If a Gallup poll is conducted among the fans of the game as to who was the least liked international cricketer during the 1970s, Geoffrey Boycott would win it hands down. He was the antithesis to everything that a sportsperson is expected to be. He was aloof, arrogant, selfish, introverted and shamelessly placed himself above the interests of the side. He would go down in the history of the game as the only captain of a national side who was run out by a teammate in order to pursue a victory! Not surprisingly, this attitude and approach led to him being dropped from the side on numerous occasions but this did not bother him in the least as he continued with his own ways, without remorse or regret, till he finally bid adieu from the game. He later came back to the limelight as a commentator, where he gained a reputation for being a straight talking person with a deep knowledge of the game.
Boycott was born in the mining village of Fitzwilliam in Yorkshire in October, 1940, and his father was a colliery worker. He faced financial difficulties in early life, which played a big role in developing amazing mental strength. It will prove to be his forte in his cricketing career.
From a very early age, he demonstrated a passion for cricket and made his way to the Yorkshire side, which was considered to be the best among English counties at that period, at the relatively young age of 22. He stabilised his place in the county side and made his debut for England in the first Test of the series against Australia at Trent Bridge, Nottingham, in June, 1964. He top scored in the first innings with a knock of 48 but could not bat in the second due to a finger injury. He scored his first Test century in the second innings of the last match of the same series at the Oval.
In the tour of South Africa that followed, Boycott batted well and scored his second Test century. However, his form was patchy during the next couple of seasons and he was dropped from the side after low scores in the first two Tests of the return series at home against the Proteas in 1965. His performance with the bat was average during the tours of Australia that followed and the home series against the West Indies in 1966. Hence he was badly in need of a tall score when he went out to open the innings against India in the first innings of the opening Test of the series in 1967.
Dropped after scoring a double ton
Boycott scored an unbeaten 246 in front of his home crowd at Headingley, Leeds, but his batting raised such a shower of criticism that he was dropped from the side after this Test! The pitch was ideal for batting and Indian attack was hampered by the injuries to Russi Surti and Bishan Singh Bedi after the match began, leaving them with effectively three bowlers, one of whom was debutant medium-pacer Subrata Guha. But Boycott plodded on, making batting look like the most difficult job in the world, scoring runs in singles and twos till he reached his century in the closing moments of the first day in nearly six hours. He showed next day that he was not affected by comments about his batting that appeared in newspapers by taking nearly another four hours for the remaining 146 runs, before skipper Brian Close declared the innings closed. He did not bat in the second innings when England successfully chased a small target.
Media pressure following his slow scoring, especially on the second day when he did not open up and play strokes despite being well past a century led to his exclusion from the side for the next Test. This decision shocked and pained him as he felt this was an act of rank injustice. He returned to the side for the last Test of the series. But poor form and bad health let him down after this incident and he played only intermittently for England during the next two years.
It was during the Ashes series against Australia in 1970-71 that Boycott established himself as a top drawer opening batsman in international cricket. He scored 658 runs at an average of 93.85, with an unbeaten 142 as his highest score, prompting critics to rate him as one of the best batsmen in contemporary cricket. He was bogged down by injury during this tour but he made light of that to score runs every time he stepped into the middle.
Part of history
During this visit, he played in the first One-Day International (ODI) in the history of the game and, incidentally, became the first batsman to face a ball in an ODI!
When India toured England in 1971, Boycott played only in the first Test and opted out of the tour of the subcontinent that followed in the winter of 1972-73. When Ray Illingworth announced his retirement in 1973, Boycott felt that he was best suited to lead England and was peeved when Mike Denness was appointed skipper. He toured the West Indies in 1973-74 under Denness, but the two did not get along well with the result that he was dropped after the first Test against India in the 1974 series.
Boycott struck back by making himself unavailable to play for England for the next three years.
Denness was sacked after the first Test of the series against Australia in 1975, but Boycott did not care much for Tony Greig, the next captain, either. So he preferred to sit out and make mountains of runs for Yorkshire till Mike Brearley was appointed as skipper of the national side in 1977. He marked his return to Test cricket with a century against Australia at Nottingham and followed with another hundred before an adoring home crowd in the next match at Leeds, thus easing himself back into the side.
When England toured Pakistan and New Zealand, he was appointed as deputy to Brearley.
As luck would have it, Brearley broke his arm during the second Test against Pakistan, thus giving Boycott the opportunity to lead the side during the rest of the twin tours. It was during the second Test against New Zealand, when England needed to score quickly to post a stiff target for the hosts, that Ian Botham deliberately ran out his skipper, who the entire England side felt was batting too slowly! For the record, England won the match by 174 runs.
Boycott was back to his specialist job as opening batsman when Brearley returned for the next series. He did not have any problems playing under Brearley or Botham who succeeded him as captain. Boycott proved his class yet again during the tour of the West Indies in 1981, when he scored a brilliant century in the fourth Test at Antigua, at the age of 40, facing thunderbolts from the likes of Andy Roberts, Mike Holding, Colin Croft and Joel Garner. He was in good form with the bat during the Ashes series against Australia later in the year and nourished hopes that he would be called upon to lead the side once Brearley, who was recalled as skipper, stepped aside. Hence he was devastated when the selectors appointed Keith Fletcher as the captain for the tour of India in the winter of 1981-82.
The decision to overlook him and appoint Fletcher as skipper created a dilemma for Boycott. He was not keen on touring India as he felt that the food and climate there would not suit his health and the various allergies he carried. But he wanted to complete 8,000 runs in Test cricket and break the record of Gary Sobers for scoring the maximum number of runs in this format. He realised this dream during the third Test at Delhi during the course of a century in the first innings. He promptly showed his true colours during the next Test at Kolkata by staying away when England were fielding citing illness and surfacing at the local golf club for a game there!
This action proved to be too much for the team management and, despite an apology from Boycott, they decided to send him home. On his return to England, he cocked a snook at the authorities by organising a tour of South Africa, at a time when all cricket playing nations had suspended sporting relations with the Proteas. He, along with the remaining 13 players, were placed under suspension for three years. Boycott rode out this period of suspension and came back to county cricket in 1985 but his hopes of playing again for the country, at the age of 46, were foiled by David Gower, then leading England, who said that the country needed to look towards the future.
Thus ended the first-class career of Boycott in 1986, with few tears being shed, except by some old faithful followers of Yorkshire county. However, he managed an image makeover in his avatar as an expert commentator. He spoke out in a unique Yorkshire accent that many found interesting enough to imitate, and his use of pithy aphorisms won him many followers. He survived many difficulties in his personal life, including a raucous court case with a former girlfriend who accused him of assaulting her. He successfully fought a battle with throat cancer as well. He married his long time girlfriend Rachael Swinglehurst in 2003 and they have a daughter.
In the final analysis, Boycott comes out as a player whose approach to the game reflected the tough circumstances in which he was born and brought up. He valued his wicket more than anything else, believed earnestly that he remaining at the crease was more important for his side than anything else and batted in a manner designed to deny the bowler any chances of taking his wicket. His defence was perfect and he could also play attacking strokes when he wished to, which was as frequent as rains in the Sahara desert. His introverted nature was seen as selfishness and his practice of placing himself on a different pedestal was viewed as boorishness by most of his teammates. But he was a character, though much criticised and lampooned and more hated than liked, who could not be ignored, so long as he held the cricket bat in his hand.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)