Lunch With The FT : Geoff Boycott
Saturday, August 23, 2008
There is something in this piece that struck such a chord this morning. The mental image of the great Geoff Boycott, constructed subconsciously by an 8-year old running around in his grandpa’s veranda as crackling commentary wafted in the air and mixed in perfect randomness with all the other objects of his attention, turns out to be remarkably accurate. A no-nonsense cricketer for the ages. “Comfortable is about as good as it gets”, the sublime feeling of perfect timing just before launching into that memorable straight drive…classic stuff.
…..He is one of the most famous cricketers of his generation, a dogged batsman who, in 1981, towards the end of his career, broke the record for the most runs in Test cricket. Accusations of selfishness and a prickly personality have conspired to make him one of the most controversial figures in English cricket. David Lloyd, a fellow player-turned-commentator, said: “You won’t get me knocking him as a cricketer, but as a man I detest him.” According to cricket folklore, the flamboyant all-rounder Ian Botham once deliberately ran him out in a Test Match when Boycott was scoring too slowly for the team’s good. Now 67, the man nicknamed the “greatest living Yorkshireman” cuts a genial figure as he joins me. Removing his natty panama hat, he sits down and immediately calls for red wine. He will, he says, have one glass. “I’m not a bottle man,” he laughs, “I’d be under the table.”…..When it arrives, a drop is poured in my guest’s glass to taste. “Come on, pour some,” he exhorts the French wine waiter. “Crikey, if it’s off, it’s off. You can’t put it back, you know. Can you?”…..His will to win was forged in the Yorkshire pit village of Fitzwilliam where his father was a miner. Aged eight, Boycott had his spleen removed after an accident, and in 1951, when he was 10, his father, whose job it was to lay rails for tubs of coal to be transported from pit face to lift shaft, was crushed by two empty tubs. “Mangled his legs, his back, everything. It ruined his life.” His father lived until 1967. His mother died of cancer in 1978. Boycott places a hand over his eyes as he mentions her death. He lived with her until the end of her life. Apart from brief glimpses such as this, his emotional life is kept under lock and key. A query as to whether he has any childhood friends meets with the deadpan answer: “Occasionally they’ll turn up and say, ‘Hello,’ as people do. But, no, you just move on and deal with life.” In spite of the lack of money and Boycott’s own physical shortcomings (he also suffered from poor vision), he set his sights on a career in cricket. “Adversity never breaks a good man,” he says…..He claims to have a thick skin. “Who the hell can get everybody to like them? Christ. It’s like trying to be perfect, you’ve no chance, have you?” he says, as we move on to our main courses. Boycott demolishes his sea bass with matter-of-fact fork strokes. “I only know of one perfect man and they crucified him, so what chance do the rest of us have? We haven’t got a cat in hell’s chance, have we? Listen, that president of America got it right: you won’t please every bugger all of the time, will you,” he adds, not only misquoting Abraham Lincoln, but making him sound like an honorary Yorkshireman to boot. The gruff exterior vanishes when I mention the deepest slight he suffered as a cricketer, when in June 1967 he was dropped from the England team for scoring too slowly after hitting his highest test score of 246 not out. “I still feel the injustice,” he groans. Whenever he bumps into Doug Insole, chairman of selectors at the time, he is consumed with repressed fury. “I am a Libran, the weight scales,” he says, leaning forward, voice rising, fixing me with his blue eyes. “I like fair play, and I vacillate between the weight scales tipping up and down. I feel I want to be very angry to him, very, very angry, even today, 40 years on.” Even the wretched Insole would have made Boycott’s fantasy team, however, had he been a good enough cricketer. “I’d pick my worst enemy if I was playing but at six o’clock I’d tell him to bugger off, we’re going our separate ways. I can dissociate, you know, easily,” he says…..
Before I leave, I ask him if his current state of domesticity – reunited with Rachael, whom he married in 2003, and involved in his daughter’s life – offers satisfactions undreamt of when he played cricket. “Yeah. I’m comfortable. Look, I’m comfortable,” he says. “All the things that happen to you in life, the key is to move on. Because we’re here a lot shorter than we think, life’s quite short, you know. It may seem a long time when you’re only 20 but it sure as hell comes quick.” I wonder what Boycott means by “comfortable”. He strikes me as investing it with significance, as if it were the best condition we can hope for in a cold, unjust world. Only on the cricket pitch is there relief. A ferociously determined player such as Boycott can work ruthlessly towards cricket’s equivalent of immortality, the undefeated innings. He once said he would swap the rest of his life for five more years playing cricket, and stands by the remark when I remind him of it today. The stroke he remembers most vividly from his playing career is the straight drive for four with which he brought up his 100th score of 100, on his Yorkshire home ground, Headingley, against Australia in 1977. Boycott speaks of it in transcendental terms. “When I got the four, I knew I was going to hit it when it was halfway on its way,” he says. “It’s a crazy feeling but absolutely magical. It’s just magical to know you’re going to hit it before you hit it.” His face lightens, as if a great weight has momentarily lifted.