Geoff Boycott May 6, 2014

Never another like Geoffrey

Boycott represented a peak moment in the evolution of the game - the natural conclusion of a long era
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If you lived in the UK in the 1970s, chances are you didn't miss watching Boycott's momentous achievement © PA Photos

Michael Vaughan recounts a tremendous Geoffrey Boycott story about going to visit the great man at his home in South Africa, where he appeared on his balcony wearing a T-shirt and not much else. On the front it read: "Were you there?" and on the back simply: "Legend. Headingley, 11 August 1977."

I wasn't there on that long-gone summer's evening when Boycott completed his hundred hundreds with a dream-like on-drive from one of Greg Chappell's wobbly seamers, but I know exactly where I was: me and my dad, who had left work early to see if Geoffrey could do it, were in our next-door neighbour's living room, all staring intently at the television as Chappell ran in. In truth it was an undistinguished delivery for such a momentous achievement, but that barely mattered. I understood that this was a moment of significance, indeed a moment that has never been, and will now never be, repeated: a batsman scoring his century of centuries in a Test match on his home ground, an innings played at a high emotional pitch with half the country looking on. In the 1970s there were three television channels in the UK. If you spent all day batting on one of them, then you were at the centre of a shared experience. Geoffrey's 100th century was water-cooler TV long before any office in England had a water cooler.

He was in the midst of one of his comebacks at the time, this one the most dramatic of all after three years of exile from Test cricket. It was the kind of situation that only Boycott could get himself into, its causes opaque to everyone but him. He was one of the few sportsmen, along with Brian Clough and Muhammad Ali, who in the pre-celebrity age reached beyond the sports pages and into the national consciousness. He could appear on Michael Parkinson's chat show or on the nine o'clock news, and people who didn't know anything about cricket knew who Boycott was.

That century is almost 38 years ago now, and Boycott the player is receding into the past. Many people who have heard him talk may not have seen him bat. I was just a kid but I remember the last part of his career. I saw him play in a John Player Sunday League match at my old home ground at May's Bounty. He opened and got about 20 before he was caught at cover, trying to force a boundary down the hill towards the school wall. I remember he wore a cap rather than a helmet, because one of the odd rules in the John Player League was that bowlers could only have a limited run-up - eight yards, marked with a chalk line on the outfield.

He represented a peak moment in the evolution of the game, the point at which batting reached the kind of technical perfection that uncovered pitches and a league of very fast bowlers had been demanding for several generations

I was urged to watch Boycott bat by my dad. Geoffrey was his hero on account of his impeccable technique. He bought me a book called Boycott On Batting, an instructional manual which, up the side of each page, had a series of pictures that worked like a flicker book and let you see Geoffrey performing the forward and back-foot defence, a cover drive and a pull shot. That's what life was like before Youtube, kids.

Geoffrey was 36 when he made his 100th hundred, and he went on to make another 51. Fifty one!

To place that figure in context, Mike Atherton made 54 first-class hundreds in his career. Kevin Pietersen has 49.

Boycott was ruthless in his way, but he understood how hard the game is. His batting was awesome in its proficiency, but he never made it look easy. His effort was palpable, whether it was manifested through the thousands of hours in the nets, in his obsessive nature, the meticulousness of his preparation, the depth of his concentration, the obviousness of his despair when it went wrong. His struggle was the point: it gave his successes a soulful weight that sustained his desire for so long. As a young player, it felt impossible to emulate the obvious genius of Barry Richards or King Viv, but Boycott offered another way.

The edifice of his stats is vast and unapproachable, news from another, bygone age. One-hundred-and-fifty-one first-class centuries - no one's going to do that again, or make a thousand first-class runs every season for 23 years. No one is ever going to bat like Geoffrey Boycott again either, but he represented a peak moment in the evolution of the game, the point at which batting reached the kind of technical perfection that uncovered pitches and a league of very fast bowlers had been demanding for several generations. Batting would - and does - continue to change and reinvent itself; Boycott presented it with the natural conclusion of a long era.

When he had to let it all go and give in to the years, it shattered him. He couldn't keep a bat in his house after he had retired, because it was too painful to pick it up. The memories surged through him. Before his passion was leavened by cancer and the passing of time, he said that he would give up the rest of his life for five more years of batting at his peak.

To me, though, he was never finer than in those last years as he raged against the fading light. Everyone remembers Michael Holding's over to him in Barbados in 1981, indeed it's held over Boycott with a strange kind of glee, as if it was some kind of ritual humiliation. Yet he was 40 years old when he faced it, and he made a hundred in the next Test. He was unbreakable.

Boycott is an intriguing paradox of a man, about whom there are hundreds of stories, some good, many bad and others extremely funny. Here's a personal one.

He once attended the re-opening of Lillywhites sports store in Piccadilly. My dad had worked on the building, and was one of the many people there to see him. Boycott was in a rush but when my dad introduced himself and explained he was a fan, he took him aside and spent ten minutes talking about cricket as his driver waited, a small kindness that meant an awful lot.

John Arlott made a telling and melancholic point about Geoffrey. "He had," Arlott said, "a lonely career." That is true, but in essence the great batsmen are alone, or at least they are when they bat. Geoffrey is, in his quirky way, less alone now. I'm glad of that, and I'm glad I saw him play.

Jon Hotten blogs here. @theoldbatsman

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Big_Chikka on May 9, 2014, 22:10 GMT

    he played against some feisty bowling attacks, and did well,still like listening to him talk about the game, a cricketer at heart i think.............

  • dummy4fb on May 8, 2014, 14:08 GMT

    I watched the terrific innings of 146 Richard Turner mentions above. A few years later, playing golf against Surrey CCC, I discussed it with a couple of their bowlers. They had the idea "bowl full to Boycott -- he doesn't drive". That day he DID drive; the Surrey plan thus backfired. Boycott (and Close) enjoyed that bowling! For those who didn't see him play it's worth mentioning that people tended to keep their eye on Boycott even when he was just fielding -- from my memory, generally cover or thereabouts. Somehow he stood out.

  • ygkd on May 7, 2014, 22:44 GMT

    @waspsting - Yes, Gooch wasn't all that pretty which is probably why I personally remember Boycott's innings more affectionately. As for strike rates, (which wasn't my point in mentioning Gooch, although it was with Tavare) Gooch did bat at about a 10% faster clip in ODIs than Boycott, but then he was still playing over a decade later than Boycott, when strike rates and team scores did increase overall. Thus, if you take that into consideration, wherein lies the difference? Strike rates for Tests in Boycott's era were not something always considered. Boycott was a product of his times. I wasn't trying to compare Boycott with Gooch and Tavare etc, but rather point out that people seem to sometimes have an opinion formed of him which is totally second-hand (not everyone was around back then) or, even if they were, perhaps too influenced by the public thoughts of others. One can bat slowly without being boring. One can bat quickly and be as boring as watching the outfield grass grow.

  • bford1921 on May 7, 2014, 22:25 GMT

    a bloody minded man, that showed in his performance. Valued his wicket, in a game where to win taking 20 wickets was the primary requirement. Stood up to the best bowling around but never really a team man. He would walk into any test side in the world today. We now all benefit from the effort he put into batting as he dissects batting techniques with a man who understands how to play all types of bowling. A man you shouldn't like, but yet I find myself admiring immensely, not blessed with the talent of other players but squeezed out every bit out of what he had. If only others had his dedication.

  • Divinetouch on May 7, 2014, 19:25 GMT

    Gavaskar was way better than Boycott as a batman.

  • Insightful2013 on May 7, 2014, 18:51 GMT

    Lovely article. I admire Boycott tremendously for his temerity, tenacity and facing the music. He is a man to have a few pints with and a guaranteed good conversation. However, he appears to be selfish and grumpy. The attributes of a wonderful Granddad. Always cross! I cannot admire in the least his approach to batting or his technique. Too selfish and uninteresting! I use to have Yorkshire in-laws and rellies and they were the same. Opinionated and stubborn and all had 3 or more A levels. Well smart they were, except where social norms were required. That is Boycott, in my opinion!

  • Almaz on May 7, 2014, 16:54 GMT

    Re - pushes comment. If Yorks were playing the 1980 West Indies Team I'd want Boycott opening the batting. Sutcliffe was never, to my mind, tested against sustained high pace from 3 or 4 very quick bowlers. In Hutton ' s early career Australia did not field a great fast bowler. When Miller and Lindwall came along he stood up well.

  • nafzak on May 7, 2014, 15:42 GMT

    There is and will only be one Geoffrey Boycott. Many of us are too consumed with T/20 and fast scoring these days that we forget what it takes to be an openening batsman in a cricket match. Look, I love the entertainment value of T/20 batting, but let us not compare it to batting in a Test match. Even the bats of today offer a lot more power and are way lighter that in the days of Boycs. Not to mention the pitches (wickets), which are now much more favourable to the batsmen. As a West Indian, I did not care much back in the 70's for Boycs, but after he retired, the respect and appreciation began and contnue to sink in. The man was simply a legend. Also one of the 1st cricketers if not the 1st., to have a likenes of himself at Madame Tusaauds in London.

  • Almaz on May 7, 2014, 14:41 GMT

    Interesting discussion of an interesting man. History is subjective. If an objective analysis of bowling quality is considered as well as pitch quality, I'd bet you would find Boycott opened the batting in a period that contained some of the best attacks the world has ever seen. Look what happens when England come up against one really quick bowler these days. Boycott had guts by the bucket load. Difficult sometimes? Maybe, but because he was his own man. I'd want him in my team and if you read his books, he respected strong captains. Slow scoring vs valuable runs? I watched Boycott bat against Middlesex in 1986 at Lords. He ground out 60 or so (memory fails), with "flair" players such as Jim Love struggling to get the ball off the square. Boycott was lambasted by some of the Press the following day for boring cricket. Result of game? Yorks won by about 60 runs! All is not what it seems, but one thing is for sure. When you look at bowling quality and pitches, Boycs was a great!

  • puskas on May 7, 2014, 12:57 GMT

    Geoff always had a strange mixture of arrogance, verging on a lack of respect for his contemporaries and downright belittling batsmen of later generations, with a balanced view of his place in tradition. He could only open for an all-time Yorkshire XI if the "selector" were creative, perhaps pushing Sir Len down to 3 and pretending that Wilfred Rhodes was a bowling allrounder.

    This is as I believe he sees himself. He would have been right at home partnering Herbert Sutcliffe on a bad wicket in an attritional Roses or Ashes match.

    His honing the skills of a previous generation left him unsuited to the novelties of his day - one day cricket - but as a beacon to modern players that the skills of an earlier age had value, too. I for one am pleased to have seen the purity of his style.