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When Eknath Solkar got under the skin of Geoff Boycott, leading to a three-year self-imposed exile from Test cricket
July 26, 2014
India's reliance on spin had made them one of the most formidable sides of the early 1970s,and they came to England in 1974 having won all the three series they contested - two of them abroad - in the preceding three years. Of their previous 13 Test matches, they had won four and lost only one.
But by the time they visited England in 1974 they were past their best. They were also unfortunate enough to be given the first half of a split summer - Pakistan followed them in July and August - when weather was cold and wet, wretched conditions for spinners. Even Wisden remarked it was "outrageously unkind to the tourists".
They were whitewashed in the three-match series, with innings defeats in the second and third Tests, and also lost the two ODIs, their first experience of international one-day cricket. But the story that dominated the early part of the summer, as was so often the case, centred on Geoff Boycott.
The previous winter, England had drawn in the Caribbean under their new captain, Mike Denness. Boycott had played an important part, scoring 421 runs at 46.77 including 99 and 112 in the 26-run win in the final Test that squared the series. It was to be England's last Test victory in the Caribbean for 16 years.
But he had not enjoyed the tour and was at odds with Denness, whose own form had been poor (231 runs at 25.66). "By the last Test relationships between Denness and practically everyone had worn wafer-thin," Boycott wrote. "The press had no time for him and many players found it increasingly difficult to tolerate him."
The irony was that Boycott's role in the win had almost certainly saved his captain's bacon, something he realised only too well. "I felt sick when the significance of the situation sank in." He said he had even considered getting out cheaply in the second innings "but I could not bring myself to give it away".
Boycott, 34 at the time, started the summer with a hundred against the students at Cambridge but after that his form fell away. In Yorkshire's match against the Indians he made 15 and 14, dismissed both times by the gentle swing of Abid Ali and Eknath Solkar. The following week, for the MCC against the Indians, he scored 12 and 1, again falling twice to Solkar.
Solkar was a fairly ordinary left-arm seamer - as his Test record of 18 wickets at 59.44 confirms - and in 1974 his main role, along with Abid Ali, was to take the shine off the new ball for the spinners. But in favourable conditions his medium-pace allowed him to get prodigious movement.
Boycott's failure gave the press more than enough ammunition to suggest his technique against left-arm seam bowling was flawed. "In reality, his success was more a sign of my own poor form rather than his near-hypnotic abilities."
But in the three matches ahead of the opening Test he seemed to be back to his best, making 160 not out and 116 in the Test trial a week before. But in his mind the hundreds did not represent a return to form, and he admitted he was not sure how he had done so well.
Off the field, Boycott was engaged in one of the internal power-struggles that seemed an ever-present part of Yorkshire cricket in the 1970s. As captain of a struggling side, he had enough enemies on a bloated committee to ensure he often had to spend as much time on battling suits as he did on cricketing matters. To add to the pressure, it was also his benefit year, a more burdensome task in an era before professional fundraisers and agents.
Three days before the first Test, he was summoned to appear before the committee to explain why he had declined to chase a target of 244 in three-and-a-half hours in the Roses match, instead plodding to 124 for 3 with Boycott himself making 79 not out. The hearing was delayed when Boycott said he had had to visit a specialist to try to resolve a back problem.
On a rain-interrupted first day in Manchester, Boycott again fell cheaply, making 10 before being trapped lbw to Abid Ali by a ball that seamed back in. "He looked shocked and forlorn as he walked wearily away," wrote Crawford White in the Daily Express.
Behind the scenes, Denness was again at the forefront of Boycott's problems - "it was obvious he wanted as much to do with me as Black Death" - and he realised his enthusiasm to play for England had gone. "There was little satisfaction, very little involvement and even less pleasure."
Given all that, it was little surprise that Boycott again failed when England batted for a second time late on the Saturday evening, "a half-cock push" at Solkar - who else - to wicketkeeper Farokh Engineer for 6. "His once-prim, well-ordered world, is once again a shambles," noted the Daily Mirror.
As the media speculated over his future in the side, Boycott told Alec Bedser, the chairman of selectors, that he "was in no mental or emotional condition to play well for England". During a two-hour conversation, Bedser concluded by asking: "Do I understand you correctly? You don't want to play for England?" He was duly left out of the squad for the second Test.
Bedser told the press the selectors had "decided that in view of the pressures he feels and his loss of confidence he should be left out for the time being. I have seen this sort of situation with Boycott before. We want to help him and we want him fighting fit for [the following winter's] Ashes series."
There was a mixed reaction to the decision. "I am sure it is out of kindness that he has been given a break," wrote John Woodcock in the Times, " but I am not sure the selectors have made the right psychological decision … the best therapy would be a hundred at Lord's."
Boycott headed to Bath for Yorkshire's county match against Somerset but by the time he arrived he was physically ill and sat the game out. On the last day of the match he had recovered enough to find a game to rediscover his touch, scoring 108 in a club game for the Lansdown Club - where Viv Richards had made such an impression the year before - against a touring side from Selwyn College, Cambridge. The following day he scored 149 not out for Yorkshire in Sheffield.
Few expected a return to England colours that summer, but his inclusion in the touring party for the Ashes tour, announced in late August, was welcomed. Three weeks later he withdrew citing "very good personal reasons". In the Times, Woodcock was unimpressed. "The galling thing is, if he never intended to go, why accept?"
Bedser, again facing the press to explain the absence of his key batsman, said: "It is basically the same problem he had in June - he doesn't want to subject himself to the pressures of Test cricket again. We had a long talk but I did not try to force him to change his mind."
Whatever was going on behind the scenes, many believed the crux of the matter was the England captaincy that Boycott, Woodcock wrote, "wanted more than anything in the world". His frustration with Denness - shared by many others - accompanied by a lack of respect seemed to have become so intrusive that he could not play under him, although he claimed he "would not have made the tour under anybody".
And even when Denness quit early the following summer, the selectors plumped for Tony Greig, another player who Boycott did not always see eye-to-eye with. The self-imposed exile went on...
What happened next?
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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