To older generations it could smack of heresy to promote Keith Boyce as a latter-day Learie Constantine. Yet with the same exciting methods and uninhibited zest Boyce was outstanding in the outstanding West Indies side of 1973 in England. His deeds for his adopted county of Essex could scarcely have been bettered by the great Connie, who epitomised all that is best in his country's cricket.
Whether bowling fast, batting in joyous abandon or fielding, Boyce, born in the parish of St. Peter, Barbados, on October 11, 1943, has all the exuberant skills of his race. Graced with a lithe athletic frame, his every movement suggests physical power to spare.
In English eyes the West Indies were slow to accept the bubbling potential of an all-rounder who would not know how to give anything but his one hundred per cent best at all times. When the West Indies were struggling to find the right blend he was given only one Test against India in 1970-71, and he was kept in the wings until the visit of Australia in 1973. Boyce played in four Tests without, it must be admitted, suggesting he would be the star of the series in England. In six innings against Australia he managed only 97 runs with an average of 16.16, and his nine wickets cost 37.77 each, which was modest enough compared with the other bowlers. Only Lance Gibbs was less expensive.
Boyce, to use his own words, fancied his bowling against England, but even he must have been surprised at the extent of his triumph. In the first Test at the Oval his eleven wickets for 147 was the best return by a West Indies cricketer against England, overtaking the eleven for 152 by Sonny Ramadhin at Lord's, 1950, and by Gibbs at Old Trafford, 1963.
Much can be made of the weakness of England's batting, but both at The Oval, where he added 72 runs to his bowling success, and in the Third Test at Lord's, Boyce was the arch destroyer. His constant attack -- the essence of all Boyce's cricket -- brought eight further wickets for 99 at Lord's, and he completed the series unchallenged at the head of the West Indies bowling averages with 19 wickets at 15.47 each. For a three-Test rubber that was good going. Gibbs, with nine, was the second highest wicket-taker, and it was hardly more than a formality to present Boyce with the £300 Prudential-Wisden award as the player of the series. Of that there could be little argument.
It was rightly judged that the re-emergence of the West Indies as a world cricketing power was founded on the impact made by the comparative newcomers Boyce and Bernard Julien, of Kent, and the majestic return of Gary Sobers. Sobers, in fact, has always been a champion of Boyce and when captain in England in 1965 he wanted him for at least one Test but was overruled.
Boyce's success at the highest level should finally dispose of the glib and oft-repeated excuse for England's failure that Test techniques are destroyed by one-day cricket. As Wisden commented in 1972: "In instant cricket there is no one more attractive than Boyce."
He was the first to reach 1,000 runs and 100 wickets in the 40-over John Player League, a feat recognised by the sponsors with a £100 award, and he has twice been Man of the Match in the Gillette Cup. In 1969 he won the single-wicket tournament at Lord's, ousting Sobers in the first round and scoring 84 off 46 balls in the final -- despite being knocked unconscious by a return from the field from the seventh ball!
His comment on an incident which would have put paid to most cricketers was typical. "The accident must have put a bit of sense in me" he said. "I felt the message must be for me to hit the ball, not for the ball to hit me."
Boyce in spectacular action is one of cricket's most stirring sights, and it is difficult to imagine that he was once a leg break bowler and a defensive batsman with his sporting interests divided between cricket and soccer. One experience as goalkeeper for Barbados against Chelsea, on tour in the West Indies, persuaded him that cricket must be his game. Not that it was all that difficult a decision, for like most boys of his age he already played from sunrise until the twilight which steals with gentle but swift finality over Barbados. Soon the young Boyce was displaying above average ability on an island where playing standards are as high as any in the world.
For Empire, one of the island's strongest clubs, he played alongside Everton Weekes -- his hero until he unashamedly switched to Sobers -- Seymour Nurse and Charlie Griffith. The next rung on the ladder of promotion was Barbados B, but he was still at Coleridge and Parry School, where he stayed until he was 18, when a significant change was made in his methods. The groundsman Orman Best, supported by the games master Ernest Rochford, persuaded him to move from defence to offence.
Boyce acknowledges a debt to both, and Mr. Best, in particular, gave him every help and encouragement. Oddly in the nets Boyce bowled fast and became a spinner only in the middle. He began to enjoy the thrill of driving in front of the wicket, and of letting his magnificent frame let rip with fast bowling.
For all that, it was as a leg spinner he was chosen for Barbados against the touring Cavaliers from England in February 1965, a match destined to change the course of his life and career. Cavaliers included Trevor Bailey, then secretary of Essex, and Leslie Ames, secretary-manager of Kent, and the story is well known that Bailey took Boyce and Ames engaged John Shepherd on the evidence of the match.
Boyce's fairy godmother has never lacked good timing, and it was providential for him that the fixture took place some days before the first Test of the West Indies-Australia series of that year. As a result the fast bowlers Wes Hall and Griffith were ordered to Jamaica --yet several days before they had anticipated they would be required to leave.
Their absence meant Boyce had to be used as a fast bowler, a fact which surprised him when he was told in the dressing room. Bailey was so taken with Boyce that he contacted him at the first interval and signed him as a fast bowler without seeing him hold a bat. Imagine Bailey's feelings when Boyce scored 55 in his only innings in the game!
Boyce arrived in England in 1965 and spent two years' qualifying. For the first time in his life he had coaching lessons. Back home he had absorbed the advice of Dr. Bertie Clarke, E. A. V. Williams and Denis Atkinson, Test bowlers all, but he needed to be taught the forward defensive stroke as a concession to English conditions. Unless he did so, he was told, he might as well catch the first banana boat back to Barbados.
Rarely has an English county been favoured with such an enthusiastic recruit, and as Frank Rist, the Essex coach at the time, recalls he was invariably the first to arrive and the last to leave coaching sessions. For 2nd XI and other matches he repeatedly left the opposition in disarray as if they had been in the path of a hurricane. Once he hit 125 before lunch after starting his innings at 12.30!
In his first senior game for Essex in 1966 he took nine Cambridge University wickets for 61 in an innings, and thirteen for 108 in all. Once he was launched it did not take him long to reach 100 first-class wickets, and all who witnessed it will remember the occasion. His 100th came in mid-afternoon in the torrid heat of Karachi for a Commonwealth side captained by Richie Benaud.
It was so hot that only the incorrigible Boyce attempted to bowl at normal speed. Suddenly the proceedings were enlivened by a whoop of delight as Boyce hit the stumps. The fielders maintain the bails had not reached the ground before Boyce was proclaiming "That's my 100th, lads."
Benaud helped Boyce a lot on that unofficial tour of Pakistan. Every morning he took Boyce to the nets and encouraged him to reduce the length of his final strides and avoid no-balling. He was urged to bowl closer to the stumps to make his outswinger more effective. No pupil could have been keener, and he never wanted to rest. Even when he was given a match off--against his wishes -- he changed in the hope of fielding substitute. When the home team needed a fielder he was on the field before the local twelfth man realised he was wanted. Such is Boyce's enthusiasm.
His one bowling worry of wasteful no-balling remains to some extent with him. If he is repeatedly no-balled he is inclined to worry and lose confidence. In the Oval Test he found his rhythm right away and he set himself a standard from which he rarely departed.
The real charm and strength of Boyce's performance lies in his instinctive flair and an almost boyish, unsophisticated wish to be involved in the game all the time. Blessed with unusual physical strength he has balance and a sense of timing. His speed in the field is reinforced with a powerful throw, but for Essex he is equally facile as a close-to-the-wicket catcher. During the Lord's Test the whole crowd erupted in appreciation when going full pelt he cut off a certain boundary, and in one movement returned straight to the wicket-keeper. Had that piece of fielding been filmed it could provide the classic instruction for all time.
The Essex combative attitude has suited Boyce. Twice he has been close to completing the double of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets, and there was a memorable 147 against Hampshire at Ilford when Essex had tacitly given up the match as lost before the start of play on the last day.
His philosophy to the game is refreshingly simple. "I like to attack" he says. "If the ball is pitched up to me I try and hit it as far as I can, and when it goes a long way I have a deep inner satisfaction. I have never regretted taking up cricket professionally, and I can't understand any player not enjoying himself tremendously."
Therein lies Boyce's secret -- his passion for cricket and a total rejection of a game as a technical exercise. Married, with a daughter, he plans to continue playing for Essex as long as he is able, which is good news for Essex. Comparisons may be odious but one fact can be certain -- Constantine would have approved greatly of Boyce.--A.B.