They are, in so many ways, the odd couple of BBC radio. Jonathan Agnew is a gangly 6ft 4in, every inch – in appearance at least – the overgrown public schoolboy, while Geoff Boycott is a sold 5ft 10in, with opinions as blunt as his Yorkshire accent. What unites them is a love of cricket and star billing on Test Match Special, the nation’s favourite sports commentary and the soundtrack to this Ashes summer.
Educated at Uppingham School, Agnew is the well-spoken three-cap wonder who took just four Test wickets for England. Boycott is the hard-bitten Yorkshire legend of the 1970s and 80s, the son of a miner who went on to captain his county and score more than 8,000 Test runs.
It’s an unpredictable pairing. “Geoffrey”, as Agnew formally refers to Boycott with what can seem like mock-respect, somehow allows himself to be wound up without diminishing his status as a legend of the game. At 20 years younger, Agnew casts Boycott as a crotchety uncle, but one for whom he shows warm affection.
Agnew may be the BBC’s cricket correspondent, but Boycott, with his playing record and bullish persona, plays the senior role. “I think he’s found his forte,” the Yorkshireman says of the man he first met not far short of 40 years ago. “He was a good county cricketer, [but] you could see he had a very modest Test career because he kept hitting the middle of the bat when he bowled and the idea was to find the edge. He’s got a good sense of humour, he can take the mickey, he can also accept it as well. You poke fun at him, he doesn’t get uppity.”
This is Agnew’s 25th season in the TMS box. It all began for him in 1991 as a summariser alongside Brian Johnston, who had an uncontrollable fit of the giggles at an Agnew double entendre, “Aggers, for goodness’ sake stop it!” will go down as one of the great moments in sports commentary, but Johnston’s influence went far deeper. “without Johnners’ influence, I know what broadcaster I would like to be,” Agnew says, ‘but I don’t think I would have had the guts to have done it. He really liberated me by example.”
It was Johnston who inadvertently initiated the tradition of cake-eating in the TMS box. In the days when Radio 3 broadcast the show, intervals would often be filled with classical music. One teatime Johnston handed back to the studio and, Agnew says, joked that there wasn’t any tea for the commentary team. The next day a lady sent in the first offering. One cake became two. The funniest cake, Agnew says, was a pair of breasts, sent to Edgbaston, that Johnners had great difficulty in carving. “He couldn’t quite bring himself to do it.”
Just as many cakes are sent in as ever. During the first Ashes Test in Cardiff, a cake made of root vegetables turned up in celebration of Joe Root’s match-winning performance. “We still get lots of cakes, pies, scones… you name it,” Agnew says. “There’s a lovely lady who always sends me a tin of Harrogate toffee when we’re at Leeds.”
And the cakes don’t go to waste. “Those we don’t eat we either give to Sky or we put in the Media Centre for people to eat. We get sent so many, we personally can’t eat them all or we’d be 25 stone,” Agnew says, but he sometimes takes them home. “It’s kind that they do it. It’s part of the culture of the programme.” And it’s a programme he hopes is a friendly place. “Even when Geoffrey’s on it. We try to retain our humour,” he jokes.
Does his relationship with Boycott fill the hole left by his late friend Johnners? “That’s an interesting thought. I don’t know. We’ve always got on.” They first met when at 18, Agnew was on a playing scholarship in Melbourne. Boycott was on the 1978/9 Ashes tour and Agnew bowled at him for hours in the nets one morning.
“I bowled and bowled and bowled,” Agnew remembers. “And he kept singing, ‘I’ve got you under my skin’.” When, at last, they finished, Boycott invited the bowler up to his hotel room. But rather than an autographed bat, he offered him a cup of tea. “Right. Do you want English Breakfast, camomile or fresh peppermint?”
Agnew expresses surprise at the idea that his partnership with Boycott is the slot on TMS. “I don’t rev myself up for Geoffrey, I don’t think, ‘Oh great, Geoffrey’s sitting down next to me.’” But he does concede: “Sometimes I will dig a bit of a bear pit for him.” Such as the day actor Daniel Radcliffe got in touch to say that Agnew actually had a higher strike rate than Boycott in one-day internationals.
Without divulging whom they were talking about, Agnew tried to get Boycott to admit that the man with the faster scoring rate should be in the team. “That’s a typical Boycott wind-up,” says Agnew. “And everyone loves it. Because people get very upset, especially women – they think he’s being horrid to me. But he’s not being rude.”
So what is Boycott really like? “Exactly what you see,” says the man himself. “There’s a soft side. I don’t have the diplomatic way of putting things. I am black and white, which is unfortunate.”Agnew sums him up thus: “Those who played in the same team as Geoffrey find it a little harder to see the soft side that maybe someone like me, who didn’t, does. I take the mickey out of him mercilessly. He lets me do that. He knows it probably takes a bit of pressure off, humour- wise, if I can take the mickey and people laugh.”
“All I try to do is be myself,” Boycott says of his commentary. “Try to tell the truth. Try to be honest and fair. I like to say good things when people play well, but I don’t like bad cricket, I don’t like stupid cricket. I didn’t like it for myself when I played. When I played a bad shot, I’d look in the mirror and say, ‘You stupid bloody idiot.’”
Boycott remains passionate about cricket and continues to go to county games. Agnew, though, while he still loves the sport, doesn’t see “any” county cricket. “You can’t now do county and international cricket and have a life. And I feel uncomfortable about that because people you haven’t seen do come up. I hadn’t seen [new England star] Mark Wood bowl. But you’ve only got three days between Test matches.”