He ended his Test career in Kolkata in controversial circumstances, but the dour batsman and famous curmudgeon turned out to be a colourful commentator, winning the following of millions of Indian fans.
One of the episodes in the Netflix show ‘Bad Boy Billionaires’ is on Subrata Roy, the founder of the Sahara Group. Some of its footage reminds us of the clout Roy wielded in the early years of this century. A lot of Indians have money. But Roy could summon the country’s most prominent politicians, actors and cricketers to his events. Surely, not all of them enjoyed being at his call. But they went because Roy was powerful, and there were tangible or intangible rewards for them in being nice to him.
When Indian cricket exploded commercially in the 90s, it too became a Sahara of sorts. It acquired drawing power. Earlier-generation international cricketers, who had avoided travelling to India in their prime, were now happy to arrive at its chaotic shores because it gave them lucrative commentary jobs and a new relevance. The hotels and transport had improved too. There was everything to gain.
Geoffrey Boycott, who turned 80 on October 21, was among those who became an unlikely India regular. I say unlikely because he did not have happy memories of India as a player. Secondly, as a commentator, Boycott’s blunt style and heavy Yorkshire accent were, on paper, a risky proposition for Indian television.
It was in 1981-82 that Boycott played his only full Indian tour. He was already 41. As a child, his spleen had been removed after an accident, which made him susceptible to infection. As a result, he wasn’t sure of coming to India for a long trip. However, he had made a short trip a year earlier to play the lone Jubilee Test in Bombay. He had coped alright. Always serious about his career, and with the record for highest Test runs within grasp, he decided to play the 1981-82 series.
Boycott got some runs on the tour, scoring two 50s and then a century in the Delhi Test. Expectedly, he broke Garfield Sobers’ record of 8032 Test runs. Young Indian fans of that time made Slazenger logos on their bats so they looked like Boycott’s blade. They lapped up the comic-book style Boycott cricket tutorial that was syndicated in ‘Sportsweek’ magazine.
But by the time the last Test in Kolkata came around, Boycott was struggling with diarrhea. He fell cheaply in both innings.
There wasn’t much sympathy for Boycott in his own dressing room, however. For one, he was always perceived as selfish. Ian Botham is on record saying he once ran Boycott out deliberately. In India, right in the midst of the contest, Boycott was also busy planning the so-called ‘Rebel Tour’ to apartheid-era South Africa. Worse, the meetings between Boycott and other interested players took place behind the back of the manager Raman Subba Row and captain Keith Fletcher.
It would be unfair to condemn all the players who went to South Africa. It needs to be factored in that there was not much money in cricket at the time. These were professional athletes looking to make a buck. As Graham Gooch, one of the rebels, once said, “Other people could go to South Africa as solicitors, plumbers or accountants. We were an easy target to make an issue out of.”
What was certainly condemnable was the timing, the clandestine nature of the planning and plotting. The tour became an international embarrassment for England. Players were banned for three years from the national team. Boycott, on his last legs anyway, did not play for England again.
Fast forward a decade or so, and a robust, colourful ‘Geoffrey’, not the wan sulking Geoffrey of Kolkata 1982, appeared on India’s radar again. Far from alienating people, his cutting style and accent became a hit. “Roobish” and “Prince of Kolkata” became much-imitated expressions. He praised Shilpa Shetty. A risk-averse batsman was rocking the telecasts.There is ample evidence that Boycott is not an easy man to be around. He has been convicted of assaulting a former partner. Ian Chappell has called him a ‘selfish b-----d’ who put him to sleep “during the day” with his dour batting. Navjot Singh Sidhu called him “a ship stuck in a fog.” Most recently, Boycott’s politically incorrect statements about women’s cricket brought more derision his way. But he is 80, feisty and incorrigible. Expect Geoff Boycott to watch the verbal missiles fly by as if they were away going balls.