Monday 10 November 2008

Boycott, the lion in winter

Last week, The Guardian sent four of their writers to meet their childhood heroes. Stephen Moss chose Geoffrey Boycott (read his piece here). Geoffrey was, and probably still is, my father's hero too. For me, he was too distant and unknowable; even for an obsessive, his obsession was palpable. He could be glimpsed in the books I bought and collected; the tour diaries that made him the butt of team jokes about his hair transplant and his baked bean diet; the autobiographies that recounted anecdotes of run-outs and faux pas and boorish one-liners. 

We thought all of his character was there in his batting, which was courageous, selfish, monomaniacal and technically unsurpassed. Me and my dad watched the World Cup Final of 1979 from the top tier of the Compton Stand, underneath the clock. West Indies got 286 (from 60 overs - when ODIs used to last a day...) a total that seemed like the sheer face of a glacier back then. Boycott and Brearley set out in dogged pursuit against Roberts, Holding, Croft and Garner (the concept of a one-day specialist did not really exist - how easy life was). After 30 overs England were 129-0. They needed 157 from 30 overs with 10 wickets in hand. This was thought an impossible chase, and a middle order of Randall, Gooch, Gower, Botham and Larkins folded to Croft and Garner, England were all out for 194 and still had nine overs left. Such was one-day cricket in 1979. Boycott had batted beautifully to his own internal rhythm. Holding got him for 57. 

Two winters later, Holding bowled him that famous over in Barbados, supposedly the quickest of all time. Boycott said, 'it was the only time I got out for nought and didn't feel a profound sense of failure'. It's rarely mentioned that he went to Antigua two weeks later and made 104 not out against Roberts, Holding, Garner and Croft. He was 41 years old. 

'Watch Boycott' was the eternal advice of my youth, from my dad at least. What he loved about him was not just his excellence, but the way he walked out to bat, immaculate, a state exacerbated when he opened with Goochie, who tramped out there looking like he'd just climbed off a park bench. I realise now that what my dad liked was the way Geoffrey's look represented his state of mind: nothing left to chance. 

The great day finally came when my father met Boycott. He'd worked on the refurbishment of Lillywhites at Piccadilly Circus, and Boycott came to the grand opening. My dad collared him for ten minutes, and Boycott was charm personified. The words that came down from the mount for me were 'bat for as long as you can, and never mind the other boogers...'

It wasn't until he retired - at 46 - and took to the commentary box that it became obvious that you couldn't know Boycott just from his batting. He turned out to be a womaniser, a raconteur, a man of unvarnished truth and insight, and full of quirks too. Last summer on Test Match Special, he revealed he was a big fan of Feng Shui. Most of all, as Stephen Moss's lovely piece showed, the lion in winter has been mellowed by cancer, his fire drawn by fatherhood and marriage. In an audio clip, Moss recites Geoffrey's well-known claim that he'd give up the rest of his life for five more years at the crease, in his prime. Well no more. Living had conquered his obsession at last. 

My favourite Boycott story comes from David Lloyd. Boycott called him one day, and, as is apparently usual, began talking with no introduction.
'You and me, playing golf, 9.00am this wednesday'.
'I can't Geoffrey, I'm going fishing,' was Lloyd's reply.
'That were always your problem, fishing outside off stump,' said Geoffrey, and hung up.

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