February 7, 2014

Of Boycott, KP, and the ECB's alienation

The two are unalike as batsmen, but they share a tendency to speak plainly, have complex, sensitive personalities, and have found themselves made scapegoats at times

Funny that Boycott should be annoyed by someone hellbent on batting the way they want to © Getty Images

On 13 August 1983, Geoffrey Boycott made a century for Yorkshire against Gloucestershire at Cheltenham. He stayed in all day, scoring 140 from 347 deliveries and angered his captain Raymond Illingworth by running out the free-scoring Kevin Sharp, who'd made a much faster hundred, while trying to keep the strike, and refusing to raise his own scoring rate.

Illingworth reported the incident to the Yorkshire committee and set in motion one of the most extraordinary uprisings in the history of English cricket. The committee issued a statement rebuking Boycott for batting that was "not in the best interests of the side", and was met with a furious response - from Boycott himself, who went on radio to deny that he had been officially reprimanded; from his friend Brian Clough, who used his Daily Mirror column to defend Boycott's batting; and from Sid Fielden, who led a group of reformers that would become central to the story.

On 3 October, the committee voted unanimously not to offer Boycott a contract for the 1984 season. The Reform Group swung into action. More than 400 people attended a meeting in a hotel in Ossett, and the committee was forced to vote again on the issue. The sacking was upheld via a statement that stressed the need to encourage younger players without the "dissension and discord that creates a lack of confidence".

Another group, the Members 84, was formed specifically to deal with the Boycott situation, and nothing less than a civil war broke out. Under tremendous public pressure, the committee offered a bizarre compromise that would have allowed Boycott to take part in six Championship games, but at a meeting on 21 January 1984, amid scenes described as "evangelical", a vote of no confidence in the committee was carried by the Yorkshire members, along with a motion to reinstate Boycott. The committee, which included Fred Trueman and Ronnie Burnett, resigned, and Boycott ultimately played on until his retirement at the end of the 1986 season. "Boycottshire" had spoken.

That winter of discontent came to mind as another story played out this week. It had many of the same elements: a dominant player of polarising force, an organisation out of touch with the feelings of its public, and a maverick media operator speaking out.

For Boycott read Kevin Pietersen, for the Yorkshire committee the ECB, and for Brian Clough read Piers Morgan.

Pietersen is one of the few English players to have commanded public attention in the way that Boycott had done. They could not be further apart as batsmen and yet they share certain traits, foremost a tendency to speak utterly plainly. They both have complex, sensitive personalities and have often found themselves the injured party in their confrontations with authority. It's fair to say that both have been scapegoats at times, and that both contributed to their own woes, too.

Around Boycott was the blunt, often brutal language of Yorkshire cricket in the 1980s. We live now in the age of euphemism, and thus the battle for the advantage has been more subtly fought. Pietersen has not been publicly denounced as Boycott was. All of that has been hidden in legality and management speak. Yet this language, opaque and non-specific, is key to the Pietersen issue.

The desire to control information is a phenomenon of modern sport and cricket is not unique in striving to do so, but the ECB has a particularly bad case of it. The rigid paradigm that they have constructed around their communications, from the way they school young players to talk about the game to the press statements laden with meaningless office jargon, has detached them from the very people they most need to understand them: the fans.

It resulted in the slapstick interview given by the new chief selector James Whitaker (to rights holders Sky and the BBC only) this week. Even pre-recording could not save the unfortunate Whitaker, who was chained to desperate sentences like "There's a group of players there looking forward to re-energising this team, going forward with different values, re-evaluating the culture of the team."

These constructs of language echo emptily. They are designed to sound good without conveying anything specific, and they have a dehumanising effect. The people who step forward to utter them become trapped and typecast by the image that they create. They lack the linguistic power to challenge a forceful attack in plain English. They are evasive and diversionary and ultimately counter-productive.

It's probably fair to say that the ECB has never been as alienated from public opinion as it is now, and as the Yorkshire committee found out, that can be a dangerous space to occupy.

Only one person has attempted to argue a case for Pietersen's exclusion on cricketing grounds. Geoffrey Boycott took the airwaves to say that KP's batting this winter had been irresponsible and selfish, and he deserved to be dropped for it. You may or may not agree with him (and there is humour in Boycott becoming annoyed by someone hellbent on batting the way they want to) but his argument was clear. There is some sanity in that.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on February 10, 2014, 9:39 GMT

    Great article. Worth adding that Boycott was also dropped by England in the 1960's for scoring (246) too slowly against India, and exiled himself for 3 years in the 1970's too.

  • Jonathan on February 9, 2014, 13:19 GMT

    That's a great article

  • Dummy4 on February 8, 2014, 16:48 GMT

    The key difference between Boycott and Pietersen was Boycott's selfishness mainly manifested itself with Yorkshire not England. Also Boycott behaved the way he did at Yorkshire because he knew he had the political support within the County that would back him. Ultimately it is the Yorkshire members who own and control the County Club and they backed Boycott over the Committee. However when Boycott played selfishly for England the TCCB and MCC dealt with Boycott harshly. He was dropped for slow scoring in 1967 after scoring a double century. Boycott also went into voluntary exile when Mike Denness was appointed captain and refused to play for England between 1973 and 1977. Also when he was appointed the temporary captain in 1977/8 after Brearly got injured Boycott's selfish behaviour saw him replaced very quickly after Botham infamously ran him out in New Zealand. In many ways the authorities were much more intolerant of Boycott's behaviour than Pietersen.

  • Tony on February 8, 2014, 11:03 GMT

    Might I ask who is Piers Morgan?

  • Ross on February 8, 2014, 10:03 GMT

    Since Pieterson was the highest English run scorer in the Ashes in Australia, and second only to Bell in the Ashes in England, the ECB can't point to his 'form' without the rest of their fingers pointing back at Bell, Cook, Root and the rest of the supposed 'core' that the rebuilding is supposed to be based on.

  • Dirk on February 8, 2014, 7:01 GMT

    The banner head of this blog "They have come to read my column, not your comments" is no more designed to win friends and influence people than the typical utterances of Boycott or Pietersen.

  • bob on February 8, 2014, 3:25 GMT

    Good piece. The ECB and the english team has become a joke. Letting go of the highest run scorer of all people.

  • Dummy4 on February 7, 2014, 21:44 GMT

    If the ECB really believes KP was below acceptable levels of performance in batting then they are well within their rights to drop him. Funny though, I don't hear anyone from ECB saying that out loud.

  • Clifford on February 7, 2014, 19:09 GMT

    What a truly excellent article and superb analysis. I don't like Boycott but you are on the money with your comparisons. I still find it difficult to understand why strong characters are labeled as difficult. Now to the layman, I would understand their classification but at this level and with this amount of money involved and that it's tied in with patriotic zeal etc. How does this level of incompetence exist? People depend on England providing joy and hope. Downton works in the city so hopefully he understands professionalism and results. This is too important to be taken as lightly as the ECB appears to be taking it. Flower appeared to be a professional but his obvious insecurities and controlling issues surfaced and to his detriment. Get Arsene Wenger a brief contract to select the ECB members who satisfy the professionalism that we need. Believe me he is capable. This is truly shambolic!

  • Adam on February 7, 2014, 17:01 GMT

    He couldn't even say what these new values were, for fear of implying that they weren't there before, and presumably that would be because of KP.

    Ironically, if there is a value-shift, it will be for the players to be MORE like KP, not less like him. The Flower method of "team men" (aka yes men), obsessive micromanagement, extreme tactical rigidity and batting not to lose has been found wanting. KP would have been the perfect elder statesman moving forward into a more relaxed era of more flexible, expressive cricket.

    Flower knew he was going after his methods had failed and he lost the team, and his last poisoned chalice to English cricket was to make damn sure he took our best player with him.

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