Thirty-two years after the beloved "few" Spitfire pilots had belted the life out of the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, Geoff Boycott was gearing himself up for an Ashes campaign. On Monday, May 8, 1972, Boycott, whose very surname conjures images of stoppage and veritable inertia, played a knock so grand on a lump of black pudding masquerading as a wicket that it defied belief.
In the wake of bad weather, the scheduled Australia v Yorkshire three-day match in Bradford was abandoned and in its stead the players agreed to play two one-day games. So bad was the state of the bowlers' approaches that their run-ups were restricted to 15 paces.
In game one, Yorkshire batted first and amassed 176 runs for 6 in 50 overs. Later that day the heavens opened up to ruin the match, but already it had belonged to Boycott. The ball was seaming and spinning all over the place. Often it "did too much" and evaded the edges of quality batsmen such as John Hampshire (0), before he finally touched one, and Barry Leadbeater (45), who fell lbw.
Not Boycott. He batted like a man possessed. I doubt whether Don Bradman or Viv Richards in their zenith could have played an innings of better quality than Boycott did on that day on that shocking surface. He drove with extraordinary skill past mid-on, and when the ball was slightly short he moved back and hit crisply through cover. He cut and pulled, and once advanced down the track - yes, Boycott coming at you in the heat of battle was about as likely as Prince Charles batting three for England - and hit me clear over the football stand.
Another Yorkshire great, the spinner Hedley Verity, who used to worry Bradman on a good track, could dismiss him in the blink of an eye on a bad one, like at Lord's in 1934, where he took 15 for 104. Bradman (36 and 13) fell both times to Verity.
The wiseacres of yore say that Victor Trumper was the greatest player of all time on a poor pitch, like the sticky dog at the MCG against England in 1903-04, where he hit 74 out of an Australian total of 122. Most deliveries landing on such a turf rear menacingly, spitting venom like a striking cobra. The one in Melbourne in 1904 was arguably a more difficult wicket on which to bat than the black-pudding Bradford pitch of 1972, but either surface would have proved exceedingly difficult for any batsmen of any era, and would have required amazing ability to merely survive on, let alone play an array of strokes that beggared belief. In that 1904 epic, England's Wilfred Rhodes, who bowled left-arm spin very much in the manner of Verity, took a match haul of 15 for 124.
Early on that day in Bradford in 1972, Bob Massie got one to move away from Boycott and the ball skewed past slip to the third-man boundary. And there was Boycott rushing up the track yelling, "Nowt off the edge, I turned face, I turned face." He certainly had that ability, although I rather fancy his batting that day was very much a matter of Boycott turning the other cheek.
Bob Massie got one to move away from Boycott and the ball skewed past slip to the third-man boundary. Boycott rushed up the track, yelling, "Nowt off the edge, I turned face, I turned face"
I once cornered the great Australian allrounder Keith Miller and asked him for his opinion of Boycott the batsman. "Ahem," he said, clearing his throat, "Boycott is as good defensively as was the great Len Hutton… but for god's sake, don't tell Boycott!"
Despite his wonderful batting in Bradford, Boycott struggled in the 1972 Ashes. He scored 8 and 47 in the first Test, at Old Trafford, and 11 and 6 in the second, at Lord's.
In the second innings at Lord's, he fell unluckily to Dennis Lillee after the ball struck him high on his left pad, flew high over his shoulder, fell to ground and spun back towards the stumps. Boycott turned around, trying to get a handle on the ball's whereabouts, only to watch helplessly as it bounded into the leg stump with just enough force to remove one bail.
An enraged Boycott stormed off the ground and legend has it he spent the next hour circling the big table in the England Lord's dressing room muttering to all and sundry: "Blerdy Colley slogs for 25 and I'm out playing properly for 6. There's no blerdy justice in this game." Australian tailender David Colley had managed a 43-ball 25 in the first innings. There was also a rumour that Boycs had a hand-saw brought to the dressing room, whereupon he ceremoniously cut his bat in two.
Boycott missed the rest of the series when he broke his finger. After England lost the Lord's Test, in which Massie took 16 for 137 on debut, the home team's shrewd captain, Ray Illingworth, decided to screen some film of Massie's bowling. England all sat down to watch how the bowler's swing had caused their downfall. Unfortunately (or fortunately) the film proved a monumental cock-up, for it somehow showed Massie bowling left-arm and the left-handed John Edrich batting right. The meeting was abandoned and the players decided to have a few pints instead. And that's probably what should have happened in the first place.
During the previous Ashes series, in 1970-71, when Boycott had batted magnificently in England's regaining the urn, the finger-flick bowler John Gleeson had had some of the English batsmen in a flap. They couldn't read the direction of spin, although in truth most of Gleeson's deliveries hit the turf and carried on gun-barrel straight. In the fourth Test, in Sydney, Edrich walked down the track and said: "Boycs, I've worked out which way Gleeson's spinning them." Boycott looked Edrich in eye and said: "I worked Gleeson out two Tests ago, but don't tell those boogers back in the dressing room!"
In that series Rodney Marsh regularly sidled up to Boycott after a day's play for a chat and managed to get all the inside knowledge on all the England batsmen -other than Boycott himself. Sadly for Australia, we didn't have the requisite firepower in our attack to make any impression on what was a top-line England batting line-up.
A few weeks before that Ashes series began, England played a four-day match against South Australia. Boycott hit an unbeaten 173 before Illingworth called a halt to the innings. At the end of the day's play Boycott was in the nets, smashing every ball from a group of eager, perspiring bowling aspirants.
The great Barry Richards, who played that summer for South Australia, watched Boycott in the nets and said, "I'll show him what batting's all about tomorrow." True to his word, Richards batted in sensational fashion, hitting a flawless 224 against an attack that included John Snow, John Lever, Basil d'Oliveira and Derek Underwood.
I last saw Boycott in Auckland in March this year. He fought a brave and winning battle over throat cancer. He's always been good company, but nowadays the more mellowed Boycott is even better company, with his wealth of stories and that grand Yorkshire humour.
This Ashes summer Geoff Boycott will be on hand, delivering in his own inimitable style. Recently he said of Australian Test offspinner Nathan Lyon: "He wouldn't get my mum out." He may be proved wrong there, but Boycs will be Boycs: he will say it in his own inimitable way.