Roebuck: good with bat, great with pen
Stephen Brenkley remembers a fine player who became a truly exceptional writer
Monday 14 November 2011
Peter Roebuck was among the greatest cricket writers there has ever been. If that is a tall claim to make in a field well stocked with illustrious claimants it is easily substantiated.
Roebuck had style, knowledge and a deep-rooted passion for the game which burst through his essays. He was clever enough to have followed many other paths in life but cricket virtually filled it.
A schoolboy prodigy, he played for Somerset's second XI as a 13-year-old and that was that. After Cambridge, where he won a Blue in all three years, he became an accomplished county cricketer (and later captain) with Somerset. If he was an unexciting performer who looked puny, he was as solid as oak and extremely unfortunate not to have played Tests for England.
After retiring as a professional having made 17,552 runs at 37.26, he took the reins at Devon, where he became a formidable all-rounder, assisted by his uncanny knowledge of what opponents might try next. But his writing on the game will be his enduring monument.
Roebuck was a fearlessly opinionated and contentious reporter who never shirked from telling it like it was. If some of his comments seemed outrageous on first reading, there was invariably an essential grain of truth in what he had to say. Tough on administrators who failed to carry out their responsibilities, he was also fiercely protective of the game's mores. He knew how clever he was and if he was pushed too far in cricketing argument he would point out that he spoke as someone who had played 5,000 matches.
Pete was detached and aloof but he was abundantly generous of spirit. The tragic circumstances of his death in South Africa are wreathed in mystery and may remain that way. A man of solitude perhaps, a proper eccentric long before that term was hijacked by wannabe celebrities, he was rightly proud of the help he gave to poor kids from bleak parts of Africa. He funded bursaries and scholarships, all with a cricketing element of some kind.
Occasionally, it was possible to wonder if he should not have done something else with his time, but he was content that cricket offered something much more beyond the mere confines of the boundary. He was never less than a pleasure to read.
His essays were effortlessly lucid and marked by the fact that he seemed to know unstintingly how players should be performing at any given moment. No man had a smarter way with a simile and if he made serious points seriously they were usually accompanied by a phrase or two to make the reader smile.
It would be wrong to imply that Pete was everybody's cup of tea. The strength and single-mindedness of his opinions ensured that some never forgave. He had obsessions, of whom Ian Botham, once his friend and team-mate at Somerset, was perhaps the chief.
The pair, chalk and cheese, wrote a book together once but when Roebuck decided that Viv Richards and Joel Garner were getting on and should not be offered new contracts at Somerset, there was an irrevocable split. It was compounded by the court case years later in which Roebuck was convicted of assaulting three 19-year-old men whom he had caned when they were staying at his house.
The court heard then from Roebuck's defence lawyer that he was a complex man who set high standards for himself and others. But many people looked differently at Roebuck thereafter.
He turned his back on England and divided his time for the last decade between Australia and South Africa, where he was covering the Test series between the two countries when he died.
In so many ways, he was the quintessential Englishman, public school and university educated, the son of public school teachers, but he came habitually to refer to his countrymen as poms. It was endearing as much as it embodied his contradictory nature.
Roebuck's words graced these pages, especially during Ashes series. They recognised that cricket was only a game whilst being so much more.
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