David Frith: 'Cricket has its dark secrets, its skeletons'

Poignantly, 20 years ago Peter Roebuck wrote a foreword to a book about suicides, as its author recalls

David Frith
Tuesday 15 November 2011 01:00 GMT
Peter Roebuck felt that cricket attracted people with a fragile nature
Peter Roebuck felt that cricket attracted people with a fragile nature (PA)

There is something creepy about all this. Just over 20 years ago I felt compelled to write the first major study of suicide among cricketers, a book which simply demanded to be written. Among my countless files, the shoebox containing cuttings and research notes concerning self-destruction in cricket was near to overflowing. Whatever was going on here? The poor souls who had destroyed themselves were not mostly from the Victorian era, as had traditionally been believed. There seemed to be a steady trickle of tragedy, and somebody had to look into it. It was the most difficult of books to write, but I felt it incumbent upon myself to get it written and perhaps to draw some sort of illuminating conclusion. Most of all, I hoped somehow that tragic flow could be stemmed.

Peter Roebuck seemed an interesting type. He was just winding up his Somerset career and had journalistic aspirations. I invited him to write a foreword. What he wrote then takes on a strange significance now in light of the tragic events in Cape Town three days ago.

His foreword was illuminating. While I believed it was the loss of cricket which hurt men, sometimes fatally, he believed that cricket itself drew people of a fragile nature in the first place. The evidence, of course, was too disparate and inconsistent to argue to a conclusive degree.

And yet what rings out now is what Roebuck wrote then: "Cricketers are supposed to be simple, even gung-ho, in sexual matters as in everything else. And yet cricket – and most cricketers – has its dark secrets, its skeletons."

We shudder at this when we contemplate the background to the recent tragedy, that ominous brief police statement.

Unhappily, my book By His Own Hand was in need of an update 10 years later, for many further cases, new and old, had been unearthed. And in subsequent years there have been yet more.

The former England captain and psychotherapist Mike Brearley was asked to write a foreword to Silence of the Heart, partly because the theme needed a fresh interpretation, and partly, I confess, because Roebuck had distanced himself during the magazine war – my Wisden Cricket Monthly versus "his" Cricketer.

Our last friendly contact was in a press match in New Zealand, where I found myself batting with him. He was solicitous between overs, advocating this and that to survive on a dodgy track against keen Kiwi bowling. Then he got out. I couldn't stifle a mean chuckle.

I have no idea why he annoyed some people, other than to suppose that he simply lacked what one might term a natural and relaxed sense of humour. I asked myself: does a high degree of intelligence bar an ability to have a belly laugh as opposed to a sneer?

Our last contact was during the 2006-07 Ashes series in Australia, a live radio lunchtime waffle at the SCG, in the chair the ABC's Jim Maxwell, whom Roebuck was to summon desperately to his room on that tragic night on Saturday. Characteristically, Peter at one point took it upon himself to wave Asia's flag, claiming that the ICC umpires were unfairly singling out bowlers only from that region for bowling with illegal actions. Somehow I restrained myself from challenging him.

Most poignant of all now is to reflect on Roebuck's almost triumphant claim in that foreword: "Some people have predicted a gloomy end for this writer," he wrote of himself. "It will not be so."

David Frith is author of By His Own Hand (Stanley Paul, 91) and Silence of the Heart (Mainstream, 01)

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