The Brian Viner Interview: The gospel according to Boycott

`We have a duty to the game that gives us enjoyment - and a living - to leave it better than when we found it'
Click to follow
BOWLERS USED to nag away at Geoffrey Boycott, very rarely breaking through his formidable guard. For bowlers then, read interviewers now. In London's Churchill Hotel, he deals resolutely with my full repertoire. There are outswinger questions, inswinger questions, yorkers, even the odd bouncer. But if Boycott doesn't fancy parting with even the most innocuous information - like which quickie he least enjoyed facing, or how he improved Graham Gooch's technique - there is no beating the bat.

On other subjects, however, he is downright voluble. I ask him about the famous old Basil D'Oliveira story, which has the two of them batting for England against a spinner, and "Dolly" walking down the track to tell Boycott, "I think I've worked him out." "Aye, so've I," Boycott is said to have replied. "But don't tell the others."

Boycott has denied this yarn many times, and I have no reason to doubt him. But how, I wonder, did it evolve? He sighs. "All I can tell you is that there was a great character at Yorkshire, Fred Trueman. I grew up admiring him tremendously, and still do as a cricketer. I used to ask to stand at mid-off to watch him bowl. And if someone got a thick edge, he'd get exasperated. He used to shout down the wicket, `You've had more bloody edges than a broken pisspot.'

"Fred was the greatest character in cricket, there's no doubt about that. There were hundreds of stories about him, and about a third of them were true. A third were completely untrue, and the other third were about somebody else, but they sounded better with Fred's name on. I used to be amazed in the Yorkshire dressing-room. Someone would tell a story about Fred and I'd say `that weren't Fred, that were so-and-so.' I think it was Ellis Robinson at Yorkshire who bowled at a Cambridge University lad and got him out, and the lad said `well bowled, that was a good ball.' And Robinson said, `Aye, it were wasted on thee.' Well, everyone tells that story about Fred and it wasn't bloody Fred at all."

Whether fabricated or not, the D'Oliveira story reinforces the perception of Boycott as a batsman more concerned with his own statistics than the team's well-being. Does this reputation irk him? Should he not simply be hailed as one of the greatest run-accumulators of all time, with 151 first-class centuries to his name - the 100th of them scored, with an awesome sense of occasion, against Australia at his beloved Headingley, in Jubilee Year? "Aye, it irks me a bit, but it's not harmed me. I've a great following. All that, it's only opinion. It's not factual, is it? It's not the Bible, it's not Matthew, Luke and John, it's not the scriptures. Unfortunately, some people read it and believe it."

The biggest muckspreader, he says, is Trueman. "He slags me off at every opportunity. He even did an interview about his Dales book and had to mention me in that. I'm tired of Fred going on." And so, in his latest book, Boycott On Cricket (Ebury Press, pounds 16.99), he has hit back. Trueman gets a right old hammering, as do two other former team-mates, Brian Close and Ian Botham. The book is shamelessly and aggressively self-aggrandising, and perhaps was intended to boost his image after the bad publicity - not to mention his sacking by the BBC - following his conviction in a French court for beating up his lover, Margaret Moore.

But it is also compellingly readable, and as opinionated as you would expect. I invite Boycott to expand on some of the book's more interesting assertions, for instance that Mike Atherton was a poor captain of England and should have resigned sooner. "I was one of the few people who felt that Alec Stewart should have been captain in the West Indies, not Michael. Captaincy is part instinct and I didn't see enough of that in Michael. It's quite sad, really. He's a very nice lad and quite good company. But as a captain you need to be ahead of the game, you don't chase the ball with your field placings.

"Michael got better but I don't think he had that instinctive flair. Brearley had it. Brian Close did. Raymond Illingworth had it. Illingworth was bright. He was a brilliant captain. For England he used to get me to stand at mid-off because he knew I could wind up John Snow, who was a truly great bowler but a lazy bugger. I could always get Snowy going. I'd say, `I wish I were batting, I'd wallop that for four.' Then I'd say, `Are you ever going to bowl quick, or is that it?' Snowy would get so mad at me, and Illingworth knew it would fire him up. Others, we encouraged. With Derek Underwood, we'd just say `Go on, Unders.' He knew what he had to do.

"The other thing with Michael is that he was not particularly good in front of the camera. Hansie Cronje is absolutely bloody brilliant at it. He doesn't laugh when he's lost. But he doesn't complain, either. Christ, they had some terrible decisions against England last year, some shockers, but I never heard him or his players moan. They left that for the privacy of the dressing-room."

Boycott thinks that South Africa, under Cronje, are the most likely winners of the World Cup, with a rejuvenated Pakistan a good bet, too. He is particularly excited by the Pakistani pace bowler Shoaib Akhtar. "He's quick, is Shoaib. He's 90-odd miles an hour through the air, and he's aggressive. He likes to knock you over and it doesn't matter whether it's you or the stumps." And England? "To win the World Cup you need wicket-taking bowlers. Without Gough, who's the main wicket-taking bowler? It looks a bit thin. I'd have made one or two changes. I think Caddick's a good bowler. I think Dean Headley's quite a good bowler. I'm fond of Ramprakash, too, and he's a brilliant fielder. We don't have too many athletes in the team, and I don't think we'll save too many runs, so whatever comes to hand will have to be caught."

Boycott himself played in the 1979 final against the West Indies. "I was 38 and a half," he says - it says something about the pedantic side of Boycott's nature that he sees fit to include the half - "and it was the first time I wore a helmet. A great fast bowler having a duel with a great batsman is the great spectacle of all time. But before 1979 there was an element of physical danger about it." Not surprisingly, given that 1979 was the heyday of Dennis Lillee and Michael Holding, Boycott welcomed the introduction of helmets. More recent innovations, however, have disappointed him, including the decision to stage 10 England one-day internationals next year, and seven Test matches.

"The problem is that the English Cricket Board is run by marketing men," he says. "Their yardstick is how much money they can make. Well, everyone wants to make good money. The dustbinman down the road, the girl in a shop. That's fine. But the priority should be to improve the standard of cricket. The money will follow. With more one-dayers and more Tests, there will be more money to share out to the counties as a sweetener. The secretaries think `ooh, that'll help us to balance the books.' But it's short-term thinking, is that. We have a duty to the game that gives us enjoyment - and a living - to leave it better than when we found it. Sadly, the standard of county cricket is going to diminish because most England players will very rarely play. And if Gough's not playing for Yorkshire, where is the player to capture the imagination? Greg Blewett's a good player, but it's not like watching Richard Hadlee or Michael Holding."

As for the attempts to inject some American-style razzamatazz into Sunday League cricket, Boycott is withering. "Sunday League has been past its sell-by date for a long time," he says. "I think they're coming at it from the wrong angle. They think if they dress it up in coloured clothing and give schoolboy names to the counties, that will wave some magic wand, but if the talent isn't there, all they are doing is doing is wrapping up a moderate present in good Christmas wrapping. And how can you have a name like the Yorkshire Phoenix? If anything, they should call us the Tykes. We don't need a nickname, we've had one for years. And Phoenix? Rising from the ashes? That's what it means, doesn't it? It's bloody daft, is that. Yorkshire's been going since 1863. Anyway, have silly names made any difference to rugby league. Has it really made more people watch?

"It's the quality of cricket that makes people interested. Think of Yorkshire v Somerset a few years ago. `Oh, I think I'll go and watch Botham, and that Viv Richards, and that Joel Garner bowling at Boycott.' We don't have the same quality now. So we have to make the product better and start marketing first-class cricket properly. The best day of the week, Sunday, we've given to one-day. The second best day, Saturday, there's hardly any cricket. Matches start on Wednesdays, Thursdays, you don't know when they bloody start. On Bank Holiday Monday I looked in my newspaper. Then I looked at Ceefax. On the day everybody had off, Yorkshire weren't playing."

Boycott shakes his head in disbelief and drains his third cappuccino - "not too strong, luv, and can you bring me some honey to sweeten it". He rises to leave. He is due on air at Talk Radio, who signed him with relish once he had been cast out by the BBC. With a slow, meticulous hand, he signs my copy of his book. I have one more question. Is it true that his numerous trophies are stashed away in a bank vault?

"Aye, they're locked away. I never look at them. It's past. I'm not flippant about it, I'm not going to sell them or anything. But I don't believe in living in the past. Life's very short, really, if you've got things to do. There are things in my life I'd change, of course there are. But hindsight's a wonderful thing. As I always say, if I'd known I was going to get nought, I wouldn't have got out of bed."