Wisden Cricket Monthly’s features writer Felix White sits down with Geoffrey Boycott to discuss nerves, drink, personalised alarm clocks, his 18 one-day medals and the state of the NHS.
“I take it you want the room without the children in, sir?” says the concierge before I am led up to meet Geoffrey Boycott for this month’s Wisden Cricket Monthly interview. Boycott has granted us an interview to coincide with his latest touring show, Ashes to Ashes, in cahoots with long-time sparring partner Jonathan Agnew.
Upon arrival in the room, a hotel lounge occupied by several hushed business meetings, I find a seat and wait for him. When he walks through the same door five minutes later, in breezy and cheery fashion, he has his own cushion with him, which he carefully lays on the seat adjacent to me. He takes out of his pocket a number of different vitamin-form medication, which he arranges into an exactly symmetrical line on the table in front of us and re-positions my phone, there to record the interview, closer to him.
The interview tends to occasionally take on the genuinely bizarre format of me asking him questions and him answering different ones, so much so that I begin to check that he isn’t answering the question before and that I haven’t unwittingly entered a Two Ronnies sketch mid-conversation. He is, for almost the entire duration of our hour-long conversation, unnervingly and gloriously the Geoffrey Boycott you assume can’t actually be real.
Are you aware that when people meet you, that in their eyes you are slightly larger than life?
I went on Test Match Special a while ago as a guest. I remember saying to them, ‘I love listening to Geoffrey because I know he’s going to tell it like it is and it’s going to be entertaining’, and just as I said it, you tapped me on the shoulder and when I turned around… You were so Geoffrey Boycott, Geoffrey Boycott x100, that it was almost a bit disarming. Do you notice that people react in funny ways to meeting you?
Some people are nervous, I don’t know why. My daughter thinks I’m a pussycat. Look, when I first started commentating I only had a grammar school education. I thought, what the hell, you’ve got to be yourself because you can’t keep up a pretence forever. And then you have to cross your fingers, cross your toes as well and hope that people like it. You can’t make them like you. You do your best, find your style, then it’s a question of hope. What was it that President said? You can’t please all the people all the time. I can’t remember who the President was, but the guy that wrote it was the genius wasn’t he? He’s the clever guy that got it right.
So you’re aware you’re being yourself and by turn, you must be aware that you polarise opinion too?
[Sighs] Yes. It’s sad that. Because I don’t mean to. I care so much about the game. I love it, I’m passionate about it. I don’t have to do it for the money. I’m at a stage of my life where I don’t need to, but I like it. I’m delighted every day to go to the cricket. I mean, the first thing I did in the morning when I was playing wasn’t making a cup of tea, it was opening the curtains [mimics slowly opening some curtains, then rubs his hands]. I might be batting today, lovely…
Did you really?
I opened the bloody curtains, and I thought, I’m batting today.
Did you feel nervous ever?
You got nervous when you got out to bat. Anyone who says they were never nervous is a liar. The great players, like Viv Richards, I spoke to him and he was nervous. We all are. We don’t want to embarrass ourselves. We don’t want to fail. The world is watching. Television. Radio. People. But the difference between people having nerves and nerves getting the better of them is, the best players channel them positively to playing well. Great players perform on big occasions, as opposed to someone who can’t bloody bat.
Do you get nervous commentating?
Not at first even? I spoke to Jimmy Anderson about it and he said that when you first do it, one half of your brain knows what you’re trying to say and the other half won’t give you the word you need…
I hope he’s not like that when he’s bowling. He’ll never get the ball down the other end.
He’s good, isn’t he?
I haven’t heard him.
He’s good. There’s a depth there for the game.
Well, there’ll always be new people. I used to think it when I was playing, no matter how good you are, some people will come along and take your place. They might not be quite as good, or they might be different. But sure as hell, there’ll be someone better. That’s life. Doesn’t matter whether it’s commentating or opening the batting, there’s always someone who comes along, and if you keep that thought, it keeps your feet on the ground.
You know that you’re just passing through really?
Yes, you don’t get so up yourself that you think you’re the big I am. You’re not. You’re here for that moment. Do your bit for that moment, then you move. Somebody else comes along.
Sure. Alison Mitchell told me on a train journey back from an Edgbaston Test once that you were one of the people that encouraged her most in her early years in commentary…
Absolutely. She came to Pakistan, around about 2005/06. I used to go and see Gordon Turnbull for a cup of tea, nothing else, he was the main guy for radio at the BBC at the time. I didn’t need lunch or anything, just a cup of tea, for an hour and we’d have a laugh. He said, Alison’s coming, look after her Geoffrey, I said, ‘Not a problem, put her with me most of the time, I’ll make her laugh’. If she gets a bit nervous or tongue tied, I said to her, just ask me a question and I can talk for two minutes or 10 minutes, whatever you like. I watched her this winter and she’s had a chance to work for television and through working for them, she’s had opportunities that she didn’t have. She’s been the main girl to do interviews. It’s allowed her to express herself more. I think she’s done excellent.
I remember Mike Brearley saying that you’d need to know that the ball that got you out would have got anybody out.
Yeah. I used to analyse it.
Would you feel deeply sensitive about it?
Yeah if I played a bad shot! [Hangs his head back in frustration as if he just has]
Can you still remember all the ways you got out?
I can remember most of my innings, how I got out, whether it was a good ball. What it did, who caught it. I mean as I’ve got older I’ve forgotten a few but when I played for a number of years after, I remembered everything.
Anyone who loves cricket is playing the game in their head all the time, and I think one of the things that endears you to people is that you still talk as if you’re next in to bat.
I can see what’s going to happen. Half the time I can feel where he’s going to bowl. It’s a gift. I had it when I played. Fortunately I had to be self-made. I obviously had some ball sense but I wasn’t blessed with as much talent as some individuals, David Gower was blessed with gorgeous timing, effortless, everything. I had some talent but I had to make mine.
Well, Sebastian Faulks, the novelist, who has also featured in this series in the past, said he saw you in a one-day final, you’ll probably remember it, and you hit sixes. I didn’t believe him. You got a run a ball hundred or something?
146. 1965. The record was passed this year only, only this year, by the lad that plays for Notts and England.
Alex Hales. From ’65 to now is what, 52 years.
So, do you think you’re misunderstood as a cricketer sometimes?
I’ve got 18 one-day medals.
Do you hear of a lot of myths about you which you want to put straight?
I’ve given up trying long ago. There’s myths abound. It’s a bit like Freddie Trueman. My great hero. The best bowling action I’ve ever seen in my life. He was such a character. Half the stories about him weren’t true. They were stories about something else but they were better with his name on. They left another lot that were true. But some sounded better because it was Fred rather than somebody else. One, just a simple one. There’s an image he has of drinking lots of beers. At the end of the day, all the counties used to offer you a free drink, both teams. Fred had a pint. You could see why, if he bowled 20 overs, wanted to quench his thirst. But when Fred went to the bar that night, he drank gin and tonics. Now, if he drank quite a bit of beer when he was younger, fine, but when I met him in 1962/63, he drank gin and tonic, but the beer drinker thing had stayed with him…
Do you think a drinking culture in general in cricket is a bit of a myth too?
No, I think it exists. It is a culture. Players, as we’ve seen, are going to have to accept that the riches they get from television money. They’ve got a share in this. Which is right. But with it comes social media. People have phones with pictures on. And if you do something or get in trouble, people are going to take pictures of it. They’re going to be able to put it on social media. You could get away with it before, but the older players didn’t earn any money either. They earnt tuppence ha’penny. I scored my hundredth hundred in ’77, I got £400 for the week. If you played five Test matches that year you got £2,000. And your county wage was probably three.
But you don’t think the culture is worse now?
No, it’s always been there. But today it gets more noticed because we have social media. The girl I admire, Katy Perry, has a hundred million!
What, Twitter followers?
Look it up. She was the first person to get 100 million followers this year. She’s now up to a hundred and eight million.
Do you still listen to Katy Perry?
Yeah, I’m going to her show this year.
Shut up, are you?
Yeah in Manchester in June. I’ve already booked.
Are you in touch with her?
No, I’m not that close. But I’m going to see her, hope to see her backstage like last time. I booked for my wife, my daughter and her husband. All four of us.
Are you aware that Roy Harper’s song is dedicated to you? ‘When an old cricketer leaves the crease’…
[laughs] It isn’t.
It is apparently. You and John Snow.
He was a magnificent bowler. Email it to me.
I will. It’s a beautiful song.
My life’s been in a goldfish bowl and I’m only a cricketer. I’m not a Hollywood star, I’m just a cricketer.
If cricket hadn’t existed what would you have done?
I do think we sportsman, we figures in the community, we get lots of publicity, sometimes bad, but a lot of it good, and it’s marvellous that throughout our career we hope we give pleasure to people at times. But really, the people that can affect our lives are the politicians. And they let us down so many times. Really, they’re the only people that should be thinking, when they get elected, ‘How do I make life, living, better for 60 million British people?’ All I can do, all I ever did, is play cricket, and for a few hours, hopefully gave people some pleasure, but that’s all we did. I don’t regret it, I loved it. But politicians, they have the chance to make our lives better, all of us, and so often they f*** it up.
Don’t miss @Aggerscricket and @GeoffreyBoycott at #BournemouthPavillion on 24th Jan for an evening of laughter and banter @bhlivetickets #Cricket #Bournemouth https://t.co/hIeJP1ghky pic.twitter.com/4rKYSKwW9e
— Evenings With Aggers (@askaggers) January 16, 2018
Do you mean you would you have liked to have been a politician?
No, I don’t think I’d have liked to have been one. But it’s the one thing you can do to make people’s lives better. We get involved in so many things abroad where we should be helping the people of Great Britain. Us. It’s what we vote them in for. I mean, there are so many poor people, kids who can’t get a house, can’t afford it, we should be helping so many people. We send millions to India. £300 million a year. And I go, ‘Hang on we haven’t run India since 1947 have we?’ We gave it back to them. They’ve got more millionaires than us. So, why are we sending money to India? I know they have poor people, let them look after their own, we have poor people in England, who haven’t got a house, a flat, one of the greatest things we have is the NHS but it’s always under stress and strain. It doesn’t have enough money or it’s run badly, doctors and nurses are on such poor pay so… Listen, when you and I are sick, really sick, we’d f***ing pay them ourselves wouldn’t we?
I’ve got to quickly ask another thing before you go, I used to have an alarm recording of you saying ‘Get out of bed. GET. OUT. OF. THE. BED’
How did that come about?
I don’t remember.
Well, trust me it’s an effective way to make sure you get out of bed, having Geoffrey Boycott shout at you at seven in the morning. I think you should do more voiceovers. Have you thought about doing GPS? The directions, turn left after wherever…
‘Turn left, don’t be so stupid, don’t miss it’. That would be me, wouldn’t it! ‘You stupid boy. You muppet, turn around.’ That’d go down well.
Honestly, I think that’s a thing. Has there been any fallout from asking who’s going to be doing the planning for the next Ashes?
In the warm-ups, why didn’t we take the Lions out with us? Fix up proper three-day matches. We could have played two or three of them and then in the last match said, ‘Right, our best bowlers, Anderson, Broad, Woakes, are going to bowl at our best batsmen’. We could have had our own game. We can’t trust the Aussies. So we just want pitches. We’ll have our own umpires, do everything ourselves.
I haven’t heard anyone suggest that yet.
No f***er says anything, they don’t ask people like me. We’re persona non grata. They think because we played for England we must say nice things. When it goes badly we don’t enjoy it, but I cannot say good things about bad cricket, or else my profession and integrity is gone. I can’t. I’m not there to be anyone’s cheerleader. I’m there to be honest, fair, to tell the truth, and be professional and I’m proud of that. l have to go finish my packing.
And with that, Geoffrey Boycott is gone, to Aylesbury for his show with Aggers.
For all future tour dates, go to www.simonfielder.com for more info. Read the full interview in Issue 4 of Wisden Cricket Monthly, out on February 15