Geoff Boycott still speaking his mind
Alvin Sallay chats with English batting great, who is as forthright as ever on a Hong Kong visit, as he shares views on the game - old and modern
It has always been about batting for Geoffrey Boycott.
It is this aspect of cricket which the former England captain says will be the key to winning the Ashes which get under way in Brisbane on Thursday, and he will be savouring every minute of it, albeit voyeuristically in his role as a commentator for BBC Radio's Test Match Special.
"The batting will decide the fate of the Ashes. And yes, on paper England have the better batsmen, but sport is never won on paper. It's won when you get out in the middle," says Boycott with the characteristic keenness that made him one of England's most successful batsmen.
The burning passion the famous son of Yorkshire has for the art of batting is palpable - even though it has been more than three decades since he held a bat in the test arena - as we sit in the Mandarin Hotel talking about all things great and small about "the English game".
Boycott, 73, was in town last week at the invitation of Tim Murphy, chief executive of IP Global, a property investment company, and it is an opportunity for a trip down memory lane as he remembers his previous visits and the time he spent, yes, you guessed it, at the crease.
"I have been through Hong Kong a couple of times, but my last visit was around 20 years ago. I have played at both the Hong Kong Cricket Club and the Kowloon Cricket Club, where I remember getting a 100 for the MCC, back in 1966," says Boycott.
"I have also played at the old Hong Kong Cricket Club, the one just outside the Hilton Hotel. I still remember rolling out of bed, putting on my whites and walking across the road to the ground [Chater Road] and going straight in to bat. There are not many places in the world where you could do that. It is nice to be back."
It was difficult to dislodge Boycott from the crease during an international career which spanned 18 years and 108 tests with more than 8,000 runs for England. Today, the opener is still all but impossible to catch off guard. An outspoken and often controversial commentator, it seems time has mellowed Boycott as he is quite diplomatic on every topic, from Sachin Tendulkar (did he stay too long at the top of the mountain?) to whether India must shoulder the responsibility for the proliferation of Twenty20 cricket.
But first it is a subject close to his heart - the Ashes - and there is no doubt it will be decided between Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke, and the rest of the batsmen on either side.
"I don't think England will just walk in and spirit it away. It will be much closer than most people think. People only tend to think of the results but if you look at it carefully some of the matches in England [the summer series which England won 3-0] could have been lost. Australia could have won in Manchester, but for a day's rain, and the match at Durham was very close where England just got home. And I can't say we had the best of the Oval test even though we managed to come through.
"And then in sport, people tend to play better at home. It's about feeling comfortable, like sleeping in your own bed at home. You feel more comfortable at home with your personal possessions around you. It is the same in most sports, in football it is just the same where you are used to your own conditions, own food, having friends around. Australia will play better at home."
But don't England have a better batting and bowling attack than Australia, at least on paper? "I don't think it is going to be straightforward. It is not won on paper, but won out in the middle. And preparations haven't gone swimmingly for England with injuries to [Kevin] Pietersen and [Matt]Prior. Will they be fit to play in the first test?" asks Boycott.
Perhaps it is a long-ingrained cautious style, talking. As a batsman he preferred to grind the bowlers down rather than batter them into submission. Once, against India, he scored 25 runs in two hours: 17 in the first hour and eight in the second. But most significantly, whenever he made a big score, England won. England didn't lose a test match when he scored a century - 22 - and they only lost 20 of the 108 tests he played in.
The importance he placed on scoring runs was underscored when he once said given a choice between screen siren Raquel Welch and scoring a 100 at Lord's, he would choose the latter. It was all about batting for him.
Critics have found fault with him for a selfish streak, but there was no doubt that when he strode out to open an innings, his heart and soul was in it. He says he enjoyed every moment of his career and counted himself lucky every minute of the day to be playing cricket.
"I love watching cricketers who enjoy themselves. One person I really enjoy is the Pakistan spinner Saeed Ajmal. Not only is he a quality bowler but he smiles all the time and gives the impression that he really enjoys it. When I do teach - kids or professionals - I tell them, for god's sake enjoy the game."
But you didn't smile much, did you, Geoffrey, when you played? "I did when I got a 50 and a 100," he laughs. "Otherwise batting is all about concentrating. There are a lot of people who have jobs they don't like but they have to do it because it is a living. We cricketers are very lucky. We have a job we can't really call work. Can you?
"My father had to work in a coal mine five and six days a week wondering if the roof was going to fall on his bloody head. He came home every night with dirt under his fingernails and under his arm-pits. Even when he showered he still had coal dust in his nails, up his nostrils."
Boycott made his debut for England against Australia in 1964. His obsession with success made him come across as a self-centred individual who played for himself. He was once dropped from the England team for his slow batting.
Ian Botham, in his autobiography, claimed that he ran out Boycott deliberately when playing his first test against New Zealand in 1978.
England needed to score quickly in the second innings to try and force a win but the story goes that Boycott, captaining the side, told his team that he would bat in his normal way and accumulate the runs. Derek Randall was run out and Botham joined his skipper in the middle having told the dressing room that "Boycs will be back in here before the end of this over". Botham then ran out Boycott. England went on to win the match.
Boycott refuses to criticise the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) for helping dilute the importance of test cricket by encouraging the proliferation of Twenty20 through encouraging the wildly successful Indian Premier League (IPL).
"Good luck to them. I don't call them the big bad wolf. They were smart enough to do it. Give them credit for it. Don't be jealous. Lalit Modi and his friends worked out Twenty20 and sold it to a nation which is nuts on cricket. There is nothing wrong with that. But maybe six weeks is too long, maybe other countries have too many 50 over matches. This is easy money.
"Television is queueing up to give you money. Cricket is probably better than any sport for television. You take a test match. You can have a pre-show, a lunch-time show and tea-show and an hour after a game show plus. You get perfect interruptions for an advertisement. At the end of an over you can have ads, when somebody is out, you show the replay and then have ads. It is perfect for television so they grasp it with both hands. I don't blame television, it is up to our administrators to administer the game better."
So if you had the chance to make the game better, what would you do? Boycott says he wouldn't know where to start. But making test matches day-night would be his main push.
"I would do a lot of things, but mainly speed up the over rate which is getting ridiculously silly and play four-day test matches at night. It's not always been five days. At one stage it was three days before they extended it to five days. In the old days they even had timeless tests. We had a 10-day test in Durban, and a nine-day test in Jamaica. They played for a result. Everybody said this is ridiculous, the pitch is too flat, bowlers can't get anybody out, batsmen go slower and slower to tire out the opposition.
"But cricket has always evolved. Today 75 per cent of tests finish in four days and this is with a very slow over rate - 13 overs an hour. Batsmen are scoring runs faster but matches are being spread out due to a slow over rate. You have to bowl a minimum of 90 overs a day but it takes six-and-a-half hours, instead of six, and even then they fall short by three or four overs. And penalising them with money is meaningless when players earn fortunes. You have to penalise teams with runs, that will hurt them, not money.
And day-night tests will get crowds in. We want to get back the women, the children the families. People don't find it easy to take time off work. But if we play at night in warm countries, starting in late afternoon, we can sell the game as family entertainment. We give one-day cricket day-night matches which are successful but we don't give test cricket that. You have to give test cricket to the people and see if they want to come."
Only time will tell. The interview draws to an end and we ask Boycott if he could pose with a bat (specially brought by the public relations people) a few 100 metres from where he played cricket more than 40 years ago. He laughs. "I can but I will not touch that bat. I have never touched a bat since I retired".