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Geoff Boycott and the vices and virtues of selfishness

Geoff Boycott: A Cricketing Hero
Leo McKinstry
first published by Partridge, 2000, fully revised and updated edition published by Harper Collins, 2005

Sportsmen seem to be arranged along a spectrum. At one end are those who are so naturally gifted that their careers are, to them and to us, a gift. They don’t have to think about it, they just do it, with supreme grace and style. You watch them, and marvel. You think: I could never do that. But glory be, homo sapiens can do it. Because look, he just did it, although heaven knows how. At the other end of the spectrum are sportsmen of relatively average talent, who, by supreme effort and constantly applied strength of mind and character, make the most of what they have, often defeating more naturally gifted opponents who haven’t learned to fight until too late. These talent maximisers do better than they have any right to, so to speak. You watch them, and you think: If I tried that hard, I could do that do. You probably couldn’t, because you are probably as lacking in the necessary mental strength as you are lacking in natural talent (and they actually have rather more natural talent than you do along with their superior mental attitude), but that’s what you think while you watch.

When cricket fans like me think of supremely gifted cricketers, we think of players like David Gower. Gower unforgettably (I watched it live on TV!) hit his first ball in test match cricket for four, as if he had already been playing cricket at the top level for half a lifetime. And when we think of cricketing talent maximisers, the men who make the absolute most of what they have, we think of Geoffrey Boycott.

Because they have to think so hard about their game, the talent maximisers tend to make the best coaches and the best commentators. Having made the most of their own talents, by analysing relentlessly what needs to be practiced and applied on the pitch, and having applied their conclusions with total discipline and single-mindedness, they are ideally prepared to bring the best also out of others with similarly imperfect natural gifts. The talent maximisers are likewise well prepared to explain what’s happening to us ignorant onlookers, because they have been analysing this relentlessly for the previous twenty years. Thus it is that Geoffrey Boycott, having been for so long such an effective and successful – if often hideously slow-scoring – opening batsman for his beloved Yorkshire and for England, is now a very skilled coach and one of the world’s most effective, sought-after and immediately recognisable commentators.

I don’t usually read sports biographies. Niagaras of cliché, most of them. But when I saw the names of Geoffrey Boycott and Leo McKinstry on the cover of what was obviously a widely selling paperback (if it wasn’t widely selling it wouldn’t have been in the sort of shop I saw it in) I didn’t hesitate. McKinstry is a writer already known to me, and probably to many other readers of this blog, in particular for his many Spectator pieces over the years. Boycott is Boycott, still a unique figure in English sport. He is still commentating now on international cricket, in his typically trenchant, no-nonsense style, and in that delightfully immitable Yorkshire accent of his. He is also a man who seems to proceed through the world surrounded by a force-field of controversy and confrontation, in both his cricketing and his personal life. Yorkshire cricket has been plunged into such rows in recent decades that no cricket fan however casual could fail to notice, and nor is any cricket fan like me unaware of the black cloud of tabloid coverage concerning Boycott’s trial and conviction for assaulting some woman or other, whom he was having a fling with, or something. Many, me included, used at first to suppose that Boycott was gay, but more recently a very different, very un-gay and now not nearly so private Boycott life hit the headlines. What was that all about? I knew that even at new-in-a-real-bookshop full price this book had to be worth a punt, and I was not wrong. First things first. It’s a good read. Whether someone less excited by cricket and less interested in Boycott would enjoy it, I don’t know. Maybe not. But I loved it. It was my holiday reading during a recent trip to Brittany. Travel can involve much waiting around, and your usual diversions are mostly absent. A good book is a necessity, and this one did that trick for me splendidly.

As for the story it tells, the word that keeps cropping up again and again is “selfishness”. The chances are that any sportsman who, selfishly, concerns himself relentlessly and successfully with the quality of his own personal performances will be a major asset to his team, but Boycott tested this principle to destruction, again and again.

He did this most notably in the matter of his running between the wickets. Do I have to explain what “run out” means, to Americans, women, etc.? It’s probably the one cricketing technicality that you just have to grasp if you are to have any proper understanding of the Boycott phenomenon. (For a general description of cricket, try this.) At any one time during a cricket match, there are two batsmen out there, one at each end, rather than just the one at the one spot like in baseball. When one of the batsman hits the ball out into the field, occupied by the fieldsmen of the opposing team, he and his partner at the other end must change ends if the batsman who hit it is to score a run, change ends twice for two (i.e. go to the other end and then back again), three times for three and so on. But if the fielding side gets the ball back to one of the wickets and breaks them with the ball before the batsman in question has got to his ground and touched his bat down, that batsman is “run out”, and has to leave, just as if he had been bowled out or caught or out lbw (don’t ask). Running between the wickets therefore requires cooperation and mutual trust between the two batsmen, often with one of them saying yes, let’s have a run, and the other just having to hope that his mate has got it right, because if his mate hasn’t, then as likely as not he could be the one who gets run out.

And Boycott’s running between the wickets was, shall we say, famously variable. This was the one major aspect of the art of batting that Boycott simply refused to master. Oh, he mastered the art of not himself getting run out. But time and time again, the other fellow would find himself stranded between the wickets, having responded to an absurd Boycott call whose entire purpose was to enable Boycott to keep the strike, and have to disappear, fuming, to the pavilion. There he might later confront a totally unrepentant Boycott, or he might decide that it just wasn’t worth the bother.

For Boycott, the runs scored by his own team were like a fixed sum. Either he got them or those other bastards in his side did. On one occasion, his opening partner contrived the impossible, and actually succeeded in running Boycott out, in a test match in the West Indies, on a plumb batting pitch. Boycott spent the rest of the day telling anyone willing to listen to his griping that “that bastard is scoring my runs”. And if the rest of the team were rubbish (“roobish”) who weren’t going to get those runs if Boycott didn’t, well then, all the more reason for Boycott to drop anchor and bat all day at a snail’s pace.

Sometimes Boycott would apologise after running somebody out, in the sense of make a great public fuss of how sorry he was. But McKinstry tells a revealing story of how, having run out some other England batsman in his usual blatantly selfish way that the aggrieved batsman is still sore about to this day, Boycott indulged in a great drama, putting his head in his hands like some ham actor, to communicate to everyone how desperately sorry he was. But close examination of the video record reveals the real story. First, Boycott ruthlessly and calculatingly checks that he himself is not going to get out. Then, realising that the other fellow is now getting out and this is going to make Boycott look very bad, the gears in Boycott’s head engage, and the regretful performance only then begins. From the boundary’s edge you couldn’t spot the deceit. On closer-up video, the ruthless incompetence of Boycott’s running between the wickets and his indifference to all the misery he caused to his supposed colleagues, again and again, is clear.

This book is crammed with anecdotes concerning Boycott’s sheer nastiness to professional colleagues. He really was not a team player. McKinstry relates how David Gower, having resisted the might of the West Indian fast bowlers at their frightening best for an hour or more, then got himself out to the occasional bowling of Viv Richards and returned, seething, to the pavilion. I could see it coming, said a gleeful Boycott to Gower as soon as Gower was back in the dressing room. You were getting casual! Sloppy! I could see you were going to get out! Exclaimed the usually equable Gower: Oh, put a sock in it Geoffrey. There, says McKinstry, you have it all. Both the perfect reading of the game, and the simultaneous doltishness of parading that understanding at exactly the wrong time, in front of the one person in the world who really does not want to be told about it just now thank you.

My favourite, if that’s the word, Boycott-is-a-bastard story in this book concerned a little clutch of Pakistani boys who had gathered outside the back of the pavilion to get Boycott autographs for their notebooks. So Boycott arrives in his car, which is covered in the dust of Pakistan. The boys clamour for their autographs. Boycott says not now, but I tell you what, you clean my car and when I get back you can have your autographs. When Boycott returns, he gets into his now immaculately cleaned car and just drives off, leaving the boys stunned and autographless. What a swine.

The frequent imperfections of Boycott’s running between the wickets paled into insignificance when set beside the awfulness of his various attempts to be a cricket captain. The problem wasn’t Boycott’s grasp of cricket. There was nobody better at reading a game and seeing what was needed. The problem was that Boycott cared far more about his own batting, and about himself in general, than about anyone else in his team, even when he was supposed to be captaining it. If, when captaining, he personally got out for a small score, he would do his usual two hour sulk with his head wrapped in a towel, and if any of the other batsman in his team might have benefited from his guidance about the nature of the bowling or the pitch or the state of the game, well, basically, to hell with them. They were on their own, just like Boycott himself.

Yet through it all, the runs piled up. When Boycott started out for them in the early sixties, Yorkshire had a number of great cricketers in their side, such as the great Fred Trueman to name but one. But as Boycott’s career developed, the uniquely incompetent managerial style of the Yorkshire committee, who were apparently a sort of collective Boycott in their man-management skills, resulted in a steady drain of top talent away from the club. Throw into the mix the refusal of Yorkshire, for several decades after all the other counties had abandoned such notions, to make use of any cricketer not himself born in Yorkshire, and Boycott rather suddenly became the only thing that your average Yorkshire cricket fan-stroke-fanatic could feel good about. So even as Boycott continued to exasperate his team mates, the mere supporters adored him more and more. Boycott had made the most of what talents and skills he had, damn the world, and most of the fans prided themselves on doing much the same. They identified with him, and worshipped him. When he batted, he was batting for them.

It was a disastrous cocktail of feelings. Boycott’s profound understanding of the mere technicalities of cricket convinced him that he ought to be the captain of Yorkshire and of England for as long as he ever played for either. Yet his frequent acts of nastiness to people who were supposed to be on the same side as him, which was not helped by his alcoholic abstemiousness and general refusal to muck in on the social side, caused him again and again to be loathed by the very people whose support he most needed in order first to get and then to make a success of the captaincy of cricket teams.

Boycott the batsman refused to be deflected by Boycott the captain into playing more for the team and less for himself and for his records and averages. Time and again, a Boycott-lead Yorkshire team would need quick runs, to get batting bonus points or to win run chases, yet Boycott the batsman would grind out his usual pile of slow but now ever more irrelevant runs, watched by colleagues torn between lingering admiration and growing contempt. On one amazing occasion when quick runs were needed, Boycott had done his usual slowcoach act, but this time, when he did finally get out, the next two batsmen just said to themselves: fuck it. Instead of accelerating in the way everyone present assumed they would, they carried on scoring with agonisingly Boycottian slowness, in a spontaneous protest. In such an atmosphere, it is little wonder that such a high proportion of the relatively few half decent Yorkshire players still left buggered off to play for other counties, or even emigrated, to get as far away as possible from the mess. Because, by the nineteen seventies and eighties Yorkshire cricket was a truly frightful mess, as McKinstry explains very well. The Committee, having decided to sack Boycott as captain, found itself humiliated by supporter power, and Boycott was effectively handed control of the entire club. Not that he did anything positive with that control. Yorkshire only got back into the swing of winning county cricket after Boycott retired, or rather, was retired. He probably still had two or three more decent years of batting in him, but by then everyone who mattered, even most of his formerly fanatical supporters, were sick of him.

But, there remain all those runs. You win cricket matches, as our current much admired England test captain (and Yorkshireman) Michael Vaughan never tires of saying, by putting lots of runs on the board and putting pressure on the other side. And Boycott was the supreme run-getter. For a brief moment his total of test match runs was the highest there was, by anybody anywhere. Sunil Gavaskar of India, and since him many others – David Gower included, no doubt to his profound satisfaction – have sailed past Boycott’s total of 8114. But test matches are far more frequent than they used to be, while the bowling of Boycott’s time was as formidable as test match bowling has ever been, and he opened, remember. McKinstry convincingly argues that Boycott, far from shirking it, as was said at the time by some, was actually one of the best batters against super-fast bowling there has ever been. It was his cussedness and social ineptness that got him dropped for a while by England, not any fear of fast bowling on his part. When he returned, he made centuries against Michael Holding and Dennis Lillee, and opposition teams always rated him very highly, celebrating hugely whenever they got him out.

One of the oddest moments in Boycott’s career came near its beginning, when he scored a sparkling, Man-of-the-Match-winning 146 against my own Surrey in the Gillette Cup Final of 1965, much to my mortification when as a teenager I heard it described on the radio. Sparkling? Sparkling? Scored by Boycott? Indeed. He began in his usual leaden fashion, despite this being a limited-overs game. But then the legendary Yorkshire captain Brian Close came to the crease and commanded Boycott to pull his finger out. Boycott denies that Close said any such thing, but Close says he did and I know who I believe, as does McKinstry. What other explanation for such an anomalously rapid and entertaining Boycott innings could there possibly be?

I mention this episode, and Boycott’s probable mendacity about it, because just when Boycott’s commentating career was getting truly into its stride, an episode occurred which damn near finished it, and what you think about this circumstance hinges on whether you think Boycott is in the habit of telling the truth.

Boycott has always, it seems, had an eye for the ladies, especially glamorously self-supporting and professionally self-driven ones (i.e. the sort who won’t become dependent upon him), and has also always had the trick of chatting them up successfully. One such lady had an argument with Boycott in a French hotel room during which she fell and received a bump to her head. It was an accident. This lady was, although glamorous, not at all self-supporting. Badly in need of large quantities of cash, actually. And by the time she had finished embroidering the story Boycott was a violent and misogynistic woman-beater. Worse, far worse, Boycott was convicted of such a crime in a French court of law. It was his word against hers, and another lady, the French judge, took her word for it, as did a subsequent French appeal judge. Says McKinstry of this episode:

Boycott was, in my view, a victim of cruel injustice at the hands of the French judicial system. The evidence against him had been absurdly weak, the conduct of the case farcical. His entire career and public repuation had been disastrously undermined by a woman who had indulged in a form of blackmail, and had been described in the British High Court in a separate case as ‘fraudulent and dishonourable’.

The British case being her bankruptcy case. McKinstry assembles copious evidence to back up this damning judgement, damning, that is to say, of the dishonest and money-grubbing woman and of the French legal system that backed her word rather than Boycott’s. I believe Boycott’s version of these events rather than that of his adversary and tormentor, but not because Boycott never lies, which is what McKinstry rather oddly says. It’s all the other evidence that McKinstry lays out that I find convincing. This is the one note in McKinstry’s book that jarred somewhat.

That Boycott’s commentating career survived this horrible episode is largely because of all the countries where his commentating is admired besides prim and proper England, with its stuffy institutions and pious, pompous, humbug-ridden tabloid press, where even the false suspicion of violence towards a woman gets you cast out of polite society. I knew that I liked Boycott’s commentating, but I had no idea, until I read this book, how much he is liked in, for example, India. Here the bluff Yorkshireman act results in giving credit where credit is due, without national, ethnic or cultural bias of any kind. Interestingly, while others have denounced Pakistan’s great recent pace bowlers for ball tampering, it is Boycott who has insisted that everyone does it on the quiet. He has also defended Muralitharan’s controversial bowling action. The white fellows only complain about brown bowlers, Boycott implies, because they can’t play them properly, and the further implication is that he, Boycott, if he were only twenty years younger, would have been able to handle them far better. You can see how this would be popular in foreign parts. The Indians also like Boycott’s commentaries because they are clear and direct, unlike many of their rather flowery local wordsmiths.

What I do believe is that Boycott plays the part of the blunt truth-to-namby-pamby-southerners Yorkshireman raised by coalminers and pigeons in a cardboard box, etc. etc. Because, at heart, Boycott is one of life’s performers. Once you get that, it all snaps into place. Great with audiences and crowds but relatively bad – often disastrous – with individual people face-to-face. Also, great with the right sort of woman, such as a woman who gets all this and who respects it – often because she is some kind of performer herself. The obsessive preparations for each performance, with the kit and the costume all just so, at first for the batting, now for the commentating. Underneath it all, there is the hope that the performance will be understood as a performance, to which the appropriate response is another competing and contrasting performance, rather than just slinking away and sulking or moaning about the rudeness of the Boycott performance. And all stirred into this is the fear that there is only so much limelight to be competed for and that you have to stake your claim for it, or some other bastard, as likely as not some more naturally gifted and less deserving southern consumer of gin-and-tonic, will upstage you. Don’t let him, unless he’s proved he’s earned it.

It is revealing that some of Boycott’s staunchest admirers are often people whom he started out being rude to, but who, instead of surrendering meekly and being content to badmouth him to journalists behind his back, instead read Boycott their own version of the riot act, straight to his face. After that things would often be greatly improved. Many are the “after I said all that I had no further trouble with him and we got on fine” stories in this book. And actually, on the quiet, when he felt at ease with people, with people who weren’t felt by him as any sort of threat, Boycott could and can be very kind and generous, depending on his mood. Once his playing career ended, he started to show what a brilliant coach he might eventually have become. Trouble was, the money he could make as a commentator was so huge by comparison that no mere cricket teams could ever match it.

Just as that cloud of French legal dirt was clearing away, not least, I daresay, because of McKinstry’s own writings about it all, in the first version of this book and elsewhere, and just as his commentating was getting back on track, another terrible enemy stepped forward to challenge Boycott’s character and courage and fighting spirit. Cancer is something of an equal opportunities killer, often picking out the very people who have been most fastidious in their personal and dietary habits. Along with smokers and sunbathers, it grabs those who do not in any way deserve to be grabbed by it, and cancer grabbed Boycott by the throat, literally. The doctors were going to operate but then decided that the risk to the Boycott voice, now also Boycott’s fortune, was too great. So, chemotherapy. Horrible. But Boycott battled his way through that as he had battled and batted his way through so many other ordeals, and triumphed yet again. As I say, he is, as of now, still commentating away, giving as good as he gets, mellower now since his recent brush with death, but still the same acute observer of the game he loves and would give almost anything still to be playing.

If you are still with me here at almost the end of this long posting, you can surely tell that the length of it is a measure of the pleasure that this book has given me. I enthusiastically recommend it to all who love cricket and the diverting range of people who play it and talk about it. And if you merely would like to understand cricket, here might be a good place to start.

For me, what Boycott’s life illustrates, among much else, is that people who are “selfish” are just as likely, in among all the inevitable bumps and bruises and resentments, to do favours for the rest of us as are the more altruistic souls who think only of others all the time, never of themselves, and whose reaction to someone like Boycott is to back away in horror. Life is not a fixed sum game, and selfish people like Boycott can often enrich it mightily, for the rest of us as well as for themselves. A less selfish Boycott could never have ground out all those runs and all those centuries. A less selfish Boycott would now be reluctant to cut to the often painful heart of who just made what dreadful and perhaps career-ending mistake on a cricket pitch. A less selfish Boycott would have been killed by the cancer that he has, for the time being, defeated, and most cricket fans would have counted themselves the losers, not just the man himself. A less selfish Boycott would have been so much less interesting. Long may his fascinating life continue.

9 comments to Geoff Boycott and the vices and virtues of selfishness

  • Alsadius

    I’ve never watched a minute of cricket (doesn’t get much TV time in Canada), but I still enjoyed that post immensely. This guy sounds like a real character. I’m probably glad I’ll never have to associate him, but he’s certainly interesting to read about.

  • David Crawford

    Mr Micklethwait,

    If you would like to read an absolutely great book about sports, and all that it requires for success, I’d recommend When Pride Still Mattered. It’s a biography of the most famous and revered coach in American sports history, Vince Lombardi.

    I loved how the book showed how a man going into coaching slowly builds up his knowledge of the game, his way with players, and his overall philosophy about coaching.

    He turned a small town NFL team that almost ceased to exist, the Green Bay Packers, into one of the legendary teams in American sports history.

    A truly great read.

  • Daggo

    Speaking of people still ruined after being unfairly accused of sex offences, is there a better example than TV presenter John Leslie?
    The small-screen lothario was in the wrong place at the wrong time when his fellow presenter Ulrika Jonnsson was trying to sell her autobiography – she claimed he had raped her many years before.
    A noisy police investigation followed and a court case in which Leslie was vindicated. The judge cleared him of any wrongdoing and told him he could leave the court ‘without a stain on his character’.
    Nevertheless he never worked in TV again.

  • Michael Taylor

    A highly enjoyable and profound book review. Thanks

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Great review Brian, I really enjoyed this.

    I did not realise Boycott was so bad at getting colleagues run out to protect his own position, but his selfishness at the crease was legendary. Of course, selfishness, when allied to great intelligence and team ethic, is a powerful and positive force. Take the case of a great forward at football, like Maradona, George Best or Pele. They were “selfish” in wanting the ball, wanting to score rather than always pass to a colleague, but that certain arrogance was vital to the team. The same applies to Ronaldo now, whom I hope does not make a nob of himself by flouncing out of Manchester United.

    I think the problem with Boycott is that he crossed the line in not aligning his own near-fanatical desire to score lots of runs with winning. If you look at Don Bradman, or Jack Hobbs, or for that matter, Gordon Greenwich, Clive Lloyd and Steve Waugh, you see men who were certainly “selfish” in wanting to rack up big scores but who always understood that they were in a team game first and foremost.

    Boycott’s commentary is great. I live the way he pronounces cricket, like “creeekit”; it makes me laugh every time I hear it.

  • Sam Duncan

    I don’t normally read long posts, but I enjoyed that immensely. I’ve always had a soft spot for cricket, although I’d hardly call myself a fan (following English test matches is about my limit, and even that’s tricky now they’re no longer on terrestrial TV), and Boycott’s definitely one of the characters that makes it so much fun. Unlike his fellow Yorkshireman Fred Trueman, who was similarly sure of himself in the commentary box, he’s almost always right in his reading of the game and his analysis of what should be done by the respective teams. Not that Fred was always wrong, mind you, but the words that spring to mind when I recall his commentaries are “impotent rage”; Boycott can be scathing, but he’s always able to provide a considered diagnosis and a coherent plan of action. I have no doubt that if he were better able to get along with people, he’d be one of the best coaches who ever lived.

    For me, what Boycott’s life illustrates, among much else, is that people who are “selfish” are just as likely, in among all the inevitable bumps and bruises and resentments, to do favours for the rest of us as are the more altruistic souls who think only of others all the time, never of themselves, and whose reaction to someone like Boycott is to back away in horror.

    I think what it illustrates is that genuine generosity and kindness have nothing to do with surface appearance – the “act”. Indeed, there may even be a slight inverse correlation: the most uncaring people often feel a need to play up their altruistic side.

  • >Speaking of people still ruined after being unfairly accused of sex offences

    What is interesting here is that Boycott has not been ruined by the accusation and conviction. He still works endlessly as a commentator and is undoubtedly paid very well for it. I had actually wondered why this was, as that sort of affair often does end a media career.

    After reading Brian’s review, this is starting to make more sense to me. Clearly nobody who knows Boycott believes that the accusations against him are true.

  • Allan

    Excellent read, although I would quibble with one minor point:-

    “…while the bowling of Boycott’s time was as formidable as test match bowling has ever been…”

    There were outstanding bowlers during the Boycott era, but remember firstly that the weaker Test nations of the time (NZ, Pakistan, India, SA) were far, far weaker in bowling terms than they are today, and also that Boycott was absent from the England team during they years that they faced both Lillee and Thompson’s peak years, and the terrifying four-pronged West Indian pace attack of 1976.

  • derrida derider

    “Boycott, far from shirking it, as was said at the time by some, was actually one of the best batters against super-fast bowling there has ever been”

    Boycott played the best innings I’ve ever seen against two great and extremely fast bowlers. I vividly remember watching it on TV – he made 100n.o. out of a team total of 199 (for non-cricketers, that score is extraordinary – opening batsemen just do not survive right throughout an innings, which is what the “n.o.” signifies). It was a truly ferocious wicket somewhere in England and Lillee and Thomsonboth bowled beautifully. As a cricketer he was always at his best when things were really tough – ie the match fitted his paranoid worldview.

    And yes, he’s a very good commentator. thy still have trouble finding people willing to sit in the commentary box with him, though.