Geoffrey Boycott begins our interview with an apology.
I suspect, like a well-paced innings, timing his numerous commitments is crucial but the phone line has been momentarily engaged by someone else: “Sorry…I couldn’t ger im’ off…”
The ex-Yorkshire and England batsmen, now firmly established as outspoken commentator on BBC Test Match Special, has agreed to offer his tuppence-worth on Yorkshire County Cricket Club, the health of county cricket, the swirling intrigue that is city-based Twenty20 and his return to Bradford for ‘An Evening with Boycott & Aggers’ on 14 April at the Alhambra.
Everyone I’ve ever met in Yorkshire cricket has a story or view on Geoffrey Boycott. Would I get rhubarb, pinnies and flowing candour? Fire and brimstone from Boston Spa via Fitzwilliam?
We get stuck in with his perspective on the news that Yorkshire County Cricket Club’s future looks more assured, with a financial backer having been found who is prepared to pay for the new stand to the tune of tens of millions:
“It’s been fantastic. Leeds City Council have saved us. It’s a get-out-of-jail card.”
While the contracts are not inked, my understanding (at this point in time at least) is that the financial risk is not with Yorkshire but being entirely met by this company with Yorkshire effectively renting, rather than owning, the stand.
The protection of international cricket at Headingley leads to a discussion of Yorkshire CCC’s debt mountain – something Geoffrey has been vocally opposed to increasing and a stance that he took when running for a place on the county’s board at last year’s AGM.
The relationship with Yorkshire County Cricket Club must be somewhat strained given Chairman Steve Denison took the unusual step of writing to members back in 2016 to ask them not to vote for Boycott.
Is that water under the bridge? Well, it’s not long before the frisson of combat crackles with a pointed dig at the Yorkshire accounts, noting the small profit is only possible thanks to the deferment of interest due to HSBC.
In the interests of iron-clad impartiality, I note Denison tweeted a riposte disagreeing.
Look, I’m not an accountant and don’t list Yorkshire’s financial accounts in my top five must-reads of 2017 – but it hints at the greater point – do you believe Yorkshire will only be able to nibble at, rather than take a sledgehammer to, their debt?
Boycott’s take? One of acknowledgement for the challenging financial circumstances but alarm at the sums:
“I understand it…that’s why they don’t want me on the board. I understand when you’ve got a debt of £24 million, you’ve got a serious problem. The way cricket’s going…it’s tough!”
We switch tack and I ask: where may County Championship cricket be in five years’ time and what is its prospective health?
Cue a chuckle and a nod to mortality (his first, then Championship cricket):
“Well, I don’t have to worry about that as I’ll be gone in a few years! Nobody’s going to listen to me!”
As you’d expect, Geoffrey calls it exactly how he sees it:
“Look, hardly anybody watches. They (the ECB) are not really that keen on it (Championship cricket). They say they are but they’re always looking to reduce the number of matches, aren’t they?
I don’t judge people on what they say, I judge people on what they do.”
Boycott’s cause for concern is one shared up and down the country by those that cherish the County Championship and see its scheduling lumped in early April and late September with one-day cricket given the star billing when the weather is, technically speaking, more amenable.
When Boycott pulled on the Yorkshire shirt, there were 19,000 Yorkshire full members with voting rights; now the figure is 4,000 with auxiliary options for those who don’t want to vote.
He notes that the board obfuscates by leading with the headline that membership is on the rise and yet, so his argument follows, that’s inclusive of a special category of folk who can call themselves a member for a year – but don’t have voting rights.
My research suggests for a ‘Full’ Yorkshire CCC Membership or a ‘One-Day’ Membership, a stated benefit is voting rights at the Annual General Meeting – though you must have been a Member for at least one year prior to the AGM.
Of course, the counter-argument is that strictly speaking, Yorkshire are not misleading anyone, they’re just choosing to spin the numbers how they want and they’re certainly not the first to do that.
Moreover, if you’re not a Yorkshire member with voting rights, surely you still count?
After all, not everyone is interested in the politics, committees and AGMs. For better or worse, they just want to follow the county’s fortunes at the stadium or online.
Andy Dawson, Yorkshire County Cricket Club’s Commercial Director was quoted, in a worthwhile article I recommend by Elizabeth Ammon for The Cricket Monthly, as saying:
“Although we are a members’ club, we strongly believe we are a club for all our followers, however they choose to engage with us. We have 78k Twitter followers, 759,000 unique visitors to our website and 72,000 Facebook likes. We sell merchandise in 41 different countries outside the UK. There is a huge following for Yorkshire outside of those who come to games.”
I imagine this would be an anathema to Boycott but the point feels perfectly valid; the internet, explosion of social media and evolution of our behaviour vis-a-vis cricket means counties need to embrace everyone they can.
Boycott’s point was really around clarity on what constitutes membership and counties must nurture the loyalty shown by those who dig their hand in their pocket year-on-year with membership while also spreading the net far and wide for new fans and customers.
The trick is converting those that follow, like or tweet into buying a shirt, coming to a game and investing in membership.
The commercial aspect to cricket may feel like our noble game is being sullied by corporate interests (I’ve still not forgiven the ECB for Allen Stanford) yet it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Tackling the debt is unequivocally a positive step but selling the soul of cricket by slapping logos everywhere? Forget it.
I anticipate Headingley selling its naming rights in time for 2019 so it becomes the Easyvac Dust Buster Super Bowl – but so what? Millions in the coffers and everyone will still call it Headingley.
As ever with these things, it’s somewhere in between and Boycott’s view is that the balance is too lopsided:
“The county chairmen and committees all say ‘anything for money…’ two fleas playing cricket up a pole…if they could get somebody to pay for it, they’d have it.”
All of which brings us onto the hot topic of the city-based Twenty20 that you might assume isn’t Geoffrey’s cup of Yorkshire Tea but he’s firmly in favour, albeit with reservations based on the notion of overkill.
I find myself nodding along as he mentions the baffling decision to have two T20 competitions in the same summer: “We’re clogged up again with cricket. I don’t know any country that has two sets of Twenty20.”
Unless the scheduling sands shift, and we can only go on the information as it stands, then counties are going to have to try to persuade the same cricket fans to embrace T20 twice over and the reality is for many, they will have to make an economic choice.
Hang on, I hear you cry, the Northern Lights versus the Westcountry Cheese Truckles will appeal to an entirely new and untapped demographic. Perhaps in time but not immediately, Rome or even the ‘Latin Megadome’ wasn’t built in a day.
Ah, but the second T20 circus isn’t even about the counties, is it?
Hmm…let’s see..they will be based at county grounds and unless the London Towerblocks ship in an entirely fresh marketing and sales team then whatever shade of neon pink they run out in, the county club will be doing the grunt work behind the scenes.
This is where we circle back on a previous theme – namely the notion of the dividing line between chasing the income and damaging the goodwill of cricket fans.
It is Boycott’s view that those that make the decisions are terrified of missing out on earning potential so they’ve had a crack at having their fat rascal from Betty’s (not strictly a cake but work with me here) and…well, you get the gist.
Apparently, his favourite meal is steak and kidney pie and he makes the point that if his mum gave him that all week, he’d be sick of it.
A food-related cricket analogy…now that’s something I can wrap my head around.
Attention then turns to his show called ‘An Evening with Boycott & Aggers’ that is billed as Boycott’s 100th Hundred – The 40th Anniversary Tour.
What we can expect? Forthright debate, anecdotes, the chance for the audience to ask questions as well as catch unseen BBC footage and rare photographs from the Boycott collection should all appeal.
The dynamic that has evolved between the pair of them is the box office ingredient and I wonder what Geoffrey thought of Jonathan the first time their paths crossed?
The laughter chimes down the phone: “It’s a long time since he bowled at me. I always tell him I liked his bowling! I says ‘you used to hit the middle of my bat regularly!'”
The banter continues on Agnew: “He’s slipped into it (BBC commentary) effortlessly, he has a knowledge of the game, he’s played a few times for England – although my bowling record is better than his! He bowled at Viv Richards and he whacked him round the park!”
Listening to the pair of them on BBC Test Match Special, they are a stellar double act with the ebb and flow of conversation backed by playful sparring: ”He’s got a nice sense of humour, he can take the mickey and give it back!’
BOYCOTT AND AGGERS AT BRADFORD ALHAMBRA
If you want to see Geoffrey and Jonathan in person then the Bradford Alhambra is the only show happening in Yorkshire.
The events are being organised in aid of the Professional Cricketers’ Association and money raised will go to the organisation’s Benevolent Fund.
According to Geoffrey, in the region of £20,000 has been raised in the few years these evenings have been run, assisting current and ex-professional cricketers who need support whether that’s addressing health concerns or adjusting to life after retirement.
The interview, it has to be said, skips along and isn’t how I imagined it would pan out.
For a start, Boycott is generous with his time – it runs to half an hour – a mere few overs from a man famed for dropping anchor and doggedly occupying the crease, but appreciated all the same.
We don’t agree on everything, wouldn’t that be dull, but it’s not tricky to see why he is a headline writer’s dream; I didn’t imagine we’d find opportunity to feature both cricket-playing fleas and steak and kidney pie.
There are quite a few laughs, we put the cricket world to rights and the frankness of his views was a blast of fresh air. Boycott divides opinion…but at least he has one.
He seemed in his element discussing the game (“I love cricket, we talk sense but we also have fun!”) and if this interview is a microcosm of what to expect in Bradford then you’re in for a treat.
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