-batting at its best; think pure, clean strokes that often wheezed out of the ground.
Visualise a bowler who can run through any line-up when at his peak; think an energetic, springy run-up; think devastating, often intimidating pace; think ability to bounce or york any batsman; think rattling stumps.
Visualise a fielder who prowls in the deep with feline ease; think express sprints; think outstanding catches; above all, think the flattest throw that has ever existed — that went, to quote Ravi Shastri, ‘like a tracer bullet’ to thud into the wicketkeeper’s gloves.
Done? Now try to imagine all three of them moulded to form one player: that was what Keith David Boyce used to be like. There was a reason for them calling him Stingray.
The throw, especially, was worth a watch alone: “We all backed up when [Keith] Boycey had the ball. Specially, if Tonker [Brian Taylor] was keepin’.” The thump could be heard from way outside the lush green stretch.
Taylor formed an outstanding combination with Boyce in his Essex days. Whenever a batsman, especially a tail-ender, hung around for a while the following conversation usually came up, the wicketkeeper would usually wind up the Barbadian: “I’ve ‘ad enough. Come and’ave a bowl, KD. ’it those gloves, son.” And hit the gloves he did.
Over years West Indies has produced several outstanding athletes that have lit up the cricket field with their sheer physical presence and movements: their power, their energy, their aura, their fitness, their vigour have set them apart from the others.
These cricketers may have been among the all-time greats like Garry Sobers; among the very good ones like Learie Constantine; or they may have relatively less impressive careers, like Boyce. Whatever they may have achieved is paled into insignificance by the magic of their presence on the green.
Over the years these men have made the sport worth a watch for one simple reason: they have been able to brighten up our mundane by capturing us with the most important reason that has made us watch sport.
There is a tale of an old-timer watching Boyce perform all his three acts and crying silently. When asked for a reason the man told them that Boyce reminded him too much of Constantine.
The attitude was simple: “I like to attack. If the ball is pitched up to me I try and hit it as far as I can, and when it goes a long way I have a deep inner satisfaction. I have never regretted taking up cricket professionally, and I can’t understand any player not enjoying himself tremendously.”
With his side cornered and in a tight position Boyce had supposedly got out while going for a six when he was supposed to put his head down and spend as much time at the crease as possible. Boyce’s simple theory was that more time would be lost by making the fielders search for the lost ball.
Boyce’s numbers in Test cricket, though decent, are not outstanding: 657 runs at 24.33 with four fifties and 60 wickets at 30.01 with two five-fors and a 10-for hardly do justice to Boyce’s immense potential. His First-Class numbers, mostly for Essex, were probably a truer reflection of his talents: 852 wickets at 25.02 with 35 five-fors and seven 10-fors and 8,800 runs at 22.39 with four hundreds from 285 matches.
Born in Castle, St Peter, Boyce went on to study at Coleridge and Parry School. He was a dour stonewaller till he was advised to change his style at the age of 18 by his sports teacher Ernest Rochford and the groundsman Orman Best. He also played alongside the likes of Everton Weekes, Seymour Nurse, and Charlie Griffith.
Boyce started as a leg-spinner and made his way through the junior levels and made it to Barbados B. He went wicketless in his first match against British Guiana at Kensington Oval but was still picked for the match against Colin Ingleby-McKenzie’s International Cavaliers at the same ground.
With both Wes Hall and Griffith away on international duty Boyce was asked to open bowling for Barbados; he bowled at lightning pace. The team included Trevor Bailey, the Essex Secretary, and a young Fletcher.
In what turned out to be his First-Class debut, Boyce returned figures of two for 16, and coming low down the order, hit an explosive 55 against an attack comprising of Bailey, Roy Marshall, and Jim Laker, being particularly severe on the Surrey off-spinner.
An impressed Bailey brought Boyce to England; Boyce stayed at Leytonstone High Road, and to quote Wisden, “spent much of his two-year qualification encased in an army greatcoat which, with the collar turned up, reached from his boots to beyond the top of his head.”
He did not leave the Barbadian shores ill-equipped, though: ‘Foffie’ Williams, Bertie Clarke, and Denis Atkinson all advised him to work on his forward-defensive stroke to adjust himself to the English conditions: they mentioned that had he not done so he “might as well catch the first banana boat back to Barbados.”
Boyce approached his tenure with exceptional enthusiasm. Frank Rist, the Essex Coach, mentioned that Boyce was always the first to reach practice. He became a menace in the Second XI matches, once scoring a hundred before lunch (taken at 1 PM) after coming to bat at 12.30.
Seldom has a player arrived so sensationally in the history of Essex. In his first match against Cambridge University at Brentwood Boyce picked up nine for 61 in his first First-Class innings on English soil (it remained his career-best) and followed it with four for 47 in the second innings. The 13 for 108 would remain his best match figures as well. The only other match he played that season was against the touring West Indians.
Boyce reached his hundredth wicket in style. Touring Pakistan with Richie Benaud’s Commonwealth XI, he was out there, bowling at normal pace in the heat of Karachi. Wisden describes the wicket: “Suddenly the proceedings were enlivened by a whoop of delight as [Keith] Boyce hit the stumps. The fielders maintain the bails had not reached the ground before Boyce was proclaiming ‘That’s my 100th, lads.’”
Benaud took Boyce under his wings on that tour. It was difficult to find a keener teacher-student combination. Benaud worked on the length of Boyce’s final strides which would solve his no-ball problems. He also advised the Barbadian to bowl from closer to the stumps to make his out-swinger more effective.
The team was surprised at Boyce’s enthusiasm. He always wanted to play. When Benaud rested him for a match he swapped roles with the 12th man so that he could field. Bored when he was batting he rushed on to the field when the home team needed a substitute, and carried out his job with gusto.
He took off from the next season; having won his Essex cap that season not only did he pick up 81 wickets at 27.24 but he also managed to slam 910 runs at 20.22. This included an outrageous 68 at Ilford where he came out to bat at 109 for five and hit the Worcestershire bowlers all over the ground; Essex scored 197. It was the first time that the English spectators got a taste of Boyce’s brilliance with the bat.
The next season included two match-winning performances: he routed Middlesex for 110 and 69 with figures of five for 33 and six for 33 at Southend-on-Sea; soon afterwards Yorkshire were at the receiving end, being bowled out for 103 and 161 as Boyce took six for 56 and five for 69. This time he returned figures of 88 wickets at 23.54.
Boyce played only two matches in the Shell Shield that followed, but managed to score his first hundred. Barbados were in a spot of bother at 149 for five after Guyana had scored 391 at Bourda. Boyce scored a 177-minute 111 with 11 fours and a six. With two more hundreds in the English season he was now considered one of the premier all-rounders in the Championship.
His worth was proved in a Single-Wicket Championship at Lord’s in 1969; he managed to knock out Sobers in the first round and reached the final, where he was knocked unconscious when he was hit by a throw attempting a run.
“The accident must have put a bit of sense in me. I felt the message must be for me to hit the ball, not for the ball to hit me,” Boyce said later. He went on to score a violent 84 in 46 balls and won the tournament easily.
That season also saw Boyce play one of his best innings: Hampshire declared four runs ahead at Ilford and soon reduced Essex to 86 for five. Boyce enabled Taylor to declare the innings at 298 for nine: he beat the Hampshire attack to pulp, amassing 147; Hampshire lost by 124 runs.
Despite his performances the Test selectors kept on overlooking him. “In English eyes the West Indies were slow to accept the bubbling potential of an all-rounder [Boyce] who would not know how to give anything but his one hundred per cent best at all times,” Wisden later said. That call eventually came in the 1970-71 home series against India.
On a flat track at Bourda, Boyce opened bowling with Grayson Shillingford and picked up two for 59 in the match, including clean bowling Gundappa Viswanath; it was his first Test wicket. Despite that he did not play another Test in the series. Had West Indies persisted with him they might have found the bridge they required between Hall and Andy Roberts.
In the English season of 1971, Boyce returned figures of 7.4-0-26-8 in the John Player League match against Lancashire at Old Trafford as a star-studded line up consisting of Clive and David Lloyd, Jack Bond, and Farokh Engineer crumbled for 87 in 16.4 overs. “In instant cricket there is no one more attractive than [Keith] Boyce,” wrote Wisden.
It was the best List A bowling analysis at that time (it is currently placed at fifth: Rahul Sanghvi holds the world record with eight for 15). With his abilities Boyce became one of the first outstanding players of limited-overs cricket; he was also the first to complete the 1,000 run-100 wicket double in the John Player League (which won him a sum of £100).
Boyce played the Frank Worrell Trophy in 1972-73 as well with moderate success. He picked up nine wickets at 37.77, but it seemed that he was finding his groove. However, he passed a thousand for the only time in the English season that followed. He scored 1,023 runs at 30.08 with eight fifties and also snared 82 wickets at 20.20 with six five-fors.
As a result he was given The Cricket Society Wetherall Award for the Leading All-Rounder in English First-Class Cricket and was picked for the Wisden Trophy that summer. Finding himself in familiar conditions Boyce set off to a decent start but did nothing exemplary till the first Test of the series at The Oval.
West Indies had a decent start and reached 309 for seven when Boyce walked out. What followed was one of an outstanding example of brutal yet clean hitting: the strokes were often unconventional, but they were all hit so powerfully that the fielders never had a chance.
A bowling attack comprising of John Snow, Geoff Arnold, Tony Greig, Derek Underwood, and Ray Illingworth was put to the sword as Boyce rushed to a 99-ball 72 with six fours and a six, most of his runs coming in an unexpected partnership of 59 with Inshan Ali. West Indies reached the comfortable shelter of 415.
Then came the bowling: Boyce clean-bowled the well-set Dennis Amiss and Graham Roope but England still seemed to be going fine at 247 for five. However, a spell of hostile express bowling rounded up the hosts’ innings for 257. Boyce finished with five for 70, his first five-for in Tests.
Boyce’s contribution in the Test was far from over. After England were set 414 for a victory Boyce was at it again. The pattern was the same: England ambled to 229 for six before Boyce routed them for 255. Though Frank Hayes stood tall with a 106 not out, the tail did not have a chance in front of Boyce’s hostile fast bowling.
Seldom has a player dominated a match to this extent. The fielding was not reflected on the scorecard, but Wisden did pay homage: “During the Lord’s Test the whole crowd erupted in appreciation when going full pelt he [Boyce] cut off a certain boundary, and in one movement returned straight to the wicketkeeper. Had that piece of fielding been filmed it could provide the classic instruction for all time.”
Boyce finished with six for 77 — his career-best haul. The 11 for 147 would also remain his only 10-for in his truncated career (it was also the best by a West Indian against England, going past Sonny Ramadhin’s 11 for 152: Michael Holding currently holds the record with 14 for 149). He suffered from a sore heel at Edgbaston and could not bowl in the second innings, but there was no way he was going to miss the third Test at Lord’s that would help West Indies win a series in six-and-a-half years.
Sobers scored an unbelievable 150 not out after drinking all night; he had felt giddy at 132 and had to retire with the score at 528 for seven. Bernard Julien and Boyce then had a go at the bowling, adding 76; Boyce eventually fell for a 46-ball 36 before Sobers walked out and reached the landmark of 150. Rohan Kanhai declared the innings closed at 652 for nine.
Sobers had also injured his knee, which meant that West Indies were a bowler short. It did not matter, though: Boyce and Julien ripped through the England line-up with four wickets apiece as the tourists fell 419 runs short and had to follow-on.
Boyce also removed Amiss and Alan Knott early in the innings; with England in trouble and Geoff Boycott the only man likely to bail them out of the situation (“if England has to get out of this match Boycott has to score a double-hundred,” said Benaud’s nonchalant voice on air).
Boyce baited ‘Boycs’ (sorry, could not resist it) with short-pitched deliveries before letting lose a slightly faster one; there was a square-leg and a deep square-leg but the Yorkshireman could still not resist the hook – despite the fact that it was the last ball of the day; the ball went straight into the hands of Alvin Kallicharran at deep square-leg.
With Boyce also removing Hayes early the next day England were left reeling at 49 for four, all four wickets falling to Boyce. Julien and Lance Gibbs then ran through the rest and England were bowled out for 193 with only Boyce’s mate Fletcher putting up some resistance.
Boyce finished the series with 19 wickets at 15.47 (with nine wickets at 25.22 Gibbs came a distant second); he also scored 129 runs at 25.80. Wisden wrote: “[Keith] Boyce, to use his own words, fancied his bowling against England, but even he must have been surprised at the extent of his triumph.”
In the entire English season Boyce scored 603 runs with five fifties and picked up 59 wickets at 22.05 with four five-fors and a 10-for. This included a hat-trick against Warwickshire at Chelmsford (he picked up 11 for 138 in the match). He was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year.
Boyce could not maintain his form on the unhelpful Indian tracks. He had Sunil Gavaskar caught behind for a duck and added Eknath Solkar and Abid Ali to his tally during the victory in the first Test at Bangalore and he scored 68 with nine fours and two sixes and outscored a rampant Viv Richards in an amazing 80-minute partnership of 124.
Boyce missed the third Test at Calcutta that West Indies lost; in the fourth Test at Madras Boyce disappointed with figures of two for 101 on a pitch where Roberts picked up 12 wickets and was subsequently dropped for the final Test at Bombay.
The Chelmsford blitzes
It was a crucial tie against Leicestershire at home. The tourists had Graham McKenzie, Ken Higgs, John Steele, and Illingworth in their line-up. Fletcher won the toss and decided to bat; from 85 without loss the hosts slipped to 107 for three when Fletcher promoted Boyce to join him. He wanted Essex to pile on as many runs as possible, given that not even 20 overs of play was possible the previous day.
The onslaught that followed was unbelievable. Boyce was brutal on all the bowlers, and smashed his way to a 58-ball 100. He eventually fell for 113 out of the 143 scored during his stay at the wicket. Essex were bowled out for a round 300.
Warmed up sufficiently by his batting, he came back at the poor Hampshire batsmen. They were reduced to 20 for seven before Illingworth’s 31 took them to 60. Boyce finished with a destructive six for 25. Following-on Leicestershire hung on, surviving till stumps with 207 for nine, thanks to Chris Baldesrstone’s 101 not out.
Boyce’s six for 48 gave him match figures of 12 for 73. He became (and remains) only the third Essex player to score a hundred and pick up two five-fors in the same match after Johnny Douglas and Stan Nichols.
Two matches later Boyce routed Gloucestershire at Westcliff-on-Sea for 145 and 167; he picked up five for 58 and six for 55. He eventually scored 555 at 27.75 and picked up 72 wickets at 18.18 with seven five-fors and two ten-fors in the season.
The season also saw West Indies lift the inaugural World Cup. After Lloyd was through with his 85-ball onslaught of 102 Boyce’s 37-ball 34 helped the score reach 291 for eight. Then, coming on first-change, Boyce ran through the lower middle-order and finished with four for 50 to help West Indies win the title by 17 runs.
The final days
West Indies received a 1-5 drubbing the following Australian summer. Boyce played the second Test at WACA and scored 49 not out. Dropped for the next Test at MCG he was brought back in the subsequent one at SCG, where he failed.
By now Holding had joined forces with Roberts and the likes of Vanburn Holder and Wayne Daniel were waiting in the sidelines. Boyce got to bowl only 12 overs in the fifth Test but came to his elements with the bat. After Australia scored 418 Boyce came out to bat at a hopeless 110 for five; he helped West Indies save the follow-on, taking them to 274 and scoring a 105-ball 95 not out.
Set a humongous 490 for victory Boyce walked out at 212 for five; once again he bludgeoned an attack featuring Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, and Max Walker, but eventually fell for a 81-ball 69 with 11 fours — out of 87 scored during his stay at the wicket. Australia won the series.
It was Boyce’s batting that helped him retain a spot in the final Test at MCG. He shared the new ball with Holding in Roberts’s absence, and picked up three for 75 and two for 74 out of the 13 wickets West Indies managed to take in their 165-run defeat. Shortly afterwards Lloyd devised his famous four-fast-bowler scheme: despite his form the 33-year-old Boyce was not a part of it. He never played another Test.
He played only 13 games that English season, scoring 400 at 28.57 and picking up 29 wickets at 28.75. In the following season, 1977, he managed only seven matches with a sore knee; he still managed 139 runs at 23.16 and 23 wickets at 21.56. It turned out to be his last season.
The knee never healed. “He [Boyce] was forced out of the game he worshipped by a knee condition that left this marvellous, natural athlete hobbling arthritically for the rest of his life,” wrote Wisden. It was unfortunate that he could not become a part of Essex’s success story when they won four Championship titles between 1979 and 1986. Boyce had played a key role in the foundation of the all-conquering side.
Indeed, Essex brought out the best in Boyce. His performances for the other teams never scaled those heights:
|West Indies representative sides||39||49||5||920||20.91||3,189||109||29.26||4||1|
It all went wrong for Boyce after his retirement. His personal life went into a wreck as his marriage came to an end; the financial conditions also deteriorated as he lived off benefit matches; his home was blown away in a hurricane; to make things worse, his alcoholism turned from already bad to an all-time worse.
Things recovered somewhat towards the last days of his life when he found a job; he ran the Barbados Cricket Association Lottery. His liver, however, got worse steadily as the drinking never went receded. He eventually suffered from chronic cirrhosis of liver, and collapsed while sitting in a chair at a pharmacist’s at Speightstown.
He never recovered and passed away on his 53rd birthday, thus becoming the only international cricketer to have died on his birthday. The Keith Boyce Memorial Tournament is held every year in his memory.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter athttp://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)