In 1995, my family went to the Boxing Day Test at Saint George’s Park in Port Elizabeth. South Africa were playing England in the fourth Test of the Poms’ first tour since our readmission to international cricket.
I’ve forgotten which day we attended — and what happened on the pitch, for that matter, although Google tells me the match ended in a draw — but I remember painting our banner with my cousins from Yorkshire the night before.
“For an unbiased view, boycott Geoffrey,” it read. The witticism was courtesy of my father. It was all a bit of a laugh, at the time.
Fast-forward a couple of years, and there was a much more serious reason to call for boycotting Geoffrey. In January 1998, he was convicted by a French court of punching his then partner, Margaret Moore. According to a BBC report, “During the trial, the court was told that Boycott pinned Moore down and punched her 20 times in the face.” Boycott was fined 50 000 francs and given a three-month suspended sentence. He appealed the verdict, but it was upheld in November that year.
At the time, The Sun in the UK terminated his contract, announcing this decision with the headline “Sun sacks Boycott the brute”. When even The Sun considers you beyond the pale, it’s game over. Or not.
In the following years, Boycott still had plenty of work from international broadcasters, including in South Africa. And, although at the time of his conviction, a BBC spokesperson said that “Geoffrey Boycott is not under contract with the BBC and there are no plans to use him in the future”, he rejoined the world’s premier cricket broadcast — Test Match Special, hosted by none other than the BBC — in 2005, where he has commentated on and off ever since. From 2013 to 2014, he was the chairperson of the Yorkshire County Cricket Club.
At the crease, Boycott was renowned for his defensive game, and this strategy of attrition has served him well in his career off the field. Despite the court ruling against him, he has consistently denied that he ever attacked Moore. Block, block and block again until everyone forgets what the original fuss was about.
But, with former UK prime minister Theresa May’s announcement on Tuesday morning that Boycott is to be knighted, his past conviction has once again been thrown into the spotlight. The man himself appeared nonplussed about the ensuing outcry. In addressing criticism about his knighthood by Adina Claire, the co-acting chief executive of UK charity Women’s Aid, he told BBC Radio 4 Today presenter Martha Kearney: “I don’t give a toss about her, love.” In a move typical of abusers who cry persecution, Boycott went on to refer to his conviction as a “a cross I have to bear”.
It seems that some parts of the cricketing world isn’t all that fussed either. Both the England and Wales Cricket Board and ESPNCricInfo tweeted congratulations to Boycott with alacrity. “Services to sport” appear to trump all other considerations. Although Boycott was never universally liked, being part of the “old boys’ club” in both the cricket and media worlds has certainly aided the rehabilitation of his public persona.
Of course, this is far from the first domestic violence or sexual assault case that has resulted in a cricketer being convicted. In 1954 West Indies cricketer Leslie Hylton shot and killed his wife “in a jealous rage”. He was hanged a year later. In April this year, Worcester cricketer Alex Hepburn was convicted of oral rape, and jailed for five years.
Indian cricket Mohammed Shami was charged in March this year with rape and attempted murder, among other infractions. The accuser is his wife. Shami, who has characterised the charges as “a conspiracy”, is due to appear in court in November.
Then there are all those cases that aren’t so clear-cut, at least not in terms of the law.
An hour or so of concerted googling resulted in me filling two pages of my notebook with names of past — and current — cricket players, coaches, commentators, journalists and administrators. Each name has a question mark next to it.
There are a couple of well-known cases involving international cricketers who have been acquitted of rape, but there are many more instances of charges being dropped. And then there are all the #MeToo charges. Anonymous some of these may be, but this doesn’t mean we can outright dismiss them. These days, what used to be a private “whisper circle” of women looking out for each other’s safety is all over the interwebs.
And, as we know all too well in South Africa, there are many reasons why women drop rape charges; many more reasons why they may never feel safe to come forward in the first place. Far from domestic violence or sexual assault accusations ruining men’s lives, it seems to be business as usual — even when, as in Boycott’s case, an all-too-rare conviction is secured.
Boycott, since 1981, has already been an OBE or, if you prefer the pompous longhand — Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Now, with his impending knighthood, he’s been awarded an accolade a good few notches above that.
The British honours system is, purportedly, intended to reward public service. But given the violence of the British Empire, after which many of the awards are named, the calibre of some of the recipients is, perhaps, to be expected.
The English cricket team is touring South Africa again this summer. I’ll be watching a match or two, most probably at the Wanderers. And, if Boycott manages to wangle his way in to any commentating duties, I’ll be sure to update my banner. “To stand with women, boycott Geoffrey.”