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Geoff Boycott largely chose the time and nature of his quitting Test cricket but ruffled feathers in the process
February 15, 2014
British left-wing politician Tony Benn once said that all political careers end in failure. While it would be unfair to say all sporting careers follow the same path, more sportsmen bow out with a whimper than a bang. And some, as with Kevin Pietersen's time with England, finish with a resounding raspberry.
In the reams of copy discussing whether Pietersen was a misunderstood genius or a talented pain in the arse, several writers made comparisons with Geoff Boycott. Both polarised opinion, had the ability to change matches, and could try the patience of a saint. They racked up more than a century of Test appearances but finished amid the kind of controversy that dogged their careers.
The difference is that while Pietersen had the choice made for him by weary selectors and, so it seems, team-mates, Boycott largely chose the time and nature of his going.
By the time England headed to India in 1981-82, Boycott, by now 41, had been an ever-present in the Test side since his return from self-imposed exile in 1977. In 41 Tests since his comeback he had averaged 48.10 (almost identical to his record before he turned his back on England) and he was still a dependable rock at the top of the innings. A hundred at The Oval at the end of the famous 1981 Ashes series ended chat that he might miss out on that winter's tour.
Boycott had never toured India before because of unease about the effect it would have on his health, a genuine concern given he had had his spleen removed as a child and so was more prone to infection. But he had been reassured by a ten-day stop to play the Jubilee Test in Bombay in early 1980, although he later admitted he had not understood conditions outside the major cities were still, at that time, variable.
It was a long and gruelling trip and one which only started after weeks of politicking. The Indian government objected to the presence in the England squad of Boycott and Nick Cook as they had played in South Africa. Only when both condemned apartheid did the government acquiesce but neither was asked for a commitment they would not play in South Africa again. When the squad left for India on November 4, Boycott was the one absentee; he flew straight to Bombay from a holiday in Hong Kong.
England went behind in the first Test of the six-match series and thereafter the matches were endlessly defensive and played against a backdrop of desperate over rates. Boycott's form in the Tests was good. Fifties in the first two matches was followed by his 22nd and final England hundred, in Delhi, during which he passed Garry Sobers' record aggregate of Test runs.
Shortly before Christmas stories emerged of a row with Keith Fletcher, the captain, after a newspaper report claimed he had told Boycott he needed to score more quickly. Boycott demanded - and got - an apology as he maintained no such conversation had taken place.
By the time the squad reached Calcutta for the fourth Test Boycott's health was poor; he had been worn down by tiredness, the food and ongoing reports that he was about to be fired as Yorkshire's captain. A sign of how bad he was came when he only netted for a few minutes; usually he was there for hours.
He was barely eating and suffering from diarrhoea throughout the Test. Unsurprisingly, he was out of sorts with the bat scoring 18 and 6 and he spent most of the game back in the hotel.
Bernard Thomas, the England physio, advised him to get some air and so Boycott went off to a local golf course, one place he believed that he could get some peace as on the streets he was so well known he would have been mobbed. "The suggestion that I went out and played a round of golf creates visions of Boycott striding out, marking a card, oblivious to his team-mates or his responsibilities," he wrote. "I walked a few holes [and] knocked a golf ball for the exercise, sitting down when I felt wearied."
However, he admitted it was a "misguided and foolish thing to do in the circumstances but there was nothing underhand or uncaring about it". Inevitably, it did not play out well when the story emerged in the press or with team-mates.
Raman Subba Row, the manager, and Boycott had not seen eye to eye throughout the tour and when he heard about the golf he summoned him to a meeting with Fletcher and his vice-captain Bob Willis. It ended with an unhappy Boycott agreeing to apologise to Subba Row and the players - and also with him deciding to quit the tour.
As with so many parts of this story, Ian Botham had a quite different recollection. After the golf escapade he said the squad "grabbed the nearest piece of paper they could find to get him to sign a resignation note before he had time to change his mind".
The following morning Fletcher and Subba Row reiterated they believed Boycott should go home and by the end of the day he was on a flight to London with Subba Row telling the media that "continuing ill health" was the reason. Without a doubt the trip was a hard slog, especially for a 41-year-old however fit. Days after Boycott quit, the seemingly indefatigable Botham was on the sick list.
For most reporters Boycott's early departure was the end of his Test career. When news broke on February 28 that along with 12 others - including four other members of the tour party to India in Graham Gooch, John Emburey, John Lever and Derek Underwood - Boycott was on his way to play in a rebel series in South Africa that become a certainty. The press lost no time in labelling the rebels "Boycott's Dirty Dozen"
Whether Boycott was the man who put the whole series together, the one who turned the heads of other players and the one who in effect stuck two fingers up at the establishment is unclear. He maintains he was not alone. Botham - again - claimed "throughout the trip [he] had been busy trying to recruit players".
The idea of a sanction-breaking South Africa trip first surfaced on the West Indies tour the previous winter and by the time Fletcher's side reached India most players knew about it and had expressed interest. The likes of Willis, Botham, Emburey and Graham Dilley and David Gower had been toying with idea of going for months. It is possible that the only senior figures who did not know were Fletcher and the management.
Boycott was clearly the conduit for negotiations with the organisers during the tour - he admits that a meeting was held in Willis' room days after arriving in India to discuss the financial package.
Gooch later described how there had been clandestine meetings, deviousness and "almost deception". Boycott, he said, devised a chess code to summon together those signed up to the tour to meet - "Castles and knights to meet in the bishop's room".
Fletcher was kept in the dark "because 'he may well have felt obliged to honour the moral terms of his position and report the matter". At one point Subba Row got wind of something in the air and asked several players if they knew anything. They denied it. "But what else could we do?" Gooch shrugged.
By the time Boycott left India on January 7 the whole rebel series was off. Botham withdrew during the Bangalore Test in December and said "good old Geoffrey blew his top" when he found out. When Gower followed suit the organisers, bereft of box-office names, withdrew their offer. Later in the month Gooch agreed to go - the young draw the series needed - and the organisers sprung back into life.
Boycott was kept fully aware of what was happening and continued to speak to all parties involved. A tabloid newspaper ran a report saying he was heading to South Africa to organise and play on a tour. Donald Carr from the England board challenged him, but Boycott, arguing he believed the tour was off, said that was untrue. "I was not lying as I believed it was dead and buried."
Boycott has always claimed he only threw in his lot at the last minute after two more withdrawals - including Willis - in the days before the side secretly flew to South Africa. There was a real possibility he would be sacked by Yorkshire and approaches to the England board over his international future had drawn blanks. "I came to the conclusion that I had no choice and very little to lose." And so he went.
Perhaps because he was such a well-known and controversial figure, the tabloid coverage centred on Boycott. "We did not expect a round of applause," he said, "but neither did we expect national hysteria."
On March 31 the rebels returned with the media attention again on Boycott who, claimed the Daily Mirror, had argued with his team-mates after taking one of the four first-class tickets on offer for his girlfriend. At Heathrow he was met by a posse of tabloid reporters and photographers.
Wearing a baseball hat pulled down to cover his face, he told the photographers: "You look like a bunch of rats." One replied: "We don't look as silly as you do."
What happened next?
My Autobiography - Don't Tell Kath by Ian Botham (Collins Willow 1994)
The Autobiography by Geoffrey Boycott (Macmillan 1987)
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack
Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and AfricaFeeds: Martin Williamson
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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