Under The Lid: Geoffrey Boycott

Phil Walker meets Geoffrey Boycott, talks through his “two careers” and attempts to steer him to matters philosophical.

Transcribing Geoffrey Boycott is a revealing exercise. Hear him speak on matters cricket, and we’re conditioned to sit up, listen and learn. He is still the most recognisable voice in the game. “My daughter says to me, ‘Daddy, you’ve been lucky, you’ve had two careers’, and she’s right! I’ve had 25 years a player, 25 a commentator.” That’s half a century gathering the evidence to enhance his default position of peerless cricketing eminence.

But strip out the bolshy Yorkshire melodies, break it all down, and what we actually get are thrilling tremolos of scattergun non sequiturs and comic contradictions, all underpinned by a devotion to the ‘Y’ word that would baffle a Tourette’s case. Writing Boycs is a different thing to hearing him.

At 73, Boycott doesn’t need to work. He does it because he loves it, and because it loves him. He has contracts with the Telegraph, the BBC and Channel 5. Prime-time comedians take him off. Prime minsters bow when he tells them what for. In Kolkata and Mumbai his image adorns vast billboards. He even has his own line of signature Panama hats. Boycott bestrides his world, his strange world of cricket and cricket fame.

We’re standing in the bar next to the Long Room at Lord’s. Or rather, Boycs is standing there, square on, having refused the stool we’d got for him, while a suitably diminished AOC remains seated. As part of his star appearance at a Wisden 150 Club Lunch, where later in the Long Room he’d go down a storm, Boycott has agreed to give us an interview.

We’ve only met once before. After a few minutes of merrily abusive one-way banter pertaining to beards, girls and (indirectly) masculinity, won hands down by Boycs despite AOC’s reasonable riposte that “My girlfriend doesn’t have a beard, Geoff”, we get down to business.

Boycs: So, what do you want to ask me, eh?

AOC: Lots of things, Geoff. But for starters, what makes you so popular with the public?

Boycs: It’s not for me to judge.

[Pause]

AOC: Ok, but if…

Boycs: … When I set off commentating, I always wanted to [do it]. I did an odd stint when I broke my arm in Australia [1970/71 Ashes] – my fingers got busted when I was playing for England or Yorkshire. If you couldn’t play you would get invited for a couple of days. If Alastair Cook broke his finger and couldn’t play they’d get him on because he’s an iconic player. So I did a bit of that, that’s all I ever did, and I liked it, and I thought I’d like to try and do it. I decided that I was gonna be myself. I knew I had a Yorkshire accent. I obviously felt that I understood the game. I had very strong views. The BBC were the only people who had television so when I got a chance to do BBC normally it was political correctness – I thought bollocks to that, I can’t see any point putting aitches in where they should be. I thought I’d just be myself as a Yorkshireman! You have to cross your fingers, and maybe your toes as well, and hope the people like you. It doesn’t matter what you think, or what knowledge you think you have, if they don’t take to you, and aren’t interested, and don’t feel you’ve given them something to help  them enjoy their coverage, then you’re not gonna get a job! I’ve always believed that imitation is a nice form of flattery, for the person you’re flattering, but there’s never anybody imitated better than the person, in whatever field. I’ve always believed that you’ve got to be yourself!

Sir Geoffrey is in the building.

***

Boycott has a mythology all his own. There’s the obsessive, by turns charismatic and aloof; the loner-teetotaller; ladies’ man; the Yorkshireman who sparked a revolution by being sacked. There’s the man who lived for runs, dropped for slow scoring after making a Test double at Leeds; who exiled himself from Test cricket for three big years in the mid-Seventies, returning at Trent Bridge in 1977 to run out local hero Derek Randall en route to a comeback century against a weak Australia side; and there’s the dashing deadbat with an eye for a story, who later in that series brought up his hundredth hundred at Headingley with a glorious on-drive, toasting the sideburns and anorak brigade with a glass of bubbly from the players’ balcony.

And then of course, there’s the next phase, the second coming: Boycs as pundit. While he loves the platform and has never struggled to make himself heard, even today when the media din can be unbearable, he’s oddly reticent about the influence he and his peers have. “The media does not set out to influence selectors or players,” he insists. “And I don’t think I influence players. I don’t talk with people to achieve consensus. All through my career, I specifically don’t listen to my colleagues so that I can come to my commentary stints fresh in my views, without influence [from others]. I have an independent view and I like that.”

The day before our meet, Boycott had been asked whether England’s Test captain should stay in the job: “There’s only him, his wife, his family and his friends think so. I don’t think too many other people do!”

But the work hasn’t always been there. If a professional life of dressing-room squabbles and minor controversies had illuminated the Boycs story with a colour rarely seen in his batting, the tale turned dark in 1998 when he was found guilty of assaulting a former girlfriend called Margaret Moore in a French hotel and given a three-month suspended jail sentence. Boycott denied the allegation but failed to overturn the ruling on appeal, citing Richard II – ‘Mine honour is my life’ – to a packed French courtroom during the appeal trial in 2000. He sought solace in India, where he’s adored, and worked in the byways of cricket until he was deemed to have served his time. By 2005 Boycott was back as part of Channel 4’s peerless commentary team for that summer’s Ashes, and the opera could resume.

No doubt he’s a survivor. It was a normal August morning in 2002 when Boycott first felt a small lump on his throat during shaving. When his specialist gave him a 60-80 per cent chance of surviving the cancer, Boycott tried to bargain for 90 per cent. He entered a programme of chemotherapy, followed by seven weeks of radiotherapy. “I counted the 35 treatment sessions down as if I was counting my runs down to 100,” he told canceractive.com, and here he stands today, shoulders back, chest out, feet shoulder-width apart: ready for anything.

***

Has Geoffrey Boycott ever experienced an existential crisis? Ever woken up in the dead of night wondering what it’s all about? “No! I love cricket. I get up in the morning and I still love it. I’m lucky. There are many millions of people who go to work and hate their job. I get up in the morning and love going to the cricket! Do you ask me if I loved batting better? Absolutely! But I don’t look back. That’s gone.” My attempt to steer him to matters philosophical has started wide and carried on wider.

Undeterred, I ask if Fiery has mellowed over the years. Has the accumulation of experience made him more accepting of people’s flaws, and perhaps even his own? “You can’t change the DNA in you. I don’t like bad cricket, and I love good cricket.” It’s cricket as life again, as a way of understanding why the hell we’re here in the first place.

But what about outside of cricket, Geoff? There’s a pause. “I have smoothed off a few rough edges, and what have you.” (I love that ‘what have you’.) “Cancer teaches that. My wife always says, ‘When you get cross about anything, say to yourself, is it important?’ And 99 times out of 100 the answer is no. We all get cross about things and we want to shout and swear, but I’ve got better at letting things go. And it does teach you that. Living’s the most important thing. It’s the most precious gift you have.”

It’s a suddenly touching answer, so I tell him I’d been a bit apprehensive about our interview. “Why?” Because there’s a mythology around you, I say. “I suppose there is. People have ideas and views about me but they’ve never met me!” And again, bang on cue: “If you’d met me coming back after getting out I wouldn’t be talking to the Queen of England, but that’s what I cared about! It’s all relative – I stop and sign autographs and selfies but if I’m running for a bloody train I can’t stop and talk to you!”

Has he ever been apprehensive meeting anyone? “No! What’s there to be nervous about?” There’s still time for another cricket analogy. “It’s like the nervous nineties! What have you got to be nervous about? You’ve already got ninety! I’m in control!”

I tell him I’d expected him to be dead rude. “It depends what you mean! Rude? Frankness, forthrightness, straight talking… it’s what connotation! Somebody can say, ‘Oh, he’s skinny with his money’, but maybe he’s thrifty! Maybe he lives within his means! I’m always astounded by some people! They’ve written things about me and they’ve taken it from cuttings and they’ve never even met me! There’s not much you can do with it…”

Well, I for one have now met Geoffrey Boycott. The Boycott I first read about as a kid in Don Mosey’s biography. The Boycott who, on an old video of mine, selected his greatest England XI and picked himself to open. Do I feel like I know the man any better for our half hour? Not especially. The public persona has been so finely honed over that half a century that it’s hard to imagine what may lie behind it. Perhaps it’s best not to enquire.

Either way, it’s almost time for Geoffrey Boycott to blow the roof off the Long Room. There’s only one thing for it. I grab a selfie with Fiery.

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