August 2007

I say what I like and I like what I say

Kevin Mitchell
Kevin Mitchell on Geoffrey Boycott's splendid form behing the mike

'The old boy has had a vintage summer' © Getty Images

Unlike many of the wretched players who have failed under his critical gaze this summer, Geoffrey Boycott has been in what Henry Blofeld might call "splendid form" behind the microphone.

He has zeroed in on Chris Gayle's sleepwalking coolness, he has lambasted the lack of fire in West Indies bowlers and the waywardness of England's, he has put the case for and against Paul Collingwood as captain, without conceding it was a forgone conclusion; he has, as ever, taken nothing for granted.

In short, the old boy has had a vintage summer. That he has done so while coping with the burden of his cancer treatment is testimony to his courage and professionalism.

I'm presuming, by the way, that Boycott and Blofeld are on cordial terms. It's sometimes hard to know who Boycott is and isn't talking to. If you haven't had at least a minor run-in with him in or around the press box over the years, you're probably invisible or have stopped breathing.

But who would have it any other way? Boycott, notably among the plethora of post-playing-days experts paid to point out the shortcomings, and occasionally the excellence, of their successors, has always provided a robust counterpoint to, say, the more subtle ways of Richie Benaud.

Geoffrey doesn't do irony. Or compromise. But he does do Yorkshire. Not in the way the late Fred Trueman did, nor in the unintentionally hilarious manner of Brian Close, or with the slightly bitter tone of Ray Illingworth. Boycott's nod towards the stereotypes of his county has always been invested with lashings of sound judgment. His views may be brutally delivered, and take little account of the sensitivities of those not lucky enough to be born the greatest living Yorkshireman - give Simon Mann a break, Geoffrey - but, quite simply, he is rarely wrong.

Allied to his forthrightness, such certitude lifts him above most of his colleagues. It is what he is paid to do - just as he was paid to score runs, not entertain. I'm sure Boycott meant it when he said in his autobiography: "I would exchange the rest of my life for five more years of playing for Yorkshire and England." Yet, when he did finish playing, he walked away with the same resolution he showed at the crease, as if the work of scoring runs should be brought to a definitive close.

He remembers it to the very minute, as he told The Observer a few years ago: "September 12, 1986, at Scarborough, playing for Yorkshire. I walked off the pitch at exactly 5.21pm. I showered, waited for all the players to leave, then had a final stroll around the ground. I felt a real sadness but I knew I wouldn't play again, no matter how much money people wanted to give me."

There never was much ambiguity about Boycott's attachment to making money, not that it's a crime. Similarly, when he was stepping out with various women, he could legitimately point out that he was, after all, a single man and his private life was his own business.

Whatever he says, great is what Boycott always wanted to be. Was he a great batsman? A lot of objective observers would say very nearly. Is he a great commentator? For what it's worth, I think so

In everything he does and says, there is certainty, or at least the striving for it. He is not someone to entertain doubts over the smallest detail of his existence. Whenever he has detected even a small flaw, he has gone to work to correct it. As a player, he became a sound fielder through hard work, and he even bowled serviceable seamers. His one concession to unconformity was to keep his cap on when bowling. I remember interviewing Close and Boycott within a couple of months of each other and being struck by a key difference in two outwardly similar personalities. I asked each of them when they had last picked up a cricket bat.

For Close it was easy: he was still turning out with Yorkshire's academy side at the time, well into his sixties. Boycott was adamant he had not been tempted. That day in Scarborough was it.

For Boycott, playing cricket was always about doing it at or near the highest level. There was no point, as far as he could see, in doing it just for fun. It would demean his talent. Scoring runs, as many as possible, and defending his wicket, as resolutely as he could, was a personal obligation as much as a commitment to those who depended on him to make the most of his gifts.

Close recalls promoting himself up the order to ginger up Boycott in the Gillette Cup final for Yorkshire against Surrey in 1965 and was rewarded with the spectacular sight of the young curmudgeon opening his shoulders to strike three sixes and 15 fours on his way to 146. Boycott, naturally, disputes Close's account.

If there is a downside to this dogged, disputatious approach to life, it is in what seems to be a lack of lightness. You wonder if someone who is never wrong, who demands so much of himself - and, consequently of others - can ever be content, can ever be wholly satisfied with his lot. But isn't that the price of greatness? And, whatever he says, great is what Boycott always wanted to be. Was he a great batsman? A lot of objective observers would say very nearly. Is he a great commentator? For what it's worth, I think so.

Kevin Mitchell is chief sports writer of The Observer