Geoff Boycott was one of my childhood heroes. Growing up as a sports nut in Yorkshire, I loved his technique, his attitude, his cussedness, and the focus he brought to Yorkshire County Cricket Club, whose players back then all came from the county.
So taken was I with his brilliance that I started a Geoff Boycott fan club, and made the point of telling him so as he emerged from the changing rooms one day at the end of a match against Lancashire at Headingley. ‘What do I want one of them for?’ he asked, before walking on to his car.
Undeterred by the brush-off, I continued to support him, and defend him to his many detractors, who seemed to grow in number and volume the further I travelled from my home county.
By the time of my student years, my family lived in Leicester, and I wangled my way into a golf day where the touring Australians were having a bit of r and r. I met legendary wicket-keeper Rod Marsh in the gent’s. We got chatting and he was talking away quite the thing till I confessed my early efforts at Boycott fan clubbing, at which he described my hero as a ‘shit and a total disaster’, and stomped out.
I subsequently heard all sorts of stories from Marsh’s team-mates, and later from British cricket journalists when I spent a bit of time on the Test circuit, but still I defended him. I have also met him several times, and though his political views are several pitches to the right of mine, I have been able to put all that to one side, and summon up memories of watching him play when I was younger. I was there at Headingley when he hit the four off Greg Chappell to bring up his 100th 100, a wonderful wonderful day.
I defend too his cantankerous and often self-obsessed media commentaries. Ok, he reminds us too often what a great player he was. But he was. He can be a bit harsh on lesser mortals, but surely that is what we want from former players turned pundits.
However, I have just picked up a discarded copy of the Evening Standard on the Northern Line, and read what the Great Man had to say about current England cricketer Mike Yardy, who has withdrawn from the World Cup because of depression.
‘I’m very surprised but he must have been reading my comments about his bowling,’ said Boycs. ‘That’s must have upset him because it’s obviously too much for him at this level. I’ve been, with respect, a better player, I’ve been able to hold my place in the team for Yorkshire and England, so I’ve always got picked, played pretty well, so I’ve not been in that position where my quality of play has been poor and it’s got to me mind-wise.’
The best thing I can say for that is at least we should be happy that Geoffrey doesn’t get depression. Because if he did, he would never say such a thing.
Indeed, I had a drink with him in a Manchester hotel where I was speaking, and he was staying for the Old Trafford Test a few years ago, when he was recovering from treatment for cancer. I have no doubt that his mental resilience helped him through that experience.
But how would he have felt if I had suggested to him that his cancer had resulted from poor performance as a sportsman or sports commentator? He’d have been non-plussed I expect. Yet that is what he is saying of Yardy, that poor form and criticism by his betters had made him depressed. I’m afraid that is not how it works. For Mike Yardy to have taken the decision he has, he must be seriously depressed, and the chances are that would have happened supposing he had taken a double hat-trick last time out. For depressives, depression just is, the same as for cancer sufferers, cancer just is, and if you catch a cold, you just do.
People who know me and work with me would probably put mental strength high up any list of attributes. But I had a breakdown in the mid-80s, and I have had depression many times since. There is an irony in this too. If you ever saw the BBC documentary I made on my breakdown, Cracking Up, I told the story of how I used Boycott as one of the strategies I had when I was trying to stop drinking after my breakdown. I saw myself as the Yorkshire opener, standing at the crease, determined not to be budged, oblivious to pressures around me, and I saw every day without alcohol as one run. I was beyond 2,000 when I finally stopped counting, and declared.
So without even knowing it, Boycott helped one recovering mentally ill person back then. He might help a few more if he adopted a more enlightened attitude to Mike Yardy. I will always put ‘Sir Geoffrey’ in my list of all-time great players. But his attitudes to mental illness could do with joining the century he commentates in, not the century he played in.