Geoffrey Boycott

The centurions of 1977

Terry Brindle

Geoffrey Boycott's place in cricket folklore was assured long before that warm Headingley evening last summer when he succeeded where only would-be bombers and the infernal weather had succeeded before and stopped an English Test match in its tracks for almost ten minutes.

Boycott's hundredth century -- in a Test Match, before his Yorkshire public -- was indeed the stuff that dreams are made of. There was hardly a dry contact lens in the house.

But the abiding significance of his hundredth century was not simply statistical; Boycott himself conceded that one century on record was much the same as the one before or the one to follow. It was the realisation, vitally important to Boycott himself, that the public were prepared to accept his peace offering after a controversial absence from Test cricket.

Boycott and controversy have shared the longest opening partnership in the game. The owlish, introverted young man who broke into county cricket with Yorkshire in 1962 and who was regarded as a dedicated technician rather than a talented strokemaker developed his skills to prove the unbelievers wrong and neglected his personality to convince his critics they were right.

The trauma of Trent Bridge and the Headingley homecoming which followed combined, as never before, Boycott the public man with Boycott the private person. To his unconcealed delight, the public showed themselves ready to accept both.

Cricket tends to traditionalise its heroes, seeking to find in them all the qualities of unselfishness and character which lend an amateur's zeal to a highly professional game. Boycott, complex and warted, refused to fit the pattern and was not easily forgiven.

Yet Boycott the technician has rarely been doubted. He is compact, beautifully balanced, professionally expert, arguably the most adroit player of the ball off the wicket in the modern game. The very soundness of his technique tends to detract from the drama of his innings, even of centuries carved with fastidious determination.

Others have created their own legends more extrovertly, more gloriously, more entertainingly. Boycott builds an innings brick by brick, cementing each stroke to the next with that extraordinary power of concentration which frustrates good bowling and intimidates poor. His centuries are an act of will.

That single-mindedness has exposed Boycott to accusations of selfishness which are bound to be levelled from a distance; easier to challenge with an insight into the man and the situation thrust on him as captain of a young and inexperienced Yorkshire side.

Boycott's responsibilities weigh heavily and the proven frailty of Yorkshire's batting has led him to believe he cannot, must not fail. The conviction that his runs are indispensable -- and Yorkshire without them would have struggled fearfully in the recent past -- feeds an already characteristic strain of stubbornness. Boycott in or out of form cannot contemplate giving his wicket away; the very idea is anathema, an admission of failure.

He is, consequently, a player less than ideally suited to limited-overs competition where the ability to improvise is ranked as important as ability itself. He has, consequently, an air of detachment during an innings which shuts out every consideration except the next ball, the requirements of the moment. His intensity is sometimes misdirected, often misinterpreted.

Taxed for playing a strangely hybrid innings against Glamorgan two seasons ago, when with excruciating slowness and devastating speed in turn he endangered victory and then clinched it, Boycott explained his approach.

"When you have played yourself in you have only three things to consider: How many deliveries will you face before the end of the match, which bowlers will you face those deliveries from and how many runs do you need from each ball to win. It is very simple; I knew we would do it," he said. Victory that day was secured with fifteen minutes to spare; Boycott scored 156 not out in a winning total of 320.

If his single-mindedness is a flaw, England were glad enough of it at Trent Bridge and again at Headingley.

It is ironic and perhaps unfortunate that Boycott's moment of historic achievement should lend itself to discussion of his character, of his weaknesses as much as his strengths. Yet Boycott's character and performance are indivisible; more than any modern player he has been judged in terms of personality.

Boycott, knowing it and sometimes wounded by it, withdrew into the security of the art he knew best and resolved that if he could not be the most popular of players he would be the most effective. A century of centuries insists that he did not fail.

His welcome back into Test cricket and the warmth of his reception at Trent Bridge and Headingley tapped a fund of popular sympathy and admiration which Boycott never knew existed. Rather like a clip from an old film in which a recluse Queen Victoria returns from a triumphal jubilee procession and confides with some surprise; "Y'know. I really think they like me after all" ... Corny, perhaps, but Boycott was never more sincere.

At 5.49 p.m. on August 11 Geoffrey Boycott reached one hundred hundreds and realised he could count on the support, understanding and even friendship of one thousand thousand. It would not be easy to decide which he values more. And he achieved the feat in his 645th first-class innings. Only Sir Don Bradman (295), Denis Compton (552) and Sir Leonard Hutton (619) did it more quickly.

© John Wisden & Co