Geoff Boycott (pictured above) in 1997, England v Australia at Trent Bridge
Taking part in a pro-am golf tournament a few years back, Geoffrey Boycott looked on as another player was introduced at the tee with an announcement proclaiming him to be ‘67th in the world rankings’.
The cricketer was less than impressed: ‘If I were 67th, I wouldn’t bloody boast about it,’ he shouted.
But then, the man known as the Greatest Living Yorkshireman has seldom kept his views to himself. Once, after he had been run out by fellow England batsman Dennis Amiss, he was furious when Amiss went on to score a century. As his team-mates and the crowd applauded, Boycott shouted angrily from the pavilion balcony: ‘He’s taken all my bloody runs!’
His ability and tenacity — both at the crease and in the longer game of cricket commentary — have long led to his army of fans calling him ‘Sir Geoffrey’. Now that soubriquet has become a welcome reality.
And the fact his knighthood comes in Theresa May’s resignation honours list could not be more fitting — his dogged resilience as a player resembled her own as a politician.
It’s said that she phoned him to tell him of the award himself, and as a long-standing cricket fan she has made no secret of her admiration for Boycott.
Sir Geoffrey appealed against Margaret Moore (left in the court of appeal in Aix-en-Provence in southern France). He has since gone on to receive an honorary doctorate in Sports Science (pictured right with partner Rachel Swinglehurst and daughter Emma)
This was made clear to BBC Test Match Special commentator Jonathan Agnew, when he asked her whether she agreed that her tactics in interviews were like the ‘Boycott defensive block’. ‘It suited Geoffrey very well,’ she replied.
Now almost 79, Sir Geoffrey should have been given this award years ago, but it is all the sweeter for the wait. Given the controversies of his life, including a legally doubtful conviction in France for attacking a former girlfriend, there will be a few sour voices disputing his elevation. But they should not be heeded.
Boycott is an icon of British sport, a man whose distinctive Yorkshire voice and lop-sided grin are synonymous with our summer game. As both a world-class player and unique pundit, he has given his life to cricket, becoming one of the most memorable, striking personalities in our national life.
Renowned Australian fast bowler Dennis Lillee once remarked of Boycott’s supposed egocentric nature: ‘Geoffrey fell in love with himself at an early age, and has remained faithful ever since.’
Theresa May (pictured above) call Sir Geoffrey to inform him that she would be knighting him
Since his retirement, Sir Geoffrey (pictured above) has been working as a commentator
But Boycott’s real passion and fidelity are not for himself — they are for the sport he adores. His knighthood is certainly merited by his achievements in the game. He was not born with supreme natural talent, but through sheer dedication, he turned himself into one of the greatest opening batsmen in history.
During a professional career that lasted 25 years, he scored more than 150 centuries and became the first ever Englishman to twice average over 100 in a season. When he left the international scene in 1982, he had scored more Test runs than anyone else.
Since his retirement as a player, he has flourished as commentator, bringing acerbic insights, trenchant analysis and a colourful style to his stints behind the microphone or in print. Many of his homespun phrases have entered the lexicon of the game, such as ‘corridor of uncertainty’ or ‘I could have hit that ball with a stick of rhubarb’.
He was often accused of dullness as an opening batsman, but that charge cannot be made about his animated performances in the commentary box. His late mother has been a regular feature. ‘If my mum was alive she could captain England to play West Indies . . . hopeless, aren’t they?’ Or: ‘I reckon my mum could have caught that in her pinny!’
Geoffrey Boycott pictured left in 1965 and right in 1981 at a test match between England and Australia
On other occasions he was still more dismissive of flailing fielders. ‘He could have caught that between the cheeks of his backside.’
Personally, I am delighted at his knighthood. A few years ago, I wrote a book about him, delving into his complex character. Before I embarked on the biography, which was unauthorised, I had heard endless stories about his gift for causing friction, his ruthless single-mindedness, and his lack of empathy.
Boycott’s England team-mate Ian Botham claimed that, as a player, ‘he was totally, almost insanely selfish’. When interviewed by Dr Anthony Clare for the BBC Radio 4 series In The Psychiatrist’s Chair, Boycott proudly declared in defiant tones: ‘You’ll get nowt from me.’ After the interview, Dr Clare said he would have to revise the famous line of Jacobean poet John Donne that ‘no man is in island’.
Yet during my research, I found another side to Boycott. I heard tales of his unheralded work for charities and his warm encouragement of other players.
England players David Bairstow (left) and Geoffrey Boycott (right) during an unusual net practice on the 1981 England cricket tour to the West Indies
Former England captain Graham Gooch credited Boycott with helping to transform his career through his technical advice on batting.
And despite his reputation for being taciturn and opinionated, he could also be charming. Boycott once said that given the choice ‘between Raquel Welch and a hundred at Lord’s, he would take a hundred every time’ — but he was certainly not averse to female company and he could quickly turn on that charm.
He met his first serious girlfriend, Anne Wyatt, while they were working together at the Ministry of Pensions in Barnsley in the late Fifties. A string of other relationships followed, usually with strong, independent women like the successful singer Shirley Western.
‘I’m not the marrying kind,’ he said, explaining his reluctance to settle down. But he did eventually tie the knot to long-term partner Rachel Swinglehurst, with whom he has a daughter, Emma, 20.
Before this marriage, he had to endure an incident that cast a shadow over his career and probably stymied the award of a knighthood until now. In the late Nineties, he was accused of assault in a Riviera hotel room by his former girlfriend Margaret Moore.
The case went to trial in the Provencal town of Grasse, where he was convicted after a chaotic trial, though the court awarded Moore minimal damages.
In my biography, I argued that the case was a travesty of justice and her story did not add up. She claimed that Boycott, a strong professional sportsman, attacked her on the floor of their hotel room and rained down blows on her.
Yet her mild injuries did not reflect anything like such savagery. They were consistent with a drunken fall, which is what Boycott said happened. She also had a motive in trying to win money from him, for she had huge business debts and overdue tax payments.
The assault would have been completely out of character. He had no history of violence against women, as a host of his female friends testified in court.
During his appeal against his conviction, I gave Boycott a quotation from Shakespeare’s Richard II: ‘Take honour from me, and my life is done.’ He used those words at the court, though the appeal was unsuccessful, with the result that he lost several lucrative broadcasting and newspaper contracts.
Umpire Dickie Bird (right) said Sir Geoffrey had ‘application and concentration (left is presenter Harry Gration
But he was gradually rehabilitated, not least because of concerns about the soundness of the verdict. Now he’s back at the top, his slate wiped clean by the knighthood.
That’s as it should be.
Given his epic record, he always belonged centre-stage, not in the wilderness. His is a truly inspiring story of how a miner’s son from a small village turned himself into a legend by a superhuman effort of will.
Umpire Dickie Bird, who played in the Barnsley team in the late Fifties alongside Michael Parkinson and Boycott, told me he had ‘application, concentration and an absolute belief in himself’ — and it took him to the summit.
Perhaps his greatest battle was not on the cricket field at all but against throat cancer, diagnosed in 2002. Despite daunting odds of survival, he came through, thanks to the loving support of his wife Rachel, his own indefatigable spirit and his fitness due to his abstemious attention to his health as a dedicated professional.
There is no doubt the experience has mellowed him, he’s more tolerant and more forgiving. However, that should not be exaggerated. He was nicknamed ‘Fiery’ — and is still infused by his incendiary nature.
That is precisely why so many of us love him — and why it is so good to know that the walls of Buckingham Palace will soon echo to the words: ‘Arise, Sir Geoffrey.’