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WRITTEN IN THE STARS

Duncan Hamilton looks back to his encounters with Geoffrey Boycott, and wonders whether the scoring of his 100th first-class hundred at Headingley was preordained

Last season was long gone, but those of us who still couldn’t bear to let the summer go arrived at Headingley to listen to Geoffrey Boycott talk about it all over again. Boycott was wearing his snazzy Yorkshire blazer, the daffodil yellow and Cambridge blue pin-stripe that one of his own heroes, Lord Hawke, designed when Queen Victoria was alive.

I don’t remember the cost of the ticket. I do know that even doubling the amount of it on the way out would have constituted a bargain. Boycott only stopped speaking when rare film of his younger self from the 1960s and early 1970s rolled across a wide screen. In one segment from the archive he curiously sounded a little Home Counties hoity-toity, like someone part-way through an elocution course.

At the mid-point of the evening Boycott drew the raffle. One of the prizes was a signed bat. The announcement drew an audible intake of breath that turned into a gasp, as though Boycott was offering something cherished from his private collection. Boycott is actorly. He knows when to pause for dramatic effect. He can calculate impeccably the timing of a punchline and weigh exactly the delivery of it. He did so now, waiting for his cue like a performer who’s done Hamlet a thousand times. “Hang on,” he said, giving that slightly lop-sided grin. “It’s not me 100th hundred bat. That’s in the loft at home.”

There were about 500 people crammed into the Cricket Centre, but I’m sure all of them in that moment saw what I saw, pinning a bright memory not only to an exact date – August 11 1977 – but also to a precise time, which was 5.49pm. It came back as a moving image too. Greg Chappell lolloping in from the Football Stand End. Boycott waiting for him in the crease, his stance balanced and compact. The delivery, pitched up, and the on-drive struck solidly out of the middle in response to it.The non-striker, Graham Roope, darting out of the way. The ball then scuttling across the parched outfield to the boundary. Boycott, his arms aloft, alone only fleetingly before his fans arrive to smother him with love. 

It was hard to credit not only that all this happened only 400 yards from the stage on which he then stood, but also that almost 40 years had slid by since. How peculiarly different the past seems; for 1977 was about the Queen’s Silver Jubilee; the Sex Pistols and punk rock; the first Star Wars film; the Ford Fiesta; beer at 38p a pint and fags at 55p for a packet of 20.

I’ve been an honorary Yorkshireman only since 2003, but I have come across a disproportionately high number of men who swear they were at Headingley to watch Boycott guarantee his cricketing immortality. If all of them were telling the truth, I calculate the official attendance was at least 25,000 light. I have learned to tell the difference between those who really were ‘there’ and the rest, who pretend to have been. The eyes of the true storyteller go a bit misty, for one thing. For another, the account will be garnished with how it felt and not just how things looked, giving provenance to the tale. You’ll hear how the crowd arrived ‘absolutely convinced’ that Boycott would reach that landmark because there was a heavy ‘sense’ that everything was preordained, wondrously meant to be for him. You’ll also hear, as I did again only a week ago, that “the collective will of everyone in the ground pushed him towards his century”.

I watched Boycott from an armchair, plonking myself in front of a 16-inch Ferguson TV, the screen amply convex and the colour extravagantly vivid. In those days television-viewing was a collective experience; each household in every street was usually glued simultaneously to the same programme because there were only three channels.

I’m convinced Boycott’s century of centuries thus counts as one of the first, seminal hours of live cricket on TV. Few owned sets when Jim Laker took 19 wickets in 1956. In 1968, Derek Underwood’s late show against the odds, spinning Australia out on a drying pitch at The Oval, went unseen by the two-thirds of Britain that was unable to receive BBC2. So did Garry Sobers’ six sixes at Swansea, broadcast only in Wales. Of course, there were other notable Tests and also the inaugural World Cup before Headingley ’77. There was the epic Gillette Cup semi-final that Lancashire won by the light of the moon too. None of these, unlike Boycott’s hundred, produced a spike in the National Grid. Everyone sat rock still, absorbed in the tension, until that shot off Chappell reached the ropes. With the drama over, we all went to boil the kettle. Perhaps Boycott delayed his grand finale deliberately until, glancing at the clock, he knew for certain that his audience was home from work.

Boycott imprinted himself more than ever on the public consciousness as a consequence of that innings. Next morning the Daily Mail devoted its entire front page to him, beneath the headline: “THE BATSMAN OF THE CENTURY”. Even those only tangentially interested in the game – plus many more who weren’t interested in it at all, really – found themselves rooting for him, the romance of the occasion and the poignancy of the plot pulling them in.

"I have come across a disproportionately high number of Yorkshiremen who swear they were at Headingley to watch Boycott guarantee his cricketing immortality"

Boycott was only two Tests into his England comeback after a self-imposed exile spanning three years. He’d scored his 98th hundred in the first of them, at Trent Bridge, and then got his 99th against Warwickshire at Edgbaston just over a week later. He was 36 years and 223 days old, an age back then that normally signalled a decline rather than a renaissance. And of the 17 men who’d reached the landmark before him (Grace, Bradman, Hobbs and Hammond among them) none had ever done so in a Test. That his personality was so polarising – some swore by Boycott; others swore about him – also added a human factor irresistible for those who switched on and then couldn’t look away. England crushed Australia in the Test and regained the Ashes, but history made the team achievement subservient to the individual one, which proves how much it matters.  The innings defines Boycott’s career because, I think, it showed his resilience as a man as much as his capabilities as a cricketer.

I was ecstatic for him. As a boy I worshipped Sobers, effortlessly sublime in whatever he did, which is one of the perks of being a genius. Boycott came next in my affections. I know critics regarded him at his most attritional as the cricketing equivalent of Mrs Mann parsimoniously ladling out the gruel in Oliver Twist. But I admired the stubborn, indomitable grafting; and especially the classically textbook forward-defensive stroke, which was like a door double-locked and bolted.

The more I read about Boycott the more I also admired the dedication responsible for carrying him so far. No one could become Sobers; God had clearly given him more than He’d given anyone else. Boycott, however, made you believe that single-mindedness and a slavish work ethic would always take you wherever you wanted to go. He knew perfection was unobtainable, but chased it obsessively anyway. Boycott always looked the part too. I liked the cap and the upturned collar. I liked the sweatbands. I liked the way the sleeves of his shirt were sharply folded at the elbows, the creases immaculately pressed, as if some Jeeves-like manservant had done this for him.

Aged 13, I wrote to him. I was a wannabe batsman/keeper, ambition always outstripping talent, who wore glasses. Boycott had swapped his gold-framed spectacles for contact lenses. Exactly what I said to him can only be guessed at from the reply I promptly received, a handwritten note in blue ink on Yorkshire’s headed notepaper. I must have asked about contact lenses because he included a brochure, generously signed. I must also have asked about how I could become a better player because his last line constitutes, I suppose, his First Commandment of Batting: “Lots of practice is the only way to improve.”

I hardly know Boycott. Even to claim we’re on nodding terms would be stretching it. I have interviewed him a couple of times, shared one lunch and a few conversations at Headingley. What astonished me every time was his total recall not only of the big picture of the past, but also the minutiae within it. I heard someone challenge him about a Roses match, fought out sometime in the mid-’60s. With a sparkling clarity, Boycott instantly fired off his score in both innings and nearly everyone else’s too. He tilted his head to the right, stared upwards and into the middle distance and then brought back the weather, the state of the pitch, the field placing when facing specific bowlers, the matches that came immediately before and after the one under discussion and the County Championship table. He could still see the lot, as though every frame was flashing across his mind like celluloid unspooling from a reel.

I mention it because I once went through the 100th hundred with Boycott. The memories he summoned also struck me as coming eidetically: popping a pill and missing his alarm… the hazy cloud dissolving beneath the hottest sun. Boycott told me of his belief “in fate”; he was “convinced that some things happen for a reason”. He saw the century as one of them and went over the good fortune afforded to him that day as though wanting to prove it: a jaffa from Len Pascoe that flicked his left wrist; an arm-ball from Ray Bright that grazed the thigh pad and brought a dancing appeal for a catch. Bright stomped off, incandescent after the umpire turned it down. The “one moment of real trepidation”, he explained, came “somewhere in the 70s”. A short delivery from Pascoe.

A stroke “too firm” that spooned the ball towards fineleg, where Max Walker was on patrol. Boycott hared off for a run, not daring to look at Walker but waiting for the crowd to tell him if the chance had carried. It didn’t. It kicked awkwardly in front of Walker, struck him above the shins and bounced away for four. Of the stroke that took him to his century, Boycott described something that became in the telling almost other-worldly. “In the millisecond it took for the ball to leave Chappell’s hand, I knew the shot I’d play to it… I knew where the ball was going… I played it as though I was standing outside myself… actually watching myself get in to position for it.”

Hard though it is to believe, some of the Yorkshire committeemen, who supped champagne with Boycott afterwards, sacked him as the county’s captain only a year later, sparking another of those convulsing upheavals that blighted the club particularly during the 1970s and 1980s. When I came to Yorkshire, I found the rancorous politics of that era inexplicably lingering on. Boycott was about to become Yorkshire’s president. One former player rang me, erroneously thinking I had some clout at Headingley. “He doesn’t deserve the honour because of all the harm he’s inflicted on the club,” he complained. “We,” he then added, almost italicising the word for emphasis and assuming I’d automatically become a co-conspirator, “must do something about it”. I disagreed with as much politeness as I could muster, explaining both my boyhood loyalty towards Boycott and why it remained firm. I never heard from the ex-player again, which was a blessing.

In April, during the opening game of this season, I escaped the cold for a while in Yorkshire’s museum, tucked beneath the East Stand. There I discovered that the County bat Boycott used in ’77 was no longer in his loft, but behind thick glass. The face was scrupulously clean, as if it had never seen combat. Compared with today’s jumbo trunks of willow, it resembles a strip of balsa wood. The sight of that bat dug up a long-buried conversation with a family friend, someone I knew for sure had seen Boycott use it. He arranged his holidays around Headingley’s fixture list, attending every Test there since the Second World War. He knew someone who sneaked him in before the gates opened, which is how he spotted Boycott early on the second morning of the match. The bat was tucked beneath his arm. “He was going into the bloody nets,” our friend said. “Can you believe that?”

I could; and so will everyone else.