Never another like Geoffrey
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.
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.