Peter Roebuck worked with dozens of young cricket journalists. If he thought highly of them, he would say, “Don’t get bogged down in this. The world is bigger than cricket, and you should see more of it.”
Of course, many stayed. Journalism is a profession, and the true professionals stayed because they enjoyed being good at what they did. Those who took Roebuck’s advice, on the other hand, were left with a question: If this man of such intellectual depth and curiosity and the erudition to convert it into a luminous body of work thought that he knows nothing who knows nothing but cricket, what was he still doing in it?
This was the riddle of Roebuck. He was a born mentor who counselled as he wrote, with wisdom and an unimpeded view into the core of your being; yet it was impossible to know what he saw when he turned those eyes on himself.
A few months ago, I met the Somerset writer Stephen Chalke, one of the few to write in the same league as Roebuck. We were agreeing that Roebuck, like the great champions, was enjoying an Indian summer in the past three years. Chalke said, “Peter could have been anything, a professor of literature or a High Court judge or a political leader.”
Roebuck came down from Cambridge as a lawyer, but became a teacher, a writer, a broadcaster and a cricketer. He played 335 first-class games for Somerset, 298 one-day matches, and more than 100 in a lively second career at Devon; many Australians first came across him when he began writing cricket articles in The Sydney Morning Herald while coaching and teaching at Sydney’s Cranbrook School in the mid-1980s.
He still played, and for a young cricketer he was a revelation. You met batsmen who ended up in Sheffield Shield and Test cricket, but no Waugh or Taylor could teach you as much as Roebuck. We had a gifted outswing bowler who got ball after ball pitching on the stumps and swinging late past the off-bail. Yet first slip might as well have kept his hands in his pockets. Roebuck didn’t touch a thing. His discipline opened a window into how real first-class cricketers batted. He had no off-stump, really, because the moment the bowler had one going at top of off, Roebuck would tuck it behind square leg. He didn’t make his runs fast, but you could bowl for a week, and the only person who decided when Roebuck got out would be Roebuck.
As a writer, he cleaved more to the amateur tradition than the professional, a Ranji or Fry when his colleagues were wage-earning Shrewsburys. He didn’t use a computer until recently. Once he’d given it an amused look, as he might a front-loading washing machine, and went back to his old wringer. He believed something of his daydreamer’s art was captured in the process of scribbling on a pad and dictating, with unflappable patience and courtesy, to the Fairfax copytakers. But he wasn’t a dogmatist. Getting into strife when a copytaker once misheard “deceit” for “defeat” did not convert him to keyboards. He didn’t want to put the copytakers out of work. But, when the company was phasing them out anyway, and when he discovered that typing didn’t dissolve his ideas but even enabled him to refine them, he became a wry late adopter. He even had a personal website, never updated, in fact one of the internet’s least helpful, but still he liked to mention it.
Roebuck was as great a broadcaster as he was a writer. Radio returned him to that immediacy between thought and expression. Cricket has been lucky with broadcasters, but never luckier than when Roebuck was painting play from the inside out.
He got inside without trying to court players’ company. This could make him frustrating to work with, because News Limited’s cricket reporters had comments men such as Mike Coward, Ron Reed and Robert Craddock who were good for a news tip. Roebuck had little idea what news was. The way he saw cricket transcended the day’s cut and thrust. Getting close to players was not his focal length; he could see all he needed from the boundary, and what he lost in being outside the loop he more than made up for through intelligence. From a distance, he was more spot-on than anyone.
Did he know himself as clearly? His taste in cricketers tended to the solipsistic: he detested the showy, the shallow, the lazy, the smug. He saw no glamour in wasted talent. Having suffered from class snobbery, he absolutely detested it, and nothing could rile him more, after he became an Australian citizen, than to be described as an Englishman of any kind, even a former one. No reader doubted his pet hates, but they had a consistency. He could put Marylebone and the Zimbabwe Cricket Board in the same category because, no matter the superficial differences, Roebuck saw a unifying class prejudice and political toadyism.
You knew, when he extolled the astringencies of early mornings, cold showers, hard runs and practice, his words were shaped by his battles with Ian Botham, Viv Richards and Joel Garner at Somerset in the 1980s. For many years he and Botham were like a long-divorced couple, exaggerating each other’s failings, projecting them on to others. Roebuck’s frustration with jazzed-up players such as Chris Gayle and Brian Lara seemed to be displaced feelings for Botham. But did Roebuck know he was writing about himself? Hard to say.
It was always hard to say, because there was a carapace of Roebuckness that not even his best friends could get through. It was the one remnant of his English upbringing that he couldn’t shake off. He was instinctively generous – through counsel or guidance or financial aid, or more formally, through friends in coaching or the LBW Trust, a global charity for which Roebuck was a driving force. When he knew he was needed, generosity was his reflex. He helped more than he knew. Yet he was embarrassed by emotions and a hard man to convince of his own good deeds. He made us laugh very much more often than we could make him laugh. Sometimes, as he said, he forgot.
As a cricket writer, he was sui generis. He fitted neither the professional nor the amateur tradition. He was an educator who would have hated to be seen as a pedagogue, an artist who was more comfortable in the audience than on the stage. Was cricket not a big enough world for him? I think for Roebuck cricket was akin to a religion, not as a system of belief but as a series of texts that, if studied closely enough, could reveal some of life’s secrets.
The game had no importance as a vehicle for celebrity or career, but it could offer a portal into a greater world that he had the gift of sharing with his readers, full of magic and mystery, liable to change from black to white and back again in a moment. Chalke thought Roebuck could have been a professor or a judge, but concluded, “I’m glad he does what he does, because we’re the ones who’ve benefited”.