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'Nobody in their right mind can back England'

Geoff Boycott on England's upcoming trial by spin, why South Africa can beat Australia, and his memories of playing in India

Siddhartha Talya: Hello and welcome to another Bowl at Boycs. Speaking to me today from Dubai is Geoffrey Boycott. Good morning, Geoffrey. There was a bit of uncertainty over the BBC commentary coming down to India for the Test series. It's resolved now. Happy to be making your way here?
Geoffrey Boycott: Yes, no problems at all. There are always hiccups. Looking forward to it. I know the people there love cricket and, fortunately, I have a good rapport with them. So I think the Test matches will be good. England have a number of problems but you could say India are in a sort of change, aren't they, with one or two of their great players going. So it's going to be interesting.
ST: Lots of Test cricket happening around the world. Sri Lanka will take on New Zealand, Bangladesh play West Indies, Australia play South Africa at home and India take on England in a four-match Test series starting in Ahmedabad on November 15. The first question of the day, from Atreya in India, is about that series.
He says: England haven't won a Test series in India in a while. Do you think this is their best chance, and are India at their most vulnerable for the first time in a while at home?
GB: Good question. Yes and no. England haven't convinced anyone that they can play the turning ball. I don't think they've convinced themselves. They might talk [about how] they've done lots of planning and preparation, but they actually haven't done it in the middle. So it really boils down to what sort of pitches are produced by the Indian groundsmen. If the pitches turn, which they usually do… by the third, fourth or fifth day they will turn at some stage. How much will they spin is important. And who wins the toss, that's vital. If you can win the toss and have a chance of putting up a really big first-innings total on a pretty good batting surface before the ball spins, then make no mistake, that is really a vital factor.
If the pitches stay flat, England have some good batsmen who can score heavily. But I don't think anybody can believe that you can go to India and the pitches won't turn at some stage. It just always happens that way. Occasionally you get a very flat one over five days. Nobody can back England. Nobody in their right mind can back England until England play well on the subcontinent.
There are young guys there, like Joe Root, who's played very little county cricket, never mind anything else. There's young Jonny Bairstow. I know them both from Yorkshire. Extremely talented, but the turning ball? They don't see that very much in English conditions these days. The pitches have got great covering. They are dry and flat. In the old days we used to play on uncovered pitches. They could find it very difficult. Then there's this guy [Nick] Compton. He is a new boy to this sort of bowling; he hasn't seen anything like that in English cricket.
For India, if Zaheer Khan can stay fit, he's a really fine bowler with the new ball and the old ball. He's an old warrior. On Indian pitches he's been known to be very good, get early wickets and let the spinners do the job when the batsmen are under pressure.
Now I know a lot of people, like the [one who asked the] question, say that India are in transition. No Dravid, no Laxman, the great names are gone. Sachin [Tendulkar] is at the end of a fabulous career - not sure how he will play. [Virender] Sehwag looks vulnerable, bit of loss of form. He's always been a mercurial batsman but done well in the subcontinent. Now Yuvraj [Singh] as well, he's been ill and not played for many months. These are all question marks everybody is conscious of about these very well known players.
But India are still good. They've got captain [MS] Dhoni there, who is still a very fine player. [Gautam] Gambhir is a very good batsman at home. He struggled in England where the ball bounces and seams a great deal more, but at home in India, he is a very good player. [Virat] Kohli is a top young batsman, he's a real quality player in the making.
India usually play well at home. The players are used to the slower bounce in the pitches, that's the key. It doesn't move as much with the new ball and it doesn't move for long. And it's the lower bounce, it doesn't get up high past the chin. They like their own food, they'll get home support. They may look a little vulnerable for these questions that I've posed, but I still fancy India over England. There are far too many ifs and buts about the English batting. Sorry, I'm not sure they're going to do it, the English batting.
ST: Geoffrey, when India went to England in July last year, they had a lot of problems against pace. Do you see the England pace attack making an impact in Indian conditions?
GB: I'm not sure even the Indian fast bowlers will make too big an impact. What you want from your fast bowlers on either side is get a couple of wickets. Although spinners are vital in India, it's helpful if your spinners don't have to get all ten. That's much harder work. When you start, when you come on bowling, after a number of overs have been bowled and the ball has lost a little shine and you are expected to take ten wickets… if you've got a seamer like Zaheer or James Anderson, who can nip you out a couple, then the batting sides are a bit under pressure and you've got eight wickets to pick with the spinners. That's much easier. But when you just rely on spin to take all ten, unless it's a real raging turning pitch, a real big one, then the spinners can do it… but, you know, you want a pitch that's really decent and turns a bit.
The England seamers will be all right. I know they've had injuries. I like [Graham] Onions, as well as Anderson. They keep picking everybody else but I think Onions is a good bowler.
ST: Our next question is about a series happening Down Under. It's a series between two major teams, and there's a contest on for the No. 1 spot in the Test rankings. Aaron writes in from the UK. He says: There's no Pat Cummins but Australia still have a strong attack. Can South Africa beat them, as they had done almost four years ago?
GB: Yes, I think they can. They are No. 1 in the world because they are the real deal. They are a very good team. They are good in batting, bowling - seam bowling, particularly - catching… They've got only one weak link, have South Africa. That's Imran Tahir. For me, he's too expensive, is their legspinner; there's too many easy balls to hit, and that lets the pressure off batsmen than keeping it on. [Dale] Steyn, [Morne] Morkel, [Vernon] Philander, these guys are from the top drawer - terrific attack. Plus a bit of Jacques Kallis. He's getting on a bit now but he'll still bowl about ten overs a day if need be. They are some deal.
The biggest threat to South Africa not winning the series is their self-belief. If deep down they really can have the conviction and confidence that they can win, really believe it… it's not enough in top sport to hope you can win, you really have to believe it deep down. Not talk a good game, but play a good game. If they do that, they can win.
"Winning will be nice, that's what you play for, but, more than anything, they have to perform because if they make two mess-ups, then it will just show that they've learnt nothing."
Boycott on England
You've got to remember that Australia's batting has a big question mark over it. It doesn't look that great. You've got [Michael] Clarke, the captain, who's a fine batsman. The left-hander Michael Hussey is still a fine player. But there's a number of question marks about the rest of the players. They're still searching, are Australia, for a good-looking, settled batting order. They've got the Ashes coming up in England next summer and they still don't look settled. I know their seam bowling will be all right, even without Cummins. I would have played Cummins definitely, he's a fine young bowler. I also liked Mitchell Starc, who played at Yorkshire this year. He's a fantastic bowler and he's been in the best bowling form of his life, left-arm as well, over and round the wicket. This kid is really good. So they'll be okay in seam bowling.
You've got to think, well, they're at home, are Australia, but they do look very vulnerable.
ST: Time for a bit of a flashback and this is leading into Geoffrey's favourite question for this show. It comes from Sameer in India. He says: Geoffrey, you didn't play a Test match in India until 1980, 16 years after you made your Test debut. But you did play your last Test in India, in January 1982. What are the memories that stand out for you of having played Test cricket in India?
GB: I didn't come for most of my career. I was worried. I lost my spleen in an accident when I was nine and doctors told me at the time that the conditions in India could have been very difficult for me.
But when I did come, I loved the crowds, full stadiums, so I was lucky. When you play Test cricket now in India, crowds are very few. They've all got into ODI and T20 cricket; the IPL's taken off. I was lucky. In the era I played the game, ODI cricket hadn't yet captured many cricket lovers' attention. Test match cricket was still a fantastic event and occasion that cricket lovers wanted to go to and watch. When I played at Calcutta, my last Test match, it was a full house. You don't see that too often now. There must have been 80,000-100,000. It was fantastic. I played at the Wankhede Stadium, which I really liked. I felt that the smaller stadiums, with the crowds so close, made for a fantastic atmosphere and India beat us there in '81, and deservedly so.
I have memories of Delhi, where I scored my world record for most Test runs, when I passed the total of the greatest cricketer I've ever seen, Garfield Sobers. I said then and now that making more Test runs than Garry didn't then make me a better batsman than him and it still doesn't. It's facts and figures and they never lie. They tell you that the guy was pretty good, whoever he is, but they never tell everything.
I remember playing against the three great spinners. Now that was something. Bishan Bedi, he could bowl, and that Chandra [Bhagwat Chandrasekhar], wow. When he had a good day, he was very difficult. They were a handful, with [Erappalli] Prasanna as well. They were a handful, but it was the competitive thrill of playing against such great spinners that if you succeeded, made runs and did well, you felt that you had scaled a mountain. That you had done something really good because you knew you were playing great bowlers.
I enjoyed playing against Kapil Dev. He was one of the great allrounders with Imran Khan, Ian Botham and Richard Hadlee. With the new ball, he had the most fantastic action. All you saw was the back. You didn't see the shoulder, you saw his back - he turned his shoulders that much. He had such a fluid, high action, swung the ball out, which is the most dangerous delivery for any batsman. He was a real handful with the new ball. He got me out sometimes and other times I succeeded, and that's the challenge. If you can succeed against the truly great bowlers then that's what you want as a player. You're in there to test yourself, test your skill and character.
Watching Sunil Gavaskar bat... technical excellence, beautiful batsman with lovely footwork, his concentration and determination was 100%. I didn't know him very well then, just watched his batting, and we've become good friends doing TV commentary together. It's one thing to become a great batsman, but he's a great human being - straight, honest, loyal, and he's got a naughty sense of humour, which I love.
Some wonderful memories, and I'm looking forward to this series. For England, it's a bigger series than [for] India. Remember, in February-March, they absolutely got outplayed by Pakistan in the UAE on pitches that turned. They couldn't pick the doosra, they were a right mess, they made some real cock-ups in batting. Deep down they know, and we were watching as ex-players and public, that they are under real pressure. They're under pressure to perform. It's not about winning. Yes, winning will be nice, that's what you play for, but more than anything, they have to perform because if they make two mess-ups, then it will just show that they've learnt nothing.
They say they have been practising, they say they have been trying to work it out - this doosra business and everything. It's one thing to practise, one thing to think about it. Now you've got to go and do it. If they really make another mess-up, then I don't know where they go from there. I really don't. And I think they're going to struggle. [Kevin] Pietersen will be all right, he's a class act. [Alastair] Cook somewhere will get some runs. But [Ian] Bell had a terrible time against the doosra and the turning ball and he's a wonderful player. He's going home for the second Test because his wife is having a baby. Then you're left with a lot of young kids. Jonathan Trott will work hard and graft, but there's a few other spaces where I'm not sure how the batsmen will do. I'm looking forward to it. I'm crossing my fingers, because as a former England Test player I want them to do well. But I need to cross all the toes on my feet and all the fingers.
ST: Here's hoping for an exciting Test series. It gets underway in a week's time. Geoffrey, one final question. You did play in the Jubilee Test in 1980 didn't you?
GB: Played at the Wankhede Stadium, which we did win actually, by ten wickets. And I met Mr Wankhede. I liked him a lot, I got along really good with him. I'm sorry he's passed away now. I liked him, he built his own stadium, and it was a great atmosphere. We were coming from Australia and we came to celebrate your Jubilee, and that's the first time I came.
ST: Thanks a lot for that, Geoffrey.
That's a wrap on today's show. Please don't forget to send us your questions using the feedback form, and Geoffrey will be joining us from Mumbai the next time we get together. He'll be watching the second Test between India and England then and we'll be sure to pick his brains when we catch up again. Thank you for tuning in and we'll see you again in two weeks.