Geoff Boycott (born October 21, 1940) was one of the most complex individuals to play the game. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the successful, yet often bitter, career of the Yorkshire opener on his 72nd birthday.
To the current generation, he is perhaps known as a colourful commentator with his Yorkshire accent and no-holds-barred criticism.
To the ones who have watched him bat, the impression is more polarised.
Some swear that Geoff Boycott was God’s gift to England, a batsman so correct that as he planted his foot out and defended the smallest fly could not get through his defence.
Yet, in spite of being one of the most tenacious batsmen ever to have graced the batting crease, not many would pick him to bat for their lives. One reason for this, although relatively minor, is that the very act of watching him bat may bore one to death. And more importantly, he was infamous as one of the most selfish cricketers ever.
His teammates were also divided, but not equally. To a few he was a master technician, the man to admire and emulate. To most, he was incorrigibly aloof, dangerously self-centred – and never a safe man to negotiate with while running between the wickets.
The complex character
Geoff Boycott made his tentative steps into first county cricket and then Tests as a bespectacled, reticent and severely self-absorbed young batsman in the early 1960s. In a career spanning almost two and a half decades, he was destined to discard his glasses for contact lenses, go through hair transplant, become one of the greatest batsmen of the world and one of the most controversial cricketers ever to walk in flannels.
He was so thoroughly and conspicuously wrapped in himself that it led Dennis Lillee to summarise, "Geoff fell in love with himself at an early age and remained faithful.”
True, he was never quite the team-man. A teetotaller, he was often to be discovered batting in front of the mirror in hotel rooms while the rest of the team was busy getting sloshed in late night parties.
His obsession with his own batting bordered on the verge of illness. Once when Basil D’Oliveira confided to him that he had figured out how to read the mystery spinner Johnny Gleeson, Boycott replied. "I've known for a week, don't tell the others."
The selfishness did not stop there. It often led to bizarre conflicts.
During a Test match at Trent Bridge against New Zealand, on a wicket that he would have loved to occupy for days, he was involved in a mix-up with opening partner Dennis Amiss, and was run out for one. Boycott could not believe it and sat seething in the dressing room with a towel on his head. It did not help matters when Amiss got a hundred. Boycott remarked, “That bastard is scoring all my runs.” At the end of the match, he threatened to run Amiss out in the next Test!
Skipper Ray Illingworth had to intervene, and said that unless the opener forgot the issue, he would ensure that Boycott never played for England again under his captaincy. A disgruntled Boycott agreed to shake hands, but things were far from forgotten.
When Amiss rang him up a few weeks later, Boycott’s mother, who stayed with him till her death, answered, “Yes, I will get him. Who’s speaking?” When Amiss mentioned his name, however, Mrs. Boycott said, “He’s not in,” and hung up!
Runs and run-ins
True, Boycott never liked to get out. He liked to bat on and on, score hundreds and then carry on batting indefinitely. This placed him in considerable difficulties time and again. Few batsmen have been dropped after scoring 246 – but that innings against India at Headlingley, in 1967, led Ian Woolridge to write in the Daily Mail, “(He) could not be excused by his nearest and dearest relations.” Captain Brian Close did his best, but Boycott was dropped from the side for slow scoring.
It was how his career would progress. Tons of runs, some against the best of attacks, often scored at glacial pace, but frequently crucial. And sometimes out of the team for outlandish reasons.
Some of his best innings were played against Australia and West Indies, the cricketing superpowers of his times. In 1969, he made 270 in three matches in West Indies during a victorious campaign. He followed it up in 1970, scoring 657 in five Tests at 93.85 in Australia, one of the principal architects of the Ashes win.
By 1974, he had been around for almost a decade, having played 63 Tests, amassing 4579 runs with 12 centuries. He was established as one of the leading lights of the game, perhaps the only one built almost from scratch through relentless hard-work. And this was when he suddenly went on a self-imposed exile.
In certain quarters it was rumoured that his decision was because of being overlooked for captaincy. Boycott’s craving for the hot seat was well known, and when the selectors preferred Mike Denness for the West Indies tour of 1973-74, it irked him to the core.
Throughout the tour, Boycott refused to cooperate, share ideas or provide tactical insights. When Denness, knowing his obsession about practice, offered him the responsibility of overseeing the nets, Boycott curtly told him that it was not his job. He recalls in his autobiography that when Denness confronted him on a different issue he had snarled, "Get out of here before I do something I'll regret."
Ironically, with England down 0-1 going into the fifth and final Test at Trinidad, and Denness on the verge of losing his job, Boycott played out of his skin to score 99 and 112 enabling his side to square the series. This ensured that Denness would continue as captain, and as he went around the dressing room congratulating his team, Boycott remarked, “Unfortunately, that is the worst win we could have had for English cricket.”
During the presentation ceremony, Boycott turned to the physiotherapist, Bernard Thomas, and observed, “Bernard, that’s buggered my chances of the England job.”
So, after one solitary match against India in the 1974 season, he was gone –away from the Test scenario. He concentrated on First-class cricket, leading Yorkshire and there too ended up clashing with the county authorities, significantly his old captain Brian Close.
Triumphant return, world record and ignominious exit
He returned in 1977, during the Ashes series, at Nottingham, and celebrated it with a century. In the next Test, in his home ground at Headingley, he hit another, his hundredth in First-class cricket.
His brush with captaincy came in 1978, when Mike Brearley was injured. He led two Tests in Pakistan before taking the side to New Zealand. England lost the first Test at Wellington and Boycott did not make any friends with his defensive tactics and semi-stagnant rate of scoring. In the second Test at Christchurch, England had gained a first innings lead of 183 and fast runs were urgently required on the fourth afternoon. Boycott, having opened the innings, crawled to 26 off 80 balls. Bob Willis, the vice-captain, furious and frustrated by Boycott’s stonewalling, promoted young Ian Botham in the batting order with the now famous instruction, “Run the bugger out.”
Botham pushed the first ball to short extra cover and called Boycott for an impossible single, in the process running him out by miles.
The captaincy soon went back to Brearley, and Boycott busied himself in pursuing the world record for the highest aggregate of Test runs – 8032 by Garry Sobers. During this phase his circumspection while batting reached illogical levels. At one stage, across six innings, he faced 569 balls without hitting a single boundary. This included an innings spanning 337 balls, in which there was an all run four including two overthrows.
One should remember that this does not only demonstrate caution, it also speaks volumes about the correctness and technical perfection which prevented even an edged boundary during this entire period.
Boycott finally overhauled Sobers’s record during the colossally boring and personally disastrous tour of India under Keith Fletcher in 1981-82. According to Fletcher, he was uncooperative and did not seem interested in playing any further after the milestone.
During the Calcutta Test match, Boycott did not field because of a stomach bug, and it was later discovered that he had spent the afternoon playing golf at the Royal Calcutta Golf Club!
In spite of his explanations that he had been advised to get some fresh air, and an apology, he was asked to go back to England. On arriving home, he quickly arranged a rebel tour and went to South Africa, thus for all intents and purposes ending his Test career.
He was still in shape and making runs for Yorkshire well into the mid-1980s, but David Gower, the England captain, remarked that the team had to look towards the future. During the 1985 Ashes Test at Leeds, Tim Robinson struck a magnificent 175, cementing his place in the side as opener. This prompted Botham to sing, “Bye bye Boycott” from the English balcony.
Botham, in fact, had a lot of colourful opinions about Boycott, remarking that he was totally, insanely selfish who would have had greatly reduced his problems if he had a life beyond batting.
In 1986, Yorkshire committee chairman Brian Close advocated Boycott’s removal from the county side. The contract with the opener was not renewed for the following season, effectively ending the great batsman’s First-class career. Close announced afterwards, “I would have loved Geoffrey to have gone on breaking records, but in reality I had to say that his retention would not have helped us. We just couldn’t carry on with a cult figure grinding out his personal glory while the rest of the players simply made up the numbers.”
In spite of a rather unpopular career, his final tally of 8114 runs in 108 Tests at 47.72 with 22 centuries make for impressive reading. Additionally notable is that England lost just 20 of the 108 Tests he played, underlining the stability he provided at the top of the order.
Although synonymous with slow scoring, it is not that he could not play attractive cricket. His back-foot drives through the covers and the impeccable on drive were majestic. And for all his stonewalling, he had the ability to score quickly. His 146 against Surrey in the 1965 Gillette Cup Final remains one of the most attractive, stroke studded innings seen in the competition.
His stubborn characteristic of lasting through difficult periods against all odds has stood him in good stead in his victorious battle against throat cancer.
What has been a real surprise, though, is his metamorphosis from an almost pathologically aloof individual to a universally loved commentator of considerable charm.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix