3. Fresh from the captain’s table


The white-walled, 18-room, outrageously-pricey-for-what-it-was Regency Hotel in Ambleside, Cumbria stood in stark contrast to the battleship-grey surface of Windermere. At almost eleven miles long and a mile wide, Windermere is Britain’s largest lake, although the usual spectacular views of sailing craft, pine woodland and Loughrigg Fell’s dry-stone walls were, on this forbidding Friday, totally obscured by dense low cloud. On craggy slopes and narrow lanes, visibility was restricted to mere feet, precarious conditions for navigation on land or water, but an ideal setting for a secret rendezvous. For sacked Yorkshire cricketer Geoff Boycott, a clandestine hook-up with key members of the Reform Group – a pro-Boycott association that had supported the former captain through years of wrangling with the Yorkshire cricket committee – had become a regular occurrence during a tumultuous career. Boycott wished the meeting had been staged closer to home. It had taken him three and a half hours to drive from Wakefield, and the fog had made the latter part of the journey a perilous endeavour. He’d clipped a sheep on a hairpin bend. Not knowing if the beast had been mortally wounded, Boycott merely wound down his window and shouted, “Move out bloody road.”

The Reform Group was attempting to reinstate the 42-year-old Boycott, who’d been axed following Yorkshire’s disastrous 1983 campaign. For the first time in its history, Yorkshire had finished bottom of the championship and Boycott’s assumed “selfish batting” was seen as a contributing factor in the county’s embarrassing decline. Boycott had been reported by the cricket authorities for slow scoring against Gloucestershire at Cheltenham in August and had also been accused by Ray Illingworth, the Yorkshire manager, of running out fellow batsman Kevin Sharp on purpose. Like Vesta curries, Boycott was adored and loathed in equal measure.

In the wood-panelled, Artexed faux luxury of the Regency’s bar, Boycott warmed his calloused, muscly hands by a glowing coal fire, the welcoming aroma of the smoke transporting his tense mind to childhood streets in Fitzwilliam, West Riding – the sight of cottages belching yellow clouds from stubby chimneys along Wakefield Road and Railway Terrace, of The Plaza cinema, to see John Wayne, of the screaming express hurtling through the station at 9.30pm in the week, of safety and community. Those glorious, uncomplicated times, when his dear parents were still alive, before his dad’s accident at the pit, the broken back, the smashed pelvis, the damaged legs and the internal injuries, the start of humanity’s decline.

The bar was quiet. Apart from Boycott and three aged members of the Reform Group, there was a French family in the corner comprising two adults and two children, speaking in hushed tones. The De Homem-Christo family was from the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. The parents were in advertising, and had met Geoffrey Thompson, the owner of Blackpool Pleasure Beach, about a possible contract to spread the great name of Blackpool on the continent. Despite the De Homem-Christo’s above-average grasp of spoken English, they could barely understand a word uttered by the agitated Yorkshiremen in their midst.

In a week’s time, the club’s membership would hold a special meeting in Harrogate to vote whether Boycott’s sacking should be overturned and the player awarded a year’s contract.

“It’s usual crap, and I’ve faced these sorts of accusations time and time again from Committee down years,” Boycott ranted. “All of it’s untrue as well! You can’t trust a word Illo says. He parps up wi’ one thing, then does exact opposite – ’e says ’e bears no grudges then goes on rampage, sayin’ stupid damned things like, ‘Boycott always gets applause, while I get attacked.’ He’s captain for pity’s sake! He gets attacked cos we’re doin’ so badly. Illo’s plain jealous of my popularity. It’s like illness wi’ ’im. Illo illness.”

The three Reform Group members, sipping half pints of bitter, listened quietly to Boycott and nodded with wise understanding.

“This is supposed to be my benefit year,” Boycott added. “I just want one more season of first-class crickeeet, my testimonial year, then I’ll retire. I don’t ’ave to be captain – I should’ve given that up years back, all the damned trouble it’s caused me. I can play for Bairstow and I can get fully behind ’im.”

“Bairstow reckons players’ll want to leave if you’re given a new contract,” replied one of the members. “Bill Athey’s moving to Gloucestershire and it’s understood it’s because of your…”

“It’s not cos of me!” Boycott interrupted. “He’s told me that ’imself! Go and ask ’im! It’s cos side’s rubbish – there are too many medium players bein’ taken on and not enough genuine talent comin’ through. That has to be a systemic problem! All I ’ear about is my slow scorin’ but to make runs you can’t be bangin’ balls on every delivery. If it’s a choice between undrid at Lords and Raquel Welch, I’ll take undrid every time!”

“Fred Trueman’s stickin’ his oar in, and people listen to Fred when he’s talkin’,” said the second member.

“If you’re reinstated,” said the third member, tucking into a bag of newly available dry roasted nuts, “I’ve ’eard that Fred’s planning on ’osting a meetin’ in Scarborough so ’e can discredit thee.”

“Fred’s waged war on me for a long while now,” Boycott stormed. “He’s convinced ’imself that I’m personally responsible for all that’s wrong with Yorkshire crickeeet. He can’t stand fact that adulation he once ’ad, I now ’ave. It’s simple as that. His newspaper articles are engineered anti-Boycott ramblings, but ’is after-dinner speeches take things to legal limit.”

“Fred’ll be muzzled soon enough,” said the first member. “The Craven lot have had enough of him. I wouldn’t be surprised if they vote him out.”

“I’d paint my bottom blue if I ’ad Fred off my back,” Boycott voiced. “I’m not as young as I used to be, but I’ve experience to play on poor pitches that others at club just don’t ’ave. Who’d replace Fred, anyhow?”


“As I say, I just want my testimonial year and we’ll go from there,” said Boycott. “There just needs to be a bit of solidarity and that’ll bring an end to dark days of crickeeet in Yorkshire. Reputation of Yorkshire ’as almost been destroyed. It’s time to start rebuildin’.”

“You’re right there, Geoff,” said the first member. “Another thing… Haggas has been saying, quietly mind, that younger players have no respect for you, and that you’re regarded as a bit of a joke figure.”

“Haggas?” shouted Boycott, jumping to his feet. “Haggas? Haggas is just plain daft. An idiot. He’s stupid – a punk. Haggas is a daft punk. A daft punk, I’m tellin’ you. Daft punk!”

In the corner, the eight-year-old Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo listened to Boycott with growing delight and repeated the phrase to himself in a cod-Yorkshire accent: “Dafft poonk, dafft poonk.” Upon his return to Paris, he would refer to his friends as ‘daft punks’ amid much sniggering while they listened to middle-of-the-road, American-pap driving music on the radio.

Boycott ambled to the window and realised that the fog had become so thick that he’d have trouble locating his Ford Granada in the hotel car park, never mind find his way back to West Yorkshire. “Let’s get on wi’ this quickly and sort out a loose plan of what we want to achieve, cos I can’t be up ’ere all night,” he ordered. “I’ve got to be in Leeds at nine sharp tomorrow for a dental check-up.” To further enhance his point, Boycott showed his teeth, but all this seemed to do was accentuate his lower-case-“b” at 90 degrees smile.

Go to Chapter 4: Guten tag, pet.