Today, as England ground India into what passes for dust in the northern summer, Geoffrey Boycott himself had to be reminded that it was the 34th anniversary of his one hundredth first class hundred, scored in an Ashes Test against Australia on his home ground at Headingley in 1977. He remains the only man to reach the mark in a Test match, a record that will probably now stand forever.
Memory jogged by Aggers on Test Match Special, he didn't need much prompting to reminisce: 'I can't say I wasn't nervous that morning, because I was, and nerves can do strange things. It took me half an hour to settle down'.
The context of that innings has been written about so often it doesn't really need rehashing here, except to say Boycott was a prodigal, returning to the side on his own terms, batting for history on his own ground in front of his own people and with the greatest mark in batsmanship staring him square in the face. The ground was over-run when he drove Greg Chappell to the long-on boundary about 20 minutes before the close.
But it was 34 years ago. Boycott the player is receding into the past. Many people who've heard him talk may not have seen him bat. I was just a kid but I remember that innings, and the last part of his career. I saw him play in a John Player Sunday League match at my old home ground at May's Bounty. He opened and got about 20 before he was caught at cover, trying to force a boundary down the hill towards the school wall. I remember he wore a cap rather than a helmet, because one of the odd rules in the John Player League was that bowlers could only have a limited run-up - I think it was eight yards, marked with a chalk line on the outfield.
I was a kid, with a kid's attention span, but I was urged to watch Boycott bat by my dad. Geoffrey was his hero on account of his impeccable technique. I had a book called Boycott On Batting, an instructional manual which, up the side of each page, had a series of pictures that worked like a flicker book and let you see Geoffrey performing several shots. That's what life was like before youtube.
But there was more to watching Boycott bat than that. The days on which he scored hundreds, which around that time were frequent, fell into a seemingly inevitable pattern. He would open, often with Mike Brearley, who you got the feeling he resented. Brearley would edge to slip, usually removing his bottom hand from the bat. You could almost feel Boycott tutt from the other end.
Before lunch he had few scoring shots. He was about defence and establishing himself at the crease. He was utterly solid, especially when playing forward, and he rarely played and missed - probably because he rarely played at anything not on the line of the stumps. His total by the break was usually somewhere between twenty and thirty.
In the afternoon session, he would cut and drive the bad ball and score with nudges off his legs from anything offline. His cover drive was struck late and with a checked follow-through, and his cut was forced off the back foot with the elbow still high. He would pass fifty after three hours or so, and by tea he might have seventy runs.
After that, with the change bowlers and the spinners on now, he would hit more bad balls. He was a master of farming the strike as he edged towards a hundred. Once he got to eighty, there was an inevitability about things, and the hundred always seemed to come in the half an hour or so before the close, whereupon he'd start planning for the next day and retreat once again. He was voracious, not so much for runs, but for time at the crease. A lot of his running was obviously selfish, and predicated on whether he wanted to face or not.
As Botham and Gower and Gooch came into the side, he became more of a figure of fun. Yet the other day, I was flipping through an old book I stumbled across, Bob Willis's Diary Of A Season, from 1978. It was the year after Boycott's triumphs against Australia, and he missed a few games against Pakistan ostensibly with an injured thumb. There was speculation as to whether he really wanted to play or not. Yet what came across clearly from Willis and the rest was that Boycott was regarded by his peers as the best batsman in England, and by some distance.
He was 36 when he made his hundredth hundred, and he went on to make another 51. Fifty one! To contextualise that figure, Mike Atherton made 54 first class hundreds in his career. Kevin Pietersen has 40. Boycott was ruthless in his way.
John Arlott, as he often would, made a telling and melancholic point about Geoffrey. 'He had,' Arlott said, 'a lonely career'. That is true, but in essence the great batsmen are alone, or at least they are when they bat. He is, in his quirky way, less alone now. I'm glad I saw him play.
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