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Gavaskar and Boycott

From very different backgrounds and cultures, Sunil Manohar Gavaskar and Geoffrey Boycott elevated the art and profile of opening batsmanship throughout their careers. It has become the standard view to argue that the Indian was blessed with greater natural gifts, while Boycott is often relegated to the default positon of master stonewaller.  While Barry Richards was in international exile, and Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes opened up for a champion side in the form of the West Indies, the strains on both Gavaskar and Boycott were of a different nature. The onus was on each to anchor the innings, while a lengthy tenure at the crease was more often than not considered a necessity in combating bowling that tested the skill and resolution of their English and Indian team-mates.

Both men can claim legions of followers, while each can also claim to have divided both dressing rooms and the opinion of the game’s connoisseurs. Beyond the myths and the clichés, and examining each man’s lengthy Test career, who really comes out on top:  Stolid, dour, Yorkshire Roundhead or High-born Brahmin sophisticate?

Both are famed for their acute technical acumen and mastery of all conditions.  Gavaskar finally nudged ahead of Boycott, having played 11 more Tests, finishing with an aggregate of 10,125 runs at 51.25 from his 125 matches at the highest level. The Yorkshireman, however, exited the game in controversial circumstances while touring India, ironically enough, having finally gone ahead of Sobers’ then record aggregate of 8,032 Test runs. Boycott’s final tally of 8,114 runs at 47.72, while fractionally lower than Gavaskar’s, can be acknowledged as one of the  top drawer, however,  as it reflects a career of facing  the new ball on seaming conditions at home, while also factoring in an early portion of a career playing on uncovered pitches.

Beyond mere statistics, however, Gavaskar and Boycott have a relevance which transcends cricket. In a country which found respect on the cricket field hard to come by, Gavaskar propelled himself, his team-mates and his country to levels of professionalism they could not otherwise have achieved. As Sambit Bal has noted, “the self-actualisation of Indian cricket began under him”.  For Imran Khan, it was Gavaskar who had the greatest effect in revolutionising Indian cricket, surpassing even the impact of Kapil Dev.  In the case of Boycott, this introverted loner dragged himself to the top of his profession while remaining resolutely a man of Fitzwilliam.  Where fellow Yorkshireman Sir Leonard Hutton had once painfully appropriated the mores, mannerisms and accent of his supposed social betters in a class-bound society, Geoffrey Boycott danced to no-one’s tune but his own.  Despite appearances, the initially bespectacled, socially awkward right-hander was the ultimate cricket rebel.

A deeper examination of their records, their impact both home and away, and of their influence on team performance yields surprising results. Gavaskar played international cricket against Sri Lanka, while Boycott did not. Similarly, the Yorkshireman had a taste of Test cricket against South Africa prior to their isolation; a privilege not granted Gavaskar, who would surely have found an opponent in the then Springboks to have tested his mettle.

Beginning with the Australians, each boasts an admirable run aggregate and average.  Boycott began and ended his home Test career against Australia, scoring 2945 runs at 47.50 in total. His highest score came at an emotionally charged Headingley in 1977, where he completed his 100th first-class hundred with an on-driven four off the bowling of Greg Chappell. Of his seven Test centuries scored against Australian opposition, two came Down Under where Boycott averaged 45.03 in 19 Tests. Perhaps his greatest overseas tour in England colours came in Australia as part of Ray Illingworth’s victorious 1970/71 squad. In the five Tests the Boycott defence was virtually impregnable, amassing 657 runs at 93.85.

On his next visit, in 1978/79, the great man was less successful and almost at his lowest ebb as an international cricketer. Besieged by the drama of the Yorkshire captaincy saga, and grieving the loss of his beloved mother, to whom he was devotedly close, the man from Fitzwilliam was in the doldrums. A paltry 263 runs from 12 Test innings against Graham Yallop’s team was an accurate reflection of the late-career torpor Boycott experienced that Australian summer.

Sunil Gavaskar played more Test matches against Australian opposition away from home than he did in India. An overall average of 51.66 from 20 Tests is a statistical nudge away from his overall 51.12. Moreover, an average of 51.11 in Australia points to astonishing consistency. With five centuries from an overall eight having been scored Down Under, Gavaskar also demonstrated a liking for Australian conditions.   Indeed, his highest score of 172 came on his last Australian tour, in 1985/86, at the age of 36. Bringing up his 9,000th run on that tour, Gavaskar reeled off a couple of masterclass centuries which gave him a series aggregate of 352 runs at 117.33.

It was an Australia in transition, though.  With Merv Hughes embarking on his Test match career, an attack consisting of various permutations of Steve Waugh, Greg Matthews, Craig McDermott, Dave Gilbert, Bruce Reid and Ray Bright was not the most experienced in Australian Test history. Nor, in truth, can it be said to have represented the most demanding, with both McDermott and Hughes still heavily green at that stage of their careers. Furthermore, on the 1980/81 tour, a similarly truncated three match series is best remembered for Gavaskar’s flouncing off the field at Melbourne after a leg-before decision went against him. It was this that gave one DK Lillee an eternally dim view of Gavaskar:   “He spat the dummy right out of the pram,” opined Lillee years later. For Gavaskar, his second Australian tour proved a less than fruitful one, notching up just 118 runs from six outings at the crease.  For Lillee, though, Mumbai’s greatest ever opener just does not cut the mustard: “I know he was a great batsman but I cannot rate him among the great batsmen I bowled against,“.

Where Boycott and Australia are concerned, however, the great lacuna in the CV is the self-imposed exile which the Yorkshireman embarked upon in 1974. Whatever the reasons given, the absence coincided with England’s 1974/75 tour of Australia, where Mike Denness’s men received an almighty shellacking courtesy of Lillee and Thomson. While England’s top order was being continually worked over in the sun, the spectre of the country’s finest opener licking his wounds 12,000 miles away in apparent martyrdom has always been too much for his critics to resist.

Where respective records against each other’s country are concerned, the verdict is a patchy one, with Boycott coming out as winner, at least statistically. Having amassed 1084 runs at 57.05 over 13 Tests, Boycott also notched up four centuries, including his Test best 246* in 1967. In India Boycott scored 377 runs at 47.12 in five Tests spread across the 1979/80 Jubilee Test and on his final England tour in 1981/82. Gavaskar played almost three times as many Tests – 38 to 13 – against England as Boycott did against India. A frequent tourist, Gavaskar played 16 Tests in England, scoring 1152 runs at 41.14, which included his mammoth 221 at The Oval in 1979, an innings which took his country within sight of an improbable victory in that summer’s final Test match.

There was only one more Test match ton scored in England for Gavaskar, though, and it is the one he regards as his very finest. At Old Trafford, in exacting conditions against an attack consisting of Willis, Old, Hendrick, Underwood and Tony Grieg, Gavaskar earned the respect of the English crowds and passed his sternest examination with an innings of 101. The scene of Gavaskar’s most cherished moment on English soil in a Test match was, ironically, the last Test match Geoff Boycott would play in for three years.

For two record-breakers, Gavaskar and Boycott were considerably less than prolific against New Zealand. In five overseas Tests Boycott totalled 179 runs at 22.37 against the Kiwis, while overall he scored 916 at 38.16 in 15 Tests.  Interestingly, it was Hadlee whom he observed as being the overseas player that would most benefit Yorkshire back in 1980, a full decade before Sachin Tendulkar became the county’s first overseas player. The great New Zealand all-rounder, in return, acknowledges Boycott as his toughest opponent, stating “He was technically so sound. He would just leave perfect away going deliveries”.

For Gavaskar, however, a career tally of 651 in nine Tests against New Zealand with two centuries, one having been amassed away from home, came at an overall average of 43.40, fractionally lower than his average in New Zealand itself.

The man who would one day become Sheriff of Mumbai was suitably prolific against local rivals Pakistan. From a total of 24 Tests he ran up 2089 runs at 56.45 with five centuries and 12 half-centuries. In Pakistan itself he was no less bountiful, scoring 1001 runs at 58.88. In 1982/83 against a rampant Pakistan on home soil, with Imran Khan at his best, Gavaskar had to dig deeper than at almost any other time in his Test match career. In six Tests he came away with 434 runs at 48.22. In a batting order that was frequently blown away only he and Mohinder Amarnath managed to stymie the great Lahore all-rounder.  In 1978/79, 1979/80 and 1982/83 Gavaskar and India took part in three seismic Test series against their local rivals and neighbours: the “Asian Ashes” indeed.  It is a great testament to Gavaskar that he managed to weather such pressure, particularly during the electrifying 1978/79 series, where hostilities were resumed after a gap of 17 years, and when Pakistan’s returning Packer players added extra spice to a contest that required no additional flavouring.

Boycott, by contrast, played just six Tests against Pakistan spanning 11 years. In Pakistan, on his one and only tour in 1977/78, he compiled 329 runs at 82.25, while his overall record is 591 at 84.42.

For Pakistan’s greatest all-rounder, Imran Khan, there was little doubt about the stature of these two great opening batsmen.  Writing just after Gavaskar’s retirement, Imran observed:

“I batted with him for a long time during the MCC bicentenary match at Lord’s in 1987. He scored 188, I made 82, and we put on 180 for the fifth wicket. I found it a revelation to see how he tackled certain bowlers, and how he understood the game. He is a master, and I am afraid that Indian cricket will struggle to replace him adequately

Likewise, for a man who has been loath to heap praise on English cricketers down the years, Imran’s assessment of Boycott is similarly astute, although it does not come unqualified:

The English batsman I considered to be world class was Geoff Boycott. .He captained as he batted, never taking risks. But, even though as a batsman he played for himself, he was a great player in test matches.  His technique was watertight and his concentration incredible. He would never give away his wicket, no matter what the situation”

Gavaskar found the emerging Sri Lankan outfits suitably obliging.  In seven Tests spanning five years Gavaskar scored 600 runs at 66.66 with two centuries. Having made just one three test tour of Sri Lanka in 1985, he ran up 186 runs at 37.20.

Sunil Gavaskar did not have the joys of facing a fully sanctioned Test playing South Africa but his great rival did. In seven Tests Boycott totalled 373 runs at 37.30, while on his first tour as an England player, in 1964/65, his five Tests brought him to the attention of the wider cricketing world, where he excelled with 298 runs at 49.66 against an attack consisting of Peter Pollock, Partridge, Barlow and Trevor Goddard.

The last great opponent that both Gavaskar and Boycott faced down in the course of their careers was West Indies. It is perhaps their careers against the teams from the Caribbean which makes each man’s legend endure.  The figures themselves are suitably prolific. For Boycott, 29 Tests against West Indies yielded 2205 runs at 45.93. In the Caribbean he compiled 1179 at 51.26 in 14 Test matches. Additionally, his 15 half-centuries are complemented by five three-figure scores.

For Gavaskar the numbers are even more astonishing. In 27 Tests, and 48 innings, the Little Master accumulated 2749 runs at 65.45, including his Test best 236* in 1983/84. Amazingly, in the Caribbean itself, he averaged 70.20, having scored 1404 runs with seven centuries. Back home in India Gavaskar scored a further six centuries giving him an improbable 13 in toal.

On closer inspection, however, the reputation of Gavaskar as slayer of the West Indies is somewhat exaggerated. Great though the record most certainly is, it does not come without caveats. In 1978/79, for instance, while the West Indies speed merchants were away in Australia on Packer duty, Alvin Kallicharran’s team were taking part in a six-Test series with India. Gavaskar gorged himself to the tune of 732 runs at 91.50 against a young and inexperienced second-string attack. A player can only negotiate the opposition that presents itself, of course, but no-one should be of any doubt that the full-strength West Indies of that time was being led by Clive Lloyd elsewhere.

Following a prolific debut against the West Indies in 1971, Gavaskar had to wait until 1975/76, and another tour of the Caribbean, before he encountered the bowling attack that would develop into the one that would blow away all opposition in the years to come.  With the veteran Vanburn Holder still taking up a berth, Holding, Roberts and Wayne Daniel all appeared in this series, albeit fitfully in the case of Roberts and Daniel.  Exhibiting great bravery, and without the protective equipment that would become commonplace in the years to come, Gavaskar scored 390 at 55.71 in four Tests.   It had been grueling, it had been physically painful, and it was a foretaste of what was to come during the next decade. At the end of the series, Wisden remarked:

“The Indian team trudged along the tarmac towards their home-bound aeroplane at Kingston’s Norman Manley Airport, they resembled Napoleon’s troops on the retreat from Moscow. They were battle-weary and a lot of them were enveloped in plasters and bandages.”

Following the 1978/79 series held in the sub-continent, West Indies and India did not meet up again until the Caribbean summer of 1982/83. There, hard on the heels of a gruelling series with Pakistan, India met a team led by Clive Lloyd that will be remembered as one of the finest – and fiercest – to have ever played the game. Here, Gavaskar appeared to be suffering from some sort of shellshock. A winter trying to douse the fires of Imran Khan meant that the recently deposed Indian captain was diffident and out of touch, reflected in series figures of 240 runs at 30.00, with 147 of those coming in one knock during the drawn Test in Guyana.

Back home in India for the return series later that year, Gavaskar decided to go on the attack. The results were startling: 505 runs at 50.50, with two centuries of radically different brilliance. One was an attritional Test-best of 236* while the other was a counter attacking work of genius in Dehli, scored off just 94 balls. The watching Pradeep Magazine observed:

His footwork that day was almost divine. He did not weave and duck at the crease, but played what I still think is the best exhibition of hooking I have watched. As if knowing the intent of the bowlers before they had released the ball, Gavaskar got into perfect position to hook, and raced to his half-century off just 37 balls. He took 57 more to record his 29th century, a feat achieved by only man before him – Donald Bradman.’

Of those 13 West Indies centuries, then, five came against the bowling attacks whose exploits elevated the art of fast bowling as a team strategy from a surprise shock tactic to a merciless, strategic pack-hunt.  This is not to infer that Gavaskar’s previous Windies hundreds were accumulated against village green attacks, far from it. Nor does it imply that Gavaskar was lacking in resolve, technique or fortitude against the quick stuff. He was certainly not: five centuries gleaned from the 1975/6, 1982/3 and 1983/4 series is a record any batsman can be proud of. To see him flaying Winston Davis to the boundary while on bended  knee during that Dehli century is one of the most uplifting sights of a decade dominated by fast bowling.  

If Gavaskar had to adjust late in his career to thwart the best, then so did Boycott.  Prior to 1980 he had scored four Test hundreds against West Indies and had been instrumental to England’s chances on the 1973/4 tour of the Caribbean.  Whereas he had begun in 1966 against Hall, Griffiths, Sobers and Gibbs, the side he faced in 1980 and 1980/81 was even more formidable. At 40, it was the stiffest test he had faced since his 1977 comeback, and quite possibly of his career. At home in 1980 he scored 368 runs at 40.88, with three half-centuries. Although Rose and Bairstow were ahead of him in the averages, this was only by default, as neither batsman had played a full part in the series. Of the senior batsmen, then, it was Boycott who came out on top.

That winter England flew to the Caribbean where the conditions were even more testing still. In four Tests Boycott ground out 295 runs at 42.14. Following the unforgettable Holding over in Barbados, where Boycott departed for a sixth ball duck, having barely navigated the first five, many within the England camp thought Boycott was finished.   As morose as anyone could remember having seen him and having studied the fateful over again and again, Boycott got back to work.   It was in the very next Test that he struck back, demonstrating the legendary fortitude that had taken him from Fitzwilliam to Barnsley CC and then on to the Yorkshire team itself.  As he helped save the game for England with a century, his nemesis from the Barbados Test, Michael Holding, stopped to congratulate him, saying “a different day Geoffrey, a different game”.  It was his fifth century for England against West Indies and his twentieth in all. In his 41st year, two more centuries would come, one against Australia at The Oval where he defied Lillee for seven hours, and the final one in India where he contrived to break the record run aggregate set by Sir Garfield Sobers.

Speaking in 2011, Boycott’s name was the first one on Michael Holding’s lips when he was asked to nominate the batsmen he had to work hardest to dismiss.  Recalling Boycott, along with Greg Chappell, as being particularly obstinate, the great Jamaican said “Boycott would never play out of his comfort zone. So, you knew that you had to produce a good delivery to get rid of him.”

In his final years in Test cricket, at an age where he could justifiably have had one eye on the pipe and slippers, Boycott had faced down the most difficult opponent of the age. Ever the controversialist, he bowed out of international cricket by departing England’s tour of India in early 1982. Soon after he was strutting out to the middle, bearded, with Graham Gooch, opening up for the South African Breweries sponsored England XI, after which he was effectively banished from the international game for good. He would rise again though, this time as the most trenchant cricket commentator of the era.

While Boycott’s ability to alienate and infuriate both team-mates and cricket’s administrators might appear to put him in a league of his own, Gavaskar is no slouch either.  A four-decade long feud with Bishen Bedi is just one example of a tendency to rile fellow players and those within India’s cricket hierarchy. Bedi, Dilip Vengsarkar, Dilip Doshi and Kapil Dev can all attest to the colder aspects of their former team-mate and captain’s nature; each having come off second best to Gavaskar’s hauteur while in command.

What else is there to glean from their careers; longevity and mountains of runs aside? Domestically, of course, Boycott and Gavaskar played their cricket in very different conditions. Boycott himself has bemoaned the loss of uncovered pitches from the English game, something to which he attributes the tightness of his technique. Another Yorkshireman, Ray Illingworth, has also argued in the same vein. Where batsmen learned to cope with varying conditions or wither on the vine, so too bowlers discovered how to exploit conditions to their effect. For Boycott, playing 57 of his 108 Test matches at home, this brought him a domestic tally of 4356 runs at 48.40, including 14 of his 22 centuries. Moreover, the skills honed at home were put into good effect overseas, too.  In 51 Test matches outside England Boycott amassed 3758 at 46.97, a strikingly similar mean average to that attained in Test matches in England.

If consistency was a Boycott trademark, then it was the watchword of Gavaskar. In 65 Test matches on Indian soil Sunny amassed 5067 runs at an average of 50.16, while away from home he still excelled with 5055 runs at 52.11 in 60 Tests. Similarly, 16 hundreds on native turf were more than matched by 18 scored abroad.

What, then, of their effect on team performance and match outcomes? This is always something of a contested area to leave to a purely statistical analysis, of course, since, in a team game, other performers will have their say in swinging a match this way or that.  That caveat noted, Sunil Gavaskar was on the winning side on 23 occasions in a 125 game Test match career. In those games he scored 1671 runs at 43.97, almost eight runs lower than his overall career mean. India lost 34 of those 125 contests, where Gavaskar’s contribution was 2314 at just 35.06. Again, this is a figure considerably below his Test average of 51.12. Where India drew Test matches, of which they shared the honours in 67 of the great opener’s 125 Tests, Gavaskar’s average climbed to 65.64. Similarly, 22 of his 34 Test hundreds came in drawn contests; while six each came in victorious and losing encounters.

During Geoffrey Boycott’s 108 Test match career, England were the victors on 35 occasions. In those Tests Boycott contributed 2950 runs at 54.62, during which he compiled 10 of his 22 career centuries. In the 53 Tests in which Boycs took part in a drawn match, his contribution was 4068 runs at 52.83, where he also added the remaining 12 centuries of his Test career.  Strikingly, he was on the losing side in just 20 Tests, where his contribution was a comparatively negligible 1096 runs at 28.10. Tellingly, Boycott never scored a Test hundred in vain, for none of the 22 he posted in his 17-year career came during a game which England lost. Although he failed to complete a Test ton in under four hours during his career, his value is evident, as his average when he ended up on the losing side is almost 20 runs lower than his overall career mean.

What can we infer from this? Well, Boycott, it should be acknowledged, was comparatively lucky in that he had as back-up high quality seam, swing and pace bowling throughout his career, which was especially effective in English conditions. Added to which, during the early part of his lengthy tenure as England’s opener, he had as a team-mate a uniquely deadly slow left-armer in the form of Derek Underwood. Even so, Boycott’s figures are telling: England never lost a Test in which he scored a century.  Furthermore, as his career developed, he was by common consent the last in the line of what Ted Dexter refers to as “The classical school of English batsmanship”.

As techniques became looser and the county game failed to produce the kind of classicists for which it was famed, so the pressure on Boycott to perform became greater. In a 1997 interview with the BBC’s Tony Lewis Michael Holding stated that even as late as 1981 Boycott’s wicket was the one that the pace quartet prized above all others.  Furthermore, a staggering 64% of his Test tons came when England batted first; proof of his old-school adherence to the principle of setting  a sizeable total and putting daylight between the batting side and the opposition.

He was, however, often derided for his feats of slow scoring, a trait that became increasingly prevalent as his Test career neared its end and the reflexes and touch deserted him. Never was this more apparent than during the Old Trafford Test of 1981 and during the subsequent Indian tour later that year under Keith Fletcher’s leadership. Most famously of all, though, he was dropped after compiling his Test best 246 in 1967; a punishment openly meted out in response to the length of time it took him to compile the double-century,  and a rebuke for his alleged self-centredness.

Gavaskar never had the fortune of in-depth penetrative seam and speed back-up of the like which Boycott enjoyed. Kapil Dev for too long shouldered the burdens of being India’s spearhead, while support was seldom enough to swing Test matches India’s way. Similarly, Gavaskar endured a  47 Test tenure as his country’s captain, a tough enough assignment for anyone in such a cricket-obsessed nation, let alone a man who was doubly cast as his country’s batting fulcrum at the top of the order.

How, then, to conclude? Gavaskar played more Tests, scored more runs and notched up more centuries than Boycott. As mentioned, he also bore the burdens of long-term captaincy, something which Sir Geoffrey came by on just four occasions in his Test career. The Indian was also capable of perhaps a touch more dash, his KP-esque pyrotechnics in Dehli in 1983/84 being a notable case in point. Added to that, one of his great contemporaries and rivals, Andy Roberts, felt that Sunny was much the better batsman of the two legendary openers.  This is a view shared by Harold Bird, who has acknowledged that Gavaskar and Barry Richards were the finest opening batsmen he ever witnessed.  As if to rub further salt into the wounds, both Sir Leonard Hutton and Fred Trueman gave Gavaskar the nod over their fellow Yorkshireman.

It is far from one-way traffic, however. Boycott surmounted difficulties throughout his career and kept on doing so, constantly confounding his critics and doubters. In his 41st year he earned the eternal respect of the West Indies pace quartet, while throughout his career the importance of his contribution was so great that he never contributed a Test ton in a losing cause; a thorough repudiation of the myth that his contributions were of little value to the team cause and were merely platforms to boost his own average.   He was no mere dead-bat metronome either. When he cut loose the effects could be scintillating, as his memorable ODI century in Sydney in 1979/80 proved. Prior to that game, too, the vultures had gathered, arguing that his style of play was totally unsuited to the format. Again, he proved them wrong.

If it were a matter of pure aesthetics, runs accumulated and centuries scored, then Sunil Gavaskar is the clear winner here. Test match cricket is not just about these things, though.  A dangerous occupation such as opening the batting also necessitates physical courage, indefatigability and the ability to endure physical and mental hardship and, occasionally, intimidation. Additionally, it requires that an individual contributes in some tangibly positive way to team performance.  Paradoxically, for a player so often accused of self-centredness, Geoff Boycott’s runs contributed to the team cause more often.

As stressed throughout, when Boycott scored a century in Test matches his country never lost. For three years between 1974 and 1977 he was accused of having waved the white flag of desertion as England faced the Australia of Lillee and Thomson without him. In 1980 and 1981, and into his fifth decade, he performed with such courage and technical assurance against Clive Lloyd’s team that he permanently expunged that earlier slur from his record.  The battle of Gavaskar and Boycott, therefore, can justifiably be classed as a draw, albeit a very high scoring one.

Two great opening batsmen, two great cricketing traditions, Boycott and Gavaskar occasionally buckled under the weight that their countries incessant demands placed upon them.  Neither was a saint, and each could be difficult, but their shared desire for perfection drove each man on to a Test career lasting almost two decades. To the Sheriff of Mumbai and Sir Geoffrey, we salute you.


Thanks for the post Gareth-i enjoyed it very much.

Comment by anil | 9:47pm BST 30 July 2015

Lovely post, interesting to note that Sir Geoffrey Boycott did not score a century in a losing cause.

Comment by Arun | 9:11am BST 22 September 2015

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