The Old Batsman – one of my favourite cricket bloggers – had a typically lovely post yesterday noting that August 11th is the anniversary of Geoffrey Boycott’s one hundredth first class hundred. Few players will ever reach that landmark again; none will do so in a Test match. This is cricket’s loss. The Old Batsman is a few years older than me and he remembers watching Sir Geoffrey – Yorkshire folk are right – in the flesh. My memories of him are slighter: the 1981 series is the first year of Test match cricket I really remember and even then I wonder how much those memories have been corrupted by frequent reviewings of old VHS tapes of "Botham’s Ashes".
Even as a seven year old, however, I knew that Boycott was a boring batsman. My father, a Yorkshire supporter these past 60 years or more, would tell me that in Boycott’s youth the great man was capable of scoring at a decent lick and that Geoffrey’s reluctance to hazard adventure was situational, not necessarily characteristic. He had, nay has, a point: no-one can score almost 50,000 first-class runs without some strokes.
Even so, i had my doubts. Back then I lacked the wherewithal to admire strokeless defiance. Until Graham Gooch supplanted him, Chris Tavare was my most-hated England cricketer ever. (Of course, my opinion of Tavare improved when he moved to Somerset and then later, or now, as my own limited repertoire of scoring shots has been wiped-out by time’s drifting desert sands.)
But it is amazing in some ways and, doubtless, to the surprise of whipper-snappers who only know Boycott through his commentary, to recall that even in 1981, towards the fag-end of his career, Boycott was the wicket Kim Hughes’s Australians priced most highly. There was a reason for that. Boycott remains the best English batsman of the past 40 years. (Not, quite, to be confused with his being the best batsman to play for England though even with qualification I’d be happy to bat for Geoffrey. Though I suspect he’d do a better job himself.) As the Old Batsman reminds us:
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.
Few doubt that Sir Geoffrey is a strange man. Most great or even near-great batsmen are. They are mysterious in ways even great bowlers are not. Perhaps that’s one reason more books are written about batsmen than about bowlers. In many ways, as Leo McKinstry’s superb biography made clear, Boycs was a difficult, even awful, team-mate. And that was the least of the problems with him.
But listening to Boycott is always enjoyable. It’s not just that he’s often right (though he is) or that his technical analysis is better than anything any of SKY’s ex-captains provide (though it is) but that he so evidently retains such a Blowers-like enthusiasm for the game. Indeed, in many ways I’m much more of a cricketing reactionary than Sir Geoffrey. Not for him the Truemanesque suspicion that the modern game is rubbish, played by mediocre cricketers. On the contrary! Boycott loves modern cricket and is, if anything, a worryingly evangelical enthusiast for change. I may be more cautious than him but I admire his willingness to imagine and embrace the new. This too contradicts the "idea" of Boycott and, of course, makes him more interesting and, perhaps or for some, perplexing.
English cricket would be poorer without Sir Geoffrey now; you probably need to be over 40 to recall how poor it might have been without him then as well.
The question is, however, that with Boycott, Hutton and Sutcliffe who bats at three in an all-time Yorkshire XI? For what it’s worth I think I might choose this XI:
1. Geoffrey Boycott
2. Herbert Sutcliffe
3. Len Hutton (Capt)
4. Darren Lehmann
5. Maurice Leyland
6. George Hirst
7. Wilfred Rhodes
8. Jimmy Binks (Wkt)
9. Fred Trueman
10. Hedley Verity
11. Bill Bowes
It pains me, obviously, to omit Brian Close. I suppose that if you want to be traditional Yorkshire you could drop Lehmann and play the great nutter in his place (though batting at 5 or even 6). Right?