Boycott’s chance to unite Yorkshire factions as he opens final innings

GEOFFREY BOYCOTT is rather like Marmite. You either like him or you don’t. It is rare to find anyone with ambivalent taste buds.

Boycott, who is today set to become Yorkshire president, remains easily the game’s most controversial character. He is loved and loathed with equal intensity. Few have divided opinion like the man from Fitzwilliam.

The polarity stems from his own contradictions. On the one hand, Boycott can be warm, charming, engaging and friendly. On the other, he can be rude, boring, arrogant and insensitive.

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In an instant he can be Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde – without recourse to Robert Louis Stevenson’s transforming potion.

Even at 71, Boycott is arguably the most compelling figure in the sporting sphere.

Others have possessed comparable magnetism – among them his great friend Brian Clough, the former Nottingham Forest manager.

But such is Boycott’s charisma that he is still headline material on the busiest of news days.

It was 50 years ago this summer that Yorkshire’s president-elect first represented the county’s first team.

How many at Bradford for the game against the Pakistan tourists could possibly have envisaged the career – or the commotion – that would follow?

Boycott was out for four in both innings in a soporific draw.

It was the calmest of introductions for the stormiest of petrels.

Slowly but surely, the runs began to come.

Blessed with an impenetrable defence and incomparable dedication, Boycott became a feature of the Yorkshire and England teams.

As big score followed big score, with never a suggestion of failing appetite, the legend grew that if you wanted someone to bat for your life, it would be Boycott.

He broke bowlers’ hearts with a consistency that bordered on downright cruelty; the constant drip-drip-drip of runs was the cricketing equivalent of Chinese water torture.

There was a flip side, of course; there always is with Boycott.

By common consent, he was rarely a batsman to press home an advantage.

If quick runs were needed, many would have wanted him only to bat for the lives of their enemies.

His innings of 146 in the 1965 Gillette Cup final, with three sixes and 19 fours, was the exception and forever cited as an example of what Boycott could do when he put the interests of the team above those of himself.

Throughout his career, accusations of selfishness were never far from his door.

Narcissistic tendencies are frowned on in any team sport, but then altruism was never Boycott’s strong point, which was, instead, the forward defensive and backward defensive: head perfectly still, eyes right over the ball, bat displaying the maker’s name.

He was once dropped for slow scoring after making 246 in a Test match against India.

One writer who watched the 573-ball marathon said the innings “could not be excused by his nearest and dearest relations”.

Although the master craftsman was widely feted, he was short of friends within the game.

Ian Wooldridge wrote that Boycott “walks alone”, while John Arlott observed that Boycott had “a lonely career”.

Yet Boycott inspired among his friends a ferocious loyalty.

He also displayed it in return – and had no truck with those he considered unfaithful.

Many said that Boycott was a manufactured batsman, that he effectively willed himself to become a great player through countless hours of painstaking practice.

It is a myth to rival that of the Cottingley Fairies.

Regardless of his motivations at the crease, the facts are that Boycott scored 48,426 first-class runs at 56.83.

Such figures could not have been achieved through mere practice.

Statistically, Boycott was not just a great player, but one of the all-time greats.

His run aggregate has been eclipsed by only seven men.

His total of 151 first-class centuries – the 100th so memorably achieved during the 1977 Headingley Ashes Test – has been bettered by just four.

Indeed, Boycott is the game’s greatest living run-maker and century-scorer.

And yet figures are just a fraction of the Boycott saga.

In the 1970s and 1980s he split Yorkshire cricket down the middle as surely as a straight drive between mid-on and mid-off.

In 1978 he was sacked after a seven-year reign as captain – the decision tactlessly relayed just days after his mother’s death – and later sacked as a player, only for his followers to rise up in revolt.

Boycott was dramatically reinstated and the county committee overthrown.

Fred Trueman was among those who lost his seat as Boycott and his supporters won a landslide victory.

Like Trueman, Boycott embarked on a second career in the media after hanging up his whites in 1986.

He became a respected summariser on television and radio and remains the game’s pre-eminent pundit.

However, controversy has continued to stalk him.

In the late 1990s, Boycott was given a suspended sentence and fine for allegedly assaulting former girlfriend Margaret Moore, and last year he invited condemnation for some crass remarks relating to Michael Yardy and depression.

In 2002, it was Boycott’s own health that dominated attention when he contracted throat cancer.

The outpouring of goodwill towards him was huge and heartfelt; even avowed opponents such as Trueman forgot previous differences, although more implacable adversaries like Richard Hutton budged not one iota.

Boycott bravely overcame the disease and it was widely contended that his illness – along with his marriage to long-term partner Rachael Swinglehurst – had a mellowing effect.

However, the occasional flare-up was never far from the surface, and the tongue can still be witheringly sharp.

Although Boycott is the unanimous choice of the Yorkshire board to succeed Ray Illingworth as president, it goes without saying the process has been fraught.

The likes of Hutton remain fiercely against him and have done their best to try to prevent it happening.

It is surely the great tragedy of Boycott that he still engenders such feelings among former team-mates.

His is a sad as well as successful story.

Although the majority of his critics will never change their opinions, the presidency would at least provide him with the chance to write a happier last chapter.

There are those who predict it will only be a matter of time before he puts his foot in it with an injudicious comment here or inadvisable action there.

But Boycott will be determined to prove them wrong and to show that he is the great survivor as well as the great divider.

One thing is for sure, his term of office will not be dull.