Sunday, 26 May 2013

Letting go

Prompted by a request from my friend Tom, a cricketer whose threats of retirement come as frequently as Ronnie O'Sullivan's urges to quit the baize, I read over the chapter in Leo Mckinstry's Boycs that deals with Boycott's final day of cricket on 12 September 1986, and its aftermath.

Geoffrey was playing at Scarborough for Yorkshire against Northants. I've blogged before about his last few minutes as a professional. He'd needed to score eight more runs for his thousand for the season, something he'd achieved every year since 1962. A follow-on prevented him from returning to the crease, much to the distress of the crowd.

'Something had come to an end, something wonderful,' he said. 'I just thought, this is it then. I waited for the ground to clear. then I wondered around on my own among all the newspapers and food wrappers and tin cans.'

Thirteen years afterwards, Boycott wrote in an autobiography: 'Even now... I miss playing to such an extent that I can honestly say I'd exchange the rest of my life for five more years of playing for England at the peak of my form'. He kept one of his bats at home but tried not to pick it up because 'it stirs the memories'. His wife Rachel talked about him 'welling up' when those memories became overwhelming.

To an outsider, there might appear to be a simple solution: some club cricket, some charity games, a few knocks to ease those feelings of loss. That wasn't possible for Boycott because the love was too great. A pale reminder would serve only to reinforce the fact that it was gone.

It's a fascinating dichotomy. Tom's question was about sportsmen who had never played again in any capacity since retiring. It's not really a choice a boxer has to make: no-one fancies having their face caved in when they don't have to. An F1 driver can't really enter a local Grand Prix. Footballers and rugby players might be inhibited by injury or lack of fitness. Golfers don't have to worry about the question; theirs is a golden twilight of monied senior tours and ceremonial glory.

Playing cricket is perhaps more nuanced psychologically as well as physically. Mike Hussey, whose childlike enthusiasm bestowed the 'Mr Cricket' nickname, spoke of the overwhelming relief he felt at giving up the international game. Boycott played his entire career with a terror of failure, and according to Mckinstry, 'any bowler who dismissed him cheaply [in a charity match] would be able to dine out on that story for the rest of his life. Once again he would sense the eyes of his critics, watching for any error...'

Then there were the almost impossible standards he set for himself. When he was bowled by the final delivery of Michael Holding's famous over in Barbados in 1981, Boycott wrote in his tour diary: 'for the first time in my life, I can look at a scoreboard with duck against my name and not feel a profound sense of failure'. He was almost 40 years old, and made a century in the next Test.

When a friend asked him to appear in a charity XI, he wrote a letter explaining his reasons for declining. 'I have played with the best, for the best, against the best. Only the best will do'.

As ever with Geoffrey, it was complex and self-involved, but it's easy to see his point. Few men have loved the game more, or given more of themselves to it. It wasn't until his bout of throat cancer that he found a different perspective.

A while ago, I heard a radio discussion on the retirement theme. Darren Gough, who plays a lot of charity cricket in the same good-hearted way he did for England, said that if Alec Stewart ever accepted an invitation to play again, 'he'd probably have to have an all-day net before it'. Stewie, like Boycott, was a man of method who set himself the highest standards.

On the other side, I remember seeing Viv Richards play in a legends game in Australia. He barely hit the ball off the square, but the entire crowd rose to applaud him in and back out again, and the noble head was held as high as ever. His great pal Botham headed for the first tee and the salmon river without a second thought.

In cricket and after, each man must be an island.