It has taken 40 years – longer than even the most interminable Boycott innings – but it has come to pass, as the prophet foretold.
It was Christmas 1979; then as now, England had just been walloped by Australia; Boycott had batted through an otherwise hopeless second innings in Perth for an unbeaten 99. On the Guardian sports pages, Frank Keating wrote a column of pastiche carols. One went as follows:
Away in Australia
No place for a babe
Does doughty Geoff Boycott
Keep down his bald head.
Come one, come one,
Come one and p’raps two!
Our hero Sir Geoffrey
Takes guard for me ’n’ you.
The headline read: “Silent Knight, Holy Knight …” Holy perhaps; silent never, Boycott has finally achieved his apotheosis. Arise, Sir Geoffrey! And this time it’s serious. But in keeping with the nature of both Sir G and his benefactor, Theresa May, it took just hours to turn messy.
The notion of knighting Boycott predates that verse. It started with chuntering among his always numerous devotees, probably after he scored his 100th first-class hundred, with a theatricality that had previously been well hidden, in the 1977 Headingley Ashes Test.
But he was always a divisive figure. There was his batting, notable for its skill and tenacity but also for its turgidity and self-absorption, tending towards selfishness.
There is his character: sometimes generous; often staggeringly insensitive. There is his self‑referential commentary. I wrote a column criticising him during the last Ashes, when England were losing again and he was coming out of every media orifice abusing them by talking about himself. The response was massive and ran about 2-1 in Boycott’s favour. Opinions among those who actually knew him were more evenly divided.
The knighthood idea faded in the 1980s after the storm following his sacking as Yorkshire captain, which for bitterness and vituperation was a worthy precursor of Brexit. Keating kept the “Sir Geoffrey” line going as a running gag, though the joke faded somewhat after Boycott’s 1998 conviction in a French court for assaulting a girlfriend.
This is what came back to haunt him on Tuesday, when domestic violence campaigners spoke up. He handled that court case with the same tin-eared hopelessness that he showed again this week on the Today programme.
Martha Kearney: “The chief executive of Women’s Aid has said …”
Sir G: “I don’t care a toss about ’er, luv.”
But his anger may not be without foundation. His biographer Leo McKinstry, in a fair-minded and well-researched account of the trial, is very convincing that the verdict was at best unsafe and at worst unjust.
The honours system is rarely forgiving. Lester Piggott, Britain’s greatest jockey, remains unknighted more than 30 years after being imprisoned for tax fraud. And Boycott may also have stayed shaken and un-sirred but for a single admirer, handily placed.
Years ago May outed herself as a Boycott-lover; she admired his doggedness. And in 2015, the Mail on Sunday reported that May, then home secretary, had been blocked from adding him to the honours list; officials cited the French conviction. The following year May was promoted. And from then on it was only a matter of time.
I sometimes think that securing Boycott’s knighthood was her main policy aim at No 10. However, even prime ministers have only limited control over the honours list – until they quit and have a single chance to go crazy. Harold Wilson’s “Lavender List” remains infamous for its awards to shabby cronies, but it is always an irresistible chance to reward one’s mates. One could see this coming a mile off. Boycs knew, of course, and a source reports that he was “unusually convivial” during the Old Trafford Test.
What’s astonishing about May’s list is that Boycott and Andrew Strauss were the only people rewarded for something other than sustaining her in office, Strauss’s knighthood being more surprising if less controversial.
The normal going rate for cricketing knighthoods has long been about one a decade. I theorised that the inclusion of Sir Alastair Cook in January was a Whitehall attempt to see off Boycott. A Baldrickian plan, it transpires. Instead, she has doubled down.
England could have done with Boycott this summer, even batting with his stick of rhubarb. But where are Sir Ben, Sir Stuart, Sir Jimmy and Sir Jofra? Well, Fred Trueman once said ruefully that no bowler had been knighted since Sir Francis Drake, which is true-ish. In 2005, when England actually won the Ashes, Tony Blair handed out MBEs all round. That, however, was a political stunt rather than self-indulgence.
One way and another what might have been Boycott’s ultimate triumph and vindication has been tainted. Naturally the Labour party had to give him a kicking too which, from my experience of attacking him, may not be helpful among elderly male voters in the Yorkshire marginals.
Sir Geoffrey has devoted his life to his sport. And his greatest gift to it has been that, since he first came to public consciousness circa 1963, he has been a constant topic of argument. And still is, rising 79. What else could have engaged us so much all these years? What on earth? And if I have any hopes for heaven, they include the wish that somewhere up there, Frank Keating is chuckling.