Thursday 11 August 2011

Geoffrey's anniversary

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.


Brit said...

I won a Boycott batting book as a prize at school when I was about 10. It had a sort of comic book device where a young lad would play textbook strokes while a cartoon Boycs head would advise/berate him in speech-bubbles from the sidelines. I loved that book. (Though not as much as I loved Tim Brooke-Taylor's Cricket Box, a very funny pastiche of such books.)

Btw "as England ground India into what passes for dust in the northern summer"... you mean "as England ground what passes for India into...". Aren't they unforgiveably pathetic? In Test cricket it's better to lose narrowly than win so easily.

Mark said...

A pedant writes - JPL bowling limit was 15 yards.

During Boycott's self-imposed exile, (13th August 1975) I saw Boycott score 200 in a day against Middlesex at Lords. After reading this piece, I assumed I must have dreamt it - but it's there on in black and white.

The innings lasted 100 overs, so Sir Geoffrey would have probably scored his runs at a fair clip - 60 odd per 100 balls.

The bowling attack wasn't too shabby either - Selvey, Titmus, Embuery...

John Halliwell said...

Was Boycott a great batsman? Bill Lawry thought so, only to be bollocked by Ian Chappell for asserting such a ‘ludicrous’ idea. Chappell’s view was that Boycott was a ‘selfish bastard’ who played solely for himself, whereas the great batsman, as well as scoring his runs quickly and averaging well into the 50s, played for the game itself.

Len Hutton believed that if Boycott had played in the thirties he would have been a much better batsman. This would have been driven by very stiff competition for places and Brian Sellers (Yorkshire) captaincy. According to Hutton: ‘He is a fine player, but he bats with the one thought in mind - of not getting out. While Bradman, Hammond, Compton and myself, to name but a few, looked for a scoring opportunity as the bowler ran in, Geoffrey is absorbed with the defence of his wicket. I cannot think of a batsman in his class who has allowed more bad balls to go unpunished.’ 151 first class centuries is an astonishing record and if Boycott had attacked Hutton’s ‘bad balls’ what might he have achieved? Well, he would probably have got out earlier, but with his glorious technique, his Test average may have been 57 rather than 47.

I love John Arlott’s obsevation made during a long Boycott innings: ‘No man is an island, but he has batted as though he is a particularly long peninsula.’

The Old Batsman said...

Mark thanks - 15 yards sounds about right. I just remember the line. It's such an odd idea, but would be interesting today, to see who could adapt.

I think part of boycott's great enigma was that everyone knew he had the ability to score more quickly. He just didn't want to. He is an extraordinary man.

diogenes said...

are you sure that Willis respected him? What I tend to recall from bowlers' reminiscences is that they all, to a man, hated him with all their guts. Even the affable Pat Pocock recalled how uncharacteristically jubilant he used to get when he captured Boycott's wicket. You wonder whether he was the same arrogant, opinionated, self-centred, garrulous, repetitious, annoying, boring idiot out in the centre as he is on Test Match Special. They probably just wanted him out of earshot.

The Old Batsman said...

I think Willis respected him as a player, that was what came across. There's another point in the book where he has to bowl at him in a county game, and he says that he knows after about six overs that Boycott is going to get a hundred and bat all day, and he duly does.They certainly admired his ability. Willis is also an intriguing character - it's a good little book if you can find it.

Brian Carpenter said...

Great stuff, OB.

I remember that phase of Boycott's career well. Although I had some awareness of cricket when he turned his back on the England team in 1974, I had no memory of him at all, so for me his England career began when he came back at Trent Bridge in '77 (Botham's debut, of course).

On the day he made the 100th hundred I was on the Isle of Wight on a day trip with my Dad. I heard him get to the ton on TMS sitting by the harbour at Ryde and got quite excited, but my Dad was less impressed. He'd seen Boycott make his famous 146 in the Gillette Cup Final in 1965 when he hit the Surrey bowling all over the place, and my Dad could never understand why he chose to play so defensively when he had the strokes to score far more quickly.

Idolised would be too strong a word, but I was a real fan and followed him until the end of his career in India when he beat Colin Cowdrey's England run aggregate recrd and promptly high-talied it off to South Africa.

One final thing - I too had the feeling that he wasn't keen on Brearley, and I'm sure it's true that he didn't rate his batting (with justification) but he did say on TMS just the other day what a nice man he thought he was (and I think he praised his captaincy as well).

There are very small signs, sometimes, that Boycott is mellowing slightly in his old age. This was, perhaps, another.

Dean @ Cricket Betting Blog said...

@ Brian, I heard him praise Brearley's captaincy on TMS the other day, as I have on quite a few occasions in the past.

I don't think he did rate Brearley's batting, even if Boycott (unusually) doesn't just come out and say something, he still makes it fairly clear in his own way.

OB, great piece by the way.

diogenes said...

I apologise for my outburst about Boycott. I blame it on listening to TMS in the car...eventually I just turned the volume down whenever he came on mike. Pre his break with Test cricket, he did tend to score faster than after his return. Check out the scorecards, quite often he would score around 50 per 100 balls. after his return, it tended to be low 40s and sometimes far below.

drkhurshid said...

Zahher Abbas and Geoffrey Boycott are the only two batsmen to have scored their hundredth first-class century in a Test match.

Paul Skysub said...

I was at Old Trafford in 1981 when Beefy went ballistic against Messrs Lillee, Alderman and, erm, okay, Whitney and Bright. Those who say 'Lucky you' forget that the unappetiser to this banquet was Boycs and Tav’s dark, verging on satanic some would say, morning grind.

Lank-e-shur’s ‘favourite’ chiseled 37 runs from 122 balls in 10 minutes short of three hours, with just ‘too foors’, before copping a Goochie: lbw b Alderman. The Kent ‘dasher’, meanwhile, was wending his weary, Eeyore-y way to 78 in seven hours.

Incredibly, Boycott that day scored more briskly – a strike rate of 30.32, a stat, to be fair, that was as alien to the analogue ’80s as were assists in football – than did Zap, Gatt, the Eminence Grise and, of course, Tav.

If I remember correctly, Both matched the top-order prod for prod until a stentorian voice from the stand opposite the pavilion boomed a beery barrack in earthy Mancy-Saxon. The repeatable jist of it was that not only was IT Botham dawdling at the crease, but also that he was carrying too much weight and had probably been born out of wedlock.

The Greatest Living Englishman’s response was to unleash a long, unbroken sequence of fours, twos and sixes that turned the day on its head and sent my neatest-est scorebook into a coloured-felt tip frenzy; it had simply been a case of dotting the dots in the first session. Having not long since covered bases in maths at school, I was familiar with, if still bemused by, Boycott’s binary bind.

Botham’s howitzer blitz would have thrilled in any circumstance. The contextual contrast provided by the trench warfare of Boycott and Tavaré imbued it with even more pomp. So I say now, 30 years on, and given that time has smoothed and soothed my mental scars, God bless (surely soon Sir) Geoffrey, the patience saint of stonewallers, putter-uppers of the shutters, givers of the garden gate, sniffers of the ball. May his left elbow always be stuck in the bowler’s eye.

PS Superb blog, OB.

The Old Batsman said...

Great comment! Cheers Paul.

price per head said...

oh was it Geoffrey's anniversary?? I had no idea and I know that it is a little bit late, but I would like to show my deepest appreciation and respect to Geoffrey