I'd asked him the question I've been putting to people ever since that fateful Saturday of the First Test when ball-tampering became an English issue. The question is this: do you remember the season, about 20 years ago, when no one was allowed to do anything at all to the ball?
Boycott was merely the most famous of the many who didn't remember. 'No,' he said. 'You're thinking of the time when only the bowler could polish it. They were trying to speed up the over rate, by getting the ball back to the bowler quicker. That lasted a couple of seasons.'
Since Boycott's memory is thought to be first-class, I began to doubt what had previously been my own clear recollection of a miserable club-cricket season spent fruitlessly trying to bowl outswingers with a ball whose natural deterioration was suddenly protected by law. Something of the pleasure of the game was gone, along with the red badge of honour down the front of the flannels. (Come to think of it, the dry cleaners must have had a barren season, too.)
This all sprang to mind when people started saying that the answer to tampering was to prohibit any kind of ball enhancement. Eventually I found two people with an equally vivid memory of that horrid summer.
The first was Ken Higgs, the cunning Lancashire seamer who opened the bowling for England in the late Sixties. Higgs couldn't recall the precise year of the ban, but he remembered its unpleasant effect - not so much on himself as on his Yorkshire opposite number, Tony Nicholson. 'He couldn't move the ball an inch all season,' Higgs remembered.
Boycott remembered Nicholson clearly enough. 'We were in the second team together,' he said yesterday. 'He was a couple of years older than me, and he used to give me a lift to the matches, since he had a car and I didn't. He was like my older brother. He was picked for the 1964 tour to South Africa, which was my first tour, but he got injured and didn't go.' He was never selected again.
In 1972, Boycott recalled, Nicholson had an accident during a benefit match at a club ground. His leg was put in plaster, but an embolism developed and he needed a lengthy convalescence which ended prematurely when he rushed back to fulfil commitments during the subsequent season, his own benefit year. But he was never the same again and in 1975, after taking 876 wickets for the county at 19.74 runs apiece (including nine for 62 against Sussex at Eastbourne in 1967), he retired to Ripon. Ten years later, aged 47, he died of a heart attack. 'Some of us think he wore himself out after coming back too soon,' Boycott said. 'But he was a big-hearted trier, the sort of lad who'd always put his hand up to bowl even when the going was tough.'
The other person who remembered the no-polishing season was Raymond Illingworth. 'Tell Boycs he doesn't remember it because he's a bloody batsman,' England's chairman of selectors said yesterday, sitting on the balcony they shared in good times and bad. 'I remember it, all right. I had given up trying to bowl my arm ball. It was useless, unless there was a breeze blowing and I could get a bit of drift. In fact, I don't think I ever got the arm ball back after that season.'
So I watched young Darren Gough yesterday, striving with every sinew to live up to the proud welcome he'd received from his home crowd, and I looked at the red stain down the front of his flannels as he walked back to his mark, and I hoped, for Tony Nicholson's sake, that the lawmakers do not deprive him of a legitimate weapon. Those who forget history, after all, are doomed to repeat it.Reuse content