Tragedy far greater than 47 all out has struck cricket, and this should be a Roebuck column. But it isn’t one, and can’t be one, and never will be one again because the tragedy is Peter Roebuck. He is dead.
Two days ago, on the last morning of that bizarre Test at Newlands, he was at the coffee urn, talking intently with Allan Border about solutions for Australian cricket. Their coffees were cold. When the match ended, he filed his column and, since lunch was laid, he sat down to eat it and to mull over intractable problems in South African cricket with Tony Irish from the SA Cricketers’ Association. He seemed his usual self, whatever that was.
The second-last person to see him alive was the ABC’s Jim Maxwell, who had grown as close to him as anyone did. The last person was a policeman.
In these glimpses there were clues to Roebuck, cricketer, writer, broadcaster, coach, philanthropist, educator but above all, mystery. Clues must do; it is doubtful if anyone on earth knew him intimately. He chose it to be that way.
He was English by birth; in fact he captained England A once. He was an Australian citizen who cherished his work for Fairfax and the ABC. He played the Pom in Australia and the maverick in England. But he perhaps found his life’s work in South Africa, where he created a community of 40 underprivileged South African and Zimbabwean boys and spent pretty much every cent he earned putting them through school. He talked endlessly about them. They were on his mind at the end.
Roebuck was eccentric. He was a tall, spare, fit man who lived an austere, almost ascetic life, not indulging in such fripperies as deodorant. His trademark was a tatty straw hat with a wide brim. It was one of few possessions found in his hotel room. On anyone else, that hat would have been an absurd affectation.
He was complex, intense, taut, edgy, opinionated, a little manic, mostly cheerful, sometimes broody. He was a contrarian, not for the sake of it, but because he always had another view. He spoke quickly, in a clipped tone, needing to get the thoughts out so that more could follow; his broadcast voice was his street voice. He did not do small talk, ever.
Cricket was his metier, but it did not confine him. He was widely read and supremely intelligent. He was also self-possessed, yet drew people to him. Women liked him, but often he was awkward in their company.
He was warm in his own way. Speaking to Fairfax’s Chloe Saltau one day, he pointed to Shane Brown, the MCC’s communications manager, and said: “He has a nice face. You should marry him.” She did.
He was social in cricket hours, solitary out of them. When the cricket caravaners headed out at night, mostly he would go to a cafe by himself, sit in a corner and read a book. He had the Pimpernel’s ability to absent himself from a party suddenly without anyone seeing him leave.
He was a loyal friend who felt the pain of others as acutely as only the highly intelligent do. But he did not express empathy easily. He was flawed; of course he was. He fought to reconcile himself to his flaws, and it was the central drama of his life. He was tormented as only genius can be. The circumstances of his death attest to it.
He was estranged from his family and rarely mentioned them. He played for and captained a Somerset team that included such strong-willed luminaries as Viv Richards, Joel Garner and Ian Botham. He fell out with Botham, bitterly, and the repercussions lasted years. He excited spite towards him as only those who are different can. Botham delighted in marshalling malign forces in England against him.
He was a dedicated but dour opening bat. He made a century against the all-conquering 1989 Australians, but it took him all day.
Intermittently, he was touted as England captain. He did captain an English XI one day, in a match against the lowly Netherlands – and lost. There was a second match and England won it, he always pointed out.
He understood cricket and cricketers. He would spot the deficiency in a field setting, or a kink in a batsman’s technique, and explain it. He wrote columns and books on cricket while still playing it. His writing was distinct: fluent, perceptive, vibrant, sometimes whimsical, almost a genre. He was stinging in his critiques, but affectionate in his appreciations and wise in his perspectives. He wrote much, yet no two pieces ever were alike.
For years, he wrote his stories on the back of scrap paper in a longhand scrawl that was illegible even to him. The shape of the story would become apparent to him as he dictated it down the phone to a copytaker.
At least twice, to meet urgent deadlines, he filed off the top of his head, after a fractious World Cup semi-final between India and Sri Lanka in Kolkota in 1996, and when Ian Healy hit a six to deliver Australia victory in a tight Test at Port Elizabeth in 1997. Both were instant masterpieces. Eventually, but long after everyone else, he acquired a laptop and a mobile phone. He was pleasantly surprised by them.
And suddenly, impossibly, he is no more. In the small hours of Sunday, in the foyer of a hotel in Newlands, while police and forensic experts went about their business, there was a wake. It consisted of Maxwell, Drew Morphett, Geoff Lawson, this reporter and another. We talked about the part of his life we knew, because about Roebuck, everyone knew only a part. We babbled, really, because we didn’t understand. We never will. But dimly, we already knew this: covering cricket will never be the same again.