Wednesday Books: Cricket's bad boys spin their images

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NO SOONER had Talk Radio snatched the rights to this winter's Test cricket from under the BBC's nose than it signed up Geoff Boycott and Phil Tufnell to head its commentary team. Kelvin MacKenzie wants to repackage the game for a new audience, and Tufnell and Boycott - cricket's bad lads - look like the ideal bill-toppers.

In light of the dismal World Cup performance of English cricket's insiders - not only on the pitch - it's tempting to turn to these two perpetual outsiders for relief and remedies.

Certainly, Boycott and Tufnell are worthy successors to the game's long line of awkward mavericks. However, they also belong to that less cuddly club of sport stars - those who have been convicted in court for assaulting their girlfriends.

"Physical violence has never been my style," Tufnell says in his autobiography, "and to act this way towards anyone, let alone the mother of my child, is something I bitterly regret and will continue to regret to my dying day." The book chronicles the England left-arm spinner's many unhappy brushes with authority, from getting kicked out of public school to being "treated as though I was a piece of shit" in the England dressing-room.

The nights on the tiles and in the nick, the car chases and bedroom frolics are all there, but after a while it reads like a script from Men Behaving Badly - with the jokes left out. The best crack comes from an anonymous letter-writer: "Tufnell: I need your brain. I'm building an idiot."

Tufnell is at his most ingratiating when describing his mortal fear of fast bowling, or his Bart Simpson-like fecundity with excuses for being late, asleep, absent, unfit or drunk.

But, for all its matey tone of rueful candour, the book is stunningly devoid of insight into anything or anyone, least of all Tufnell himself. There is no light shed on the really interesting question: how did a scatterbrain with the temperament of a two-year-old come to master the demanding wiles of spin bowling, an art founded in patience and unwavering concentration?

On tour in Perth in 1995, Tufnell appears to have experienced a serious breakdown. An uncontrollable fit of sobbing led his team-mates to commit him to a psychiatric unit for examination. After reading his account of the episode, it's hard to say what is more disturbing: Tufnell's eagerness to dismiss the incident as an aberration, or the England management's decision to fine him for it.

Tufnell's narrative conforms to the familiar formula of serenity following a storm, as the ageing prodigal finds peace with his second wife and second child; he is still barred from visiting his first offspring. "Whatever I have been, I have always been myself," he concludes, in the Sinatra vein favoured by sports stars heading towards a mid-life crisis.

Boycott's approach is more Edith Piaf. He has no regrets, and he owns up to no mistakes, though he does admit that he remains at a complete loss to explain why so many people "consistently go out of their way to damage me". In a brief reference to his French trial for assaulting a girlfriend - mainly a moan about how Henry Blofeld let him down by refusing to testify - there is no hint of remorse. "Life is too short to waste time in petty squabbles," he declares, then dedicates page after page to his feuds with Fred Truman, Brian Close, Ian Botham, Ray Illingworth and others.

Interspersed with a forensically detailed refutation of just about every charge ever laid at his door - except the assault - are his opinions on cricket, that mix of no-bullshit realism and wacky monomania familiar to fans worldwide.

He talks sense on the need to restructure the playing schedule to meet the needs of a modern audience. Then he demands that the Government legislate for a new school day, to begin at 8am and end at 5pm, with the last three hours dedicated to sport.

Boycott is an eternal faction of one. He would like us all to believe that he speaks his mind, and that he doesn't give a toss for the consequences. As this book confirms, however, he does care a great deal about what others think. Perhaps it is this unresolved tension that has made him - against all predictions - such an effective broadcaster.

One of the more curious miracles of contemporary sport has been the transmutation of cricket's most introverted opening batsman into one of its most scintillating commentators. Because his enthusiasm for excellence, and his indignation at ineptitude, know no national boundaries, they have won him a huge following in south Asia. There, it's possible to hear boys playing street cricket disparage each other's efforts with Boycott-like cries of "roobish". The regional accent has become the universal voice of the stridently uncompromising connoisseur.

This is a strange fate for a strange character. So you can't help but wonder what Talk Radio will do for Tufnell.

The reviewer's `Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties' is published by Verso in July