Supreme talent and a selfless attitude rarely go hand in hand and there is no greater example of this than Geoffrey Boycott, a man described by Ian Botham as ‘totally, almost insanely, selfish.’ Botham’s words bring to mind the old adage that you can judge a man by the number of enemies he has. From Ray Illingworth, Brian Close and Fred Trueman at Yorkshire to former England captains Mike Denness and Tony Greig, Boycott was the common denominator in some of cricket’s most toxic dressing rooms where he showed his teammates little encouragement or respect. As an individual Boycott excelled with the bat, although had more flaws than he would ever acknowledge. As a member of a team he was arrogant and selfish – refusing to change his batting style in any situation, often running out his teammates and forever pining for the captaincy of his county and country. True sporting legends are those who use their talent to lead and inspire their teammates to glory – like Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls or Ricky Ponting with the Australian cricket team. Boycott does not belong in that category. On his ego-trip of a career he played for one man and one man alone – himself.
Boycott’s opportunity to show leadership came when he was appointed Yorkshire captain in 1971. He captained the once-dominant county for eight of the least successful seasons in their history – failing to win a single competition and finishing outside the top seven in the County Championship on all but one occasion. Despite scoring runs, Boycott had not earned the respect of his peers with 95% of the dressing room voting to remove his as captain in 1978; and revealed his true colours by branding them ‘small-minded people’ on an ego-boasting appearance on Parkinson. Boycott refused to go quietly and inspired a quasi-board takeover by his supporters which allowed him to remain at the club until after his 45th birthday despite scoring less and less runs at an even slower pace as the seasons wore on.
The controversy of Boycott’s Yorkshire days pales into insignificance when compared to his international career. Playing for England he consistently displayed the selfish attitude that prevents him from achieving legendary status. Perhaps most shameful was his refusal to play test cricket for a team that dearly needed him from 1974-77 which conveniently coincided with the peak of bowlers such as Dennis Lilee (the bowler who dismissed Boycott the most in test cricket) and Michael Holding. When he did play, his refusal to score quickly when needed often jeopardised England’s ability to win games. It was not that Boycott was incapable of scoring quickly (as his three sixes and fifteen fours in the 1965 Gillette Cup Final showed) but rather he loathed playing any shot that risked him losing his wicket and lowering his personal batting average. In the same year he had played that blistering innings, Boycott took 140 minutes to score 16 runs against South Africa turning a potential win into a draw and costing England the series. The innings – described by Wisden as being a ‘dreadful effort when courage was needed’ – was the first of many occasions when Boycott let England down. He hogged the crease in warm up games (stating that the number one batsman deserved the most time to bat) and against New Zeeland in 1978 scored just 77 runs in over seven hours prompting such frustration from his own teammates that it led to Ian Botham’s infamous ‘deliberate run out’ of Boycott later in the series. It is no wonder his teammates held him in such low regard for he often treated them appallingly. During the second test of the 1970-71 Ashes, Boycott’s teammate Basil D’Oliveria explained to him that he had figured out the action of the Australian spinner Johnny Gleeson. Boycott is alleged to have replied he had ‘figured it out a fortnight ago’ (i.e. before the first test) – the implication being he withheld this information from his teammates to ensure he topped the batting averages. In a 2-0 series loss to the West Indies in 1980, Boycott continued to score runs but offered his teammates – including a young David Gower – no sympathy or advice on how to play the legendary pace attack. Arguably the most damning indictment of Boycott is the way his test career ended. In what turned out to be his final test match against India in 1982, Boycott left the pitch claimed he was too ill to field but it later transpired he had been playing golf. Frustrated by being overlooked for the captaincy, he had spent much of his time in the subcontinent abusing his position as an experienced player to convince his teammates to join him on a ‘rebel’ tour of apartheid South Africa in 1982, defying the UN’s ban designed to end a racist regime to line his own pocket. These incidents put the final nail in his coffin and ended an international career defined by selfishness.
Although his flaws as a man greatly outweighed his flaws as a cricketer, Boycott’s cricketing pedigree is undeniably imperfect. A below average bowler (seven test wickets @54) and a fielder who lacked power and pace (only 33 career catches), he is defined by his batting alone. Furthermore, Boycott’s one-day international record (one century in 36 matches) is hardly that of a legendary batsman. For a man whose reputation rests entirely on his test match batting, it is a surprise to see him no higher than 18th in the all-time England batting averages and outside the top sixty in the all-time international list behind the likes of Michael Clarke and Michael Hussy. He never quite learned how to adjust his line of stroke against left-handed bowlers and was occasionally susceptible to an ill-judged hook shot. None of this should have mattered however. Boycott had the natural talent to achieve legendary status by leading a dynamic and successful England side. Instead, he chose individual achievements over collective glory. These days, he is the first to criticise the England side; it takes just one poor session for him to launch into yet another rant. Whilst this is entertaining, what is truly telling is Steve Harmison’s comment that Boycott is regarded as a ‘joke’ in the English dressing room. Why? Because he does not have the gravitas he thinks he does, his career was not worthy of the respect of his contemporaries nor the next generation of cricketers. To this day he refuses to socialise with his fellow commentators and producers. Egotistical and selfish to the bitter end, the only person in cricket who thinks Geoffrey Boycott is a legend is himself.