August 14, 2002

Boycott: I was terrified to play out a maiden over

Eight runs more would have given Sachin Tendulkar supporters their ultimate defense against the criticism levelled at him of late - a match-saving second-innings hundred. But en route to 92, Tendulkar sidled quietly past another little milestone of sorts. Steering Matthew Hoggard to third man to reach 48, Tendulkar went past Geoffrey Boycott in that all-important list in Test cricket - career run aggregate.

Geoffrey Boycott
© CricInfo
The mark in question was 8,114 runs, set first by a master of grafting and then surpassed at Trent Bridge by the very fount of attacking strokeplay. The irony, however, will only be glaringly visible to one of the millions whose hopes of India saving the second Test began and ended with Tendulkar taking the honours.

For Boycott would have been the ideal man for the situation India were in, going into the last day of the second Test. Need a batsman to bat out an entire day, with the sun beating down, the wicket easing up and the bowlers tiring? You would never fear if Boycott were here.

Slip in a scenario where the bowlers landed the ball wide of the stumps to test the patience of the willow-wielder, and Boycott would only thrive, not lash out in frustration. Even a less-than-astute punter could back him to play out the day, save the game, and walk back to rapturous applause from a surprisingly large Nottingham crowd. Journalists the next day would call the innings priceless and judge Boycott to be a pillar of strength in the side.

But not Doug Insole.

Wind the clock back 25 years to the 8th of June, 1967. India take on England at Headingley, Leeds, in the first of a three-Test series. To the surprise of many - including the man himself - Boycott is picked to play. "I was very surprised I got picked for the Test. I was in poor form and had scored just 280 runs from 12 innings, including my first pair in the game versus Kent," recalls Boycott. "I was pretty low on confidence and not batting particularly well."

One look at the statistics reveals that Boycott was in possibly the poorest form of his career. A run of scores that read 45, 9, 102, 0, 0, 6, 4, 0, 24, 60, 24 and 6 meant that the man who notched up 100 first-class centuries in his career managed just 118 from 10 of his last 12 innings.

When a batsman is struggling for form, getting the feet moving, keeping the head as still and the eye as keen as possible ­ the cornerstones of batting - become chores rather than habits. It was much harder in those days - the times of uncovered pitches - explains Boycott. "We had a very wet season, and a number of the early matches were rained off. We played on uncovered pitches in those days, and sometimes it was very difficult to get into form. There's a lot of rain, and pitches get wet through. They seam, they turn, they can do all sorts of things."

Hence, in a frame of mind better suited to rejuvenating mind and body on Yorkshire's rolling moors, or perhaps spending long hours in the nets sorting oneself out, Boycott found himself taking on an Indian bowling attack that included Erapalli Prasanna, Bishan Bedi and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar. "On the first day, I just grafted for the whole day, because I was lacking in confidence and form," says Boycott. "I made 106 and then, having slept on it, the next day I played nicely, scoring 140 in three-and-a -half hours. The main thing was that we won the game by five wickets."

Winning a Test for the team should theoretically be the most important thing. Sadly, in cricket as in life, things are not always as they should be. Despite scoring 246 - the backbone of an English victory - Boycott was dropped for one Test - for scoring slowly. "The chairman of selectors, Mr Doug Insole, had this brainwave about brighter cricket. He'd actually dropped Ken Barrington two years ago for the same reasons and the media made a big thing of it," says Boycott. "He was basically on a personal crusade about brighter cricket. It's probably one of the worst things that has happened to me in my whole career. There was a terrible stigma and it labelled me for life." That now-famous Yorkshire burr is thick with intense emotion.

Under ordinary circumstances, a man who made 22 centuries and starred in 108 Tests with an average of over 47 would not blaze with anger if dropped for one Test. But these were no ordinary circumstances. "The worst part is, the whole affair has given some people an opportunity to always have a go at you, to criticise and see the worst in you and not the best. Even today, here, 35 years later, I still feel as bitter about it as I did then" said Boycott.

Insole's phrase of "brighter cricket" - with Nasser Hussain quick to ask his left-arm spinner to bowl over the wicket into the pads and his seamers to bowl so wide outside off that batsmen have to stretch to even nick them - may find some resonance today. But there is certainly a difference between flashy cricket and interesting cricket. "What Insole wanted was brighter cricket, which I think is a stupid phrase anyhow. What we all want is more interesting cricket. People who love the game want to see interesting cricket, not just brighter cricket," opines Boycott. He is quick to add, "What he did was wrong, and I'm bitter and angry about it. I'll never get over it."

Clearly the incident had a profound effect on Boycott. "For some time afterwards, I felt the weight and the pressure of it all, and I felt it set me back in my career," he says. "It's something that didn't help me at all. When I came back in the third Test at Edgbaston after sitting out the second Test, I was stumped against Bedi coming miles down the pitch. That's how terrified I was to play out a maiden over!"

Geoffrey Boycott
© CricInfo
There is no doubt that India could do with a batsman who thinks - and plays - like Boycott. Rahul Dravid does his bit in bringing sanity to the batting line-up when things fall apart, as he demonstrated with a restrained 115 at Trent Bridge. But a Boycott at the top of the order would be welcomed with open arms. As he says himself, allowing for a rare chuckle in an otherwise feisty conversation, "If I had scored a double hundred and won a match for India, I would have been a national hero! There's no way I would have been dropped."