Peter Roebuck: Cricketer who went on to be hailed as one of the sport's finest writers

 

Peter Roebuck was a very good cricketer, an opening batsman who gave great service to Somerset and who was unlucky not to play for England. He was not a great stylist, preferring to bat within his range and to leave the entertainment to those who followed, notably Viv Richards and Ian Botham. As a writer on the game, however, Roebuck was quite different: a sparkling intellect with an easy way with words, a true original who loved nothing more than to play all the shots. The slow pace of cricket lends itself to endless comment and analysis, but Roebuck could be relied upon to say something fresh. For many he was the best cricket writer in the world.

Roebuck, one of six born to schoolteacher parents, caught the cricket bug as a young boy in Bath. He applied for a scholarship to Millfield, the sports-centred independent school run by the eccentric Jack Meyer, a former Somerset captain whose greeting to the 13-year-old entering his study was to throw an orange at him. "Well caught," he said. "But you should have thrown it back." Roebuck was in, so were both his parents as teachers, and they were given a house in nearby Street. Meyer, ever an unconventional thinker, appealed greatly to the youngster.

Success in schools cricket led to a contract with Somerset in 1974. The new coach, the former Warwickshire all-rounder Tom Cartwright, had persuaded the committee to pay six youngsters £1,000 each for the summer, and Roebuck's fellow recruits included Botham, Richards and Vic Marks. Living in Wells, the socialist Cartwright regularly drove the youngster to Taunton, spending every journey in intense conversation about the game. Roebuck, the searching intellectual with left-wing sympathies, lapped it up.

The county captain, in the twilight of his career, was the Yorkshireman Brian Close, and Roebuck related to him, too: his streak of madness and his inspiring courage. In an early game Roebuck was felled by a bouncer from the lethally quick West Indian Andy Roberts, returning after a visit to hospital to have his cap knocked off by the same bowler. His response was to sit in a darkened room, where he played a Joni Mitchell record and resolved to improve his technique. It was not what Close would have done, but the same determination was there.

Close and Cartwright: Roebuck called them the Churchill and Attlee ofSomerset cricket. The results of their influence became clear in the golden years from 1979 to 1983 when Somerset, perennial losers, won five one-day trophies. Roebuck's batting was now mature and effective, and he was also starting to write. His first book, Slices of Cricket, was a series of entertaining essays; his second, It Never Rains, was a profoundly honest diary of the 1983 summer, revealing his inner demons. Last year a poll of cricket writers in The Cricketer voted it the third best cricket book of all time.

Somerset cricket imploded in the years that followed, with the Botham-Richards circus growing too big for the West Country dressing room. Roebuck, appointed captain in 1986, thought the unthinkable and decided to replace Richards with the New Zealander Martin Crowe. The registration rules meant that the West Indian Joel Garner had also to be sacrificed; Botham walked out in solidarity. Meetings of outraged members were held, and Roebuck took great flak. The glory years never returned, some, including Botham, harboured lifelong grudges, but his unflinching courage was admired by many.

He retired from the first-class game at the end of 1991, by which time he was third in Somerset's all-time list of run-scorers. In all, he scored 17,558 runs, with 33 centuries. He wrote a superb history of Somerset cricket, From Sammy to Jimmy, then captained Devon for 10 years. He led them to four successive Minor County Championships, the most successful captain in the competition's history.

Following a 2001 court case that revealed his bizarre regime of caning young overseas cricketers, a case that some saw as the revenge of Botham's mates, he left England, deeply out of love with its culture. He shared his time between Australia, where he wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald, and South Africa, where he promoted the cause of young black cricketers.

A highly intelligent man, winning a double first in Law at Cambridge, he could be other-worldly. He was untidy, was awkward with women and spoke at high speed, the ideas tumbling out of him with insistent clarity. The tragedy of his early death, by suicide in South Africa, will mean that he is remembered as a tortured soul, which to an extent he was, but his achievements in cricket – as player, captain and, above all, gifted writer – should not be clouded by that. As his mentor, Cartwright, put it shortly before his own death, "I feel the world hasn't treated Peter as well as it should have done. He doesn't get the recognition he deserves."

"Do tell Tom that I'm fine," was his reply to that. "My life is rich and varied, and I am highly regarded in many places." Alas, it was not the whole truth.

Peter Michael Roebuck, cricketer and writer: born Oxford 6 March 1956; played for Somerset 1974-91; died Newlands, South Africa 12 November 2011.

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