June 21, 2014

Boycott remains a priceless voice

Cricket is still the fire in Geoff Boycott's belly. His passion is undimmed and each moment of each day is watched, analysed and forensically thought through before the burst of opinion is unleashed

"Morning, Yorkshire and England here," he says, at rather more than a stage whisper. Today's hat has a straw coloured band and the extravagant signature is embossed in red across the right temple. His beige jacket is matched with a green shirt and that by a rather charming green tie that is patterned with butterfly motifs. The famous face looks well, suntanned and fit. The jaw remains strong and its smile still quirky, wonky and mischievous. The scars of throat cancer can be seen if you look closely and, to some degree, they are worn as a badge of honour. Forget Holding, Croft, Roberts and Garner, cancer was the toughest challenge. By a mile.

It is 50 years since Geoffrey Boycott made his England debut. From that day he has been public property. His batting, the controversies that littered his career, his opinions and the faux pas that so delight him and his audience are the stuff of legend. He says he should have been picked by England six months earlier but then he would say that, wouldn't he? After the grumble, he admits that not going to India in 1963-64 might have been a bonus. Thus, it was in early June 1964 that Boycott first walked out to bat for his beloved country against Australia at Trent Bridge. He made 48. When he retired 18 years later, he had scored 8114 runs at an average of 47.72. In the days of uncovered pitches and some fine new-ball bowlers, that is some performance.

He has regrets, of course he does. Cancer softened his soul and made him see that life outside the game was worth pursuing. He used to say that he would swap the rest of his days for another five years batting for England. He wouldn't say that now. The two girls in his life - wife Rachael and 25-year-old daughter Emma - have given him something in which to rejoice, something beyond bat and ball. Yes, he can still polarise opinion but in the main, he is much loved and were he suddenly not here, would be much missed.

It is 11.10am on the second morning of the Headingley Test. Already Geoffrey has made a scene of himself, marching to the middle before play, shaking various hands before doing a turn for radio and then, remarkably, strolling down the net in which Liam Plunkett was batting to tell him how brilliantly he had bowled the previous day. No one would walk into a net like that, not even the England captain, but Geoffrey did.

The commentary box door opens and Desmond Haynes walks in. It is a complete surprise. He shakes Michael Vaughan's hand and then he and Boycott embrace - the battles of the past stay with them forever. "Boycs, I thought you were going to teach me how to make a few million quid" says Haynes. "I'm too busy making them for myself," replies Boycott and they both corpse with laughter. "Alastair Cook better sort his technique out," says Haynes. "Aye. Feet and hands are wrong. 'Tis a terrible thing this loss of form. They pitch it up to him now, you see, and he is feeling for the ball outside off stump. That channel is difficult for everyone early in an innings, I don't care who you are, or how good you are."

They lick their lips at the idea of the Sri Lankan bowlers. One, guess who, says "they would never get me out". The other, guess who, says he would spank them around the park. They are impressed by Gary Ballance. Neither is sure about Sam Robson but greatly approve of his keen mind and obvious concentration. Later Boycott applauds the hundred. "A tremendous achievement. Better footwork and composure than at Lord's. He played nice and tight, the hundred is a bonus, the improvement is what counts most because better bowlers are around the corner." They swap phone numbers and then, with another hug, Haynes says goodbye.

Dickie Bird was a bit taken aback on Friday when his old pal started talking about his crush on Katie Perry. Boycott saw her in concert recently and raved about it. "Yuh, and the photo we had together has made her famous"

We could sell tickets to the Channel 5 box. Boycott is a hoot and everyone, from prince to pauper, wants to rub his shoulder. He never lets them down. At Lord's, Lord Coe came by with his wife, Carole, who is the daughter of the former England captain Mike Smith. Geoffrey fired off about the man who invented Hawk Eye getting an OBE. It was as bad, he said, as Paul Collingwood "who played one match in the 2005 Ashes, made 11 runs and got a gong. F*** me, I might as well hang mine around the cat for all it's worth." To which Seb Coe said, "Not a good time to tell you I'm chairman of the Honours committee then!" "Oh crikey, there's me knighthood gone," exclaimed our hero. Carole laughs. "Aye, and your dad should have played straighter too. Lovely man but a leg-side Harry!"

Cricket is still the fire in Boycott's belly. His passion is undimmed and each moment of each day is watched, analysed and forensically thought through before the burst of opinion is unleashed. He claims his television and radio work is instinctive but it results from a life spent in thrall of a game that captivated him from the first minute he set eyes upon it. "Fred Trueman here in 1952, wonderful. He took three wickets in his first over. We all went mad." From that point on, he read the books and studied Wisden. He has a view on everything about the game and on everyone who plays it. Of course, many of the Boycott prophecies are self-serving but the longer you know him, the more you see that the colours are true and the ambition comes from his heart.

Ian Bell is playing his 100th Test and it is here, at Headingley, the venue where Boycs scored his 100th first-class hundred against Australia. "August 11th, 1977," he says. "At five to six in the evening - I waited until people had finished work so they could see it (he said that, honest he did) - Greg Chappell bowled a juicy half-volley and as I hit it back past leg stump at the other end, I knew it was four. My arms were up before the ball had passed mid-on."

He is furious with himself for opting out after Mike Denness was given the captaincy he coveted. "Daft. Think of all those runs I missed out on, three years worth of runs. If I had my time again, I'd do a lot of things differently. That would be one. Another would be not going to Australia after my mum died. I was an emotional mess. Rodney Hogg was all over me that tour and my mind wasn't up to the challenge. They pleaded with me to go and I had a lot of time for Mike Brearley so I went. But it was a mistake."

It is 5.45pm. Rachael is in the box. She says she was born about the time Trueman was bowling the over that sold the game to her husband. Geoffrey asks us to check it in Wisden. "The Indians were none for four. The atmosphere was electric. Anyone would have fallen in love with cricket that day, even your friend the cook."

Good story this. Heston Blumenthal visited the commentary box last summer. Boycott shook his hand and said, " Hello, you're the cook." "Er, I guess so," said Blumenthal. "I've heard you're good but expensive, so I'll tell you what I'll do. You come to my house and cook for me and if it's any good, I'll go to your restaurant and pay for your food." Great deal, thought Heston.

Occasionally, someone is offended. These extraordinary statements, often made to strangers, mean no harm. They are the risks of the showman for attention is a currency. He loves meeting new people and loves them loving him. Ideally, he will make them laugh, if not he will impress with his reading of the game or the encyclopaedic knowledge that accompanies it.

His daughter says that a once grumpy so-and-so has turned into a social butterfly. As if to prove this, he sometimes disappears from the commentary box for as long as a couple of hours at lunch. Dickie Bird was a bit taken aback on Friday when his old pal started talking about his crush on Katy Perry. Boycott saw her in concert recently and raved about it. "Yuh, and the photo we had together has made her famous."

Sir Michael Parkinson once said, "If Geoffrey's job is to be an expert on cricket, there is no one in the world better at their job." Aged 72, alive and still kicking many a backside, sipping a little Chardonnay and moving between homes in Cape Town, Jersey and west Yorkshire, Geoffrey Boycott is in rude health. And I mean it; if he was not, we would miss him hugely.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK