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Nigel Popplewell

A transcript of the eulogy delivered at Peter’s funeral in England on 31st January 2012

I was at Cambridge University with Peter in the 1970’s where we played in the same team for a couple of years.  In the winter of 1978 he had written to me from Australia asking if I might consider having a trial for Somerset.  I doubted that Somerset would want the services of a self-described Mickey Mouse all-rounder but was persuaded to try.  It seemed to involve a lot of touch rugby in the Wellington sports hall and very little cricket, but the end result was that I played for Somerset with Peter for seven years and shared a house with him for two and a half of those.

Reading his obituaries and speaking to chums who knew him, it has become apparent that there was not one, but many Peter Roebucks.  He had many faces; I saw only some of them.   I did not, for example, see much of him in the off seasons when he was in Australia; and I saw little of him once he left Somerset and moved, initially to Devon and then to Australia and South Africa.  And so it is my time with him off and on the field on which I shall dwell.

Peter bought a house in a village outside Taunton in 1980 and I became his lodger.  He charged me no rent.  I was expected to help out with the cooking and gardening.  The first thing he did was to change the name of the house from an uncontroversial “Tamaris” to a more radical “Walesa” (after the Polish trade union leader).  It had three bedrooms and smallish garden.  Peter came from Sunil Gavasker school of cookery; both men, when told how to boil an egg (put it in a pan and boil it for 5 minutes) omitted to add the water.  He had got better by the time we shared a house, but when we needed a square meal it usually meant nipping down to Joel’s house (which was 2 doors down) or going to the pub.

The garden was small but chaotic.  He had no mower and would wait until the grass got waist high before he borrowed one from the Somerset groundsman.  His pruning was done using the only sharp knife in the house – the bread knife.

Peter was good enough never to criticise me for my dress sense.  He had no time for dressing up.  He dressed to please himself.  For a number of years he was given a sponsored car, which replaced an old VW with a dodgy gearbox.  He once drove from Cambridge to Yorkshire in 1st and 3rd gears and back in 2nd and 4th.  Most of Peter’s aggressive driving was done off the field!  Being driven by him, could on occasions, be disconcerting.  He would throw out an extreme, and controversial view, simply to stimulate a response.  When you did so, he would turn to look at you with those piercing blue eyes, as if to consider that response, at a time when it would have been a great deal better to have concentrated on the road.

His musical tastes, within and outside the car, were eclectic.  Both he and I shared a love of Bob Dylan.  He had however a far greater insight into the singer and his lyrics (and their provenance) than I.

He took up the case of the boxer Rueben Carter about whom the song “Hurricane” had been written, and tried to get Viv (who was a great fan of American middleweights like Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler) to throw his weight behind the campaign to get Hurricane Carter retried.

In 1981 he started to write seriously.  His initial project was a series of essays or articles about various cricketing characters such as Viv, Both, RJO Mayer etc.  These became his first book “Slices of Cricket“.  It meant that as well as the conventional untidiness, the house and car became littered with little pieces of paper with scribbled notes and lists all over them.  Many of you will recognise this, since I gather that his system changed very little, even when he had become a full-time and successful journalist.

Incidentally, following the publication of “Slices of Cricket” a section of the crowd started calling him “Slices” when he was close to the boundary – calling out “Hey Slices, give us a wave” or “Hey Slices, hit it over here“.  Unfortunately the name never caught on.

He did, however, have a number of other nicknames.  He was known as the Professor, Rupert and Pete lad.  The Professor, obviously, as a result of his intellect, pedigree and demeanour; Rupert, I think, might have been given to him by the Essex team, who thought Rupert was his real name; but it quickly caught on in the Somerset dressing room.  It was certainly doing the rounds in 1981 when my contribution to Slices was entitled “Rupert’s Roses“.  Pete lad, my preference, was a result of Brian Close calling everyone “lad“.

During the 1983 season he compiled a diary, which was to become “It never rains“.  Not only was this beautifully written; it actually bore a passing resemblance to what had really happened on and off the field.  However, it was significant for another reason.  It gave him an increasingly important outlet for his outstanding intellect, and a buffer against crickets insecurities.  He found cricket a battle against the self.  He saw it, rationally, as a ridiculous game worthwhile only if taken seriously, and in accepting that Peter also accepted all the gnawing anxieties that came with it; but as he says in his autobiography, once he had “written books and experienced success outside the game, the world became a difference place”.

So what about Peter inside the game.  Much has been written by and about him on the field.  His successes and failures, his runs, and his technique.  When I joined Somerset he had a justified reputation for being a leg side player.  In 1983 he tried to remedy this by getting our coach to spend hours with him in the nets using a bowling machine.  As he recalls in “It never rains” he gradually hit more balls back past the machine.  Having had all that practice, it was inevitable that he would fail first time out; and he duly did, being out first ball against Oxford University; off a bowler called Varey who had a better reputation as a batsman!  But he persevered, and his offside repertoire flourished.

It also resulted in an amusing exchange with Mike Brearley; when Brearley set a field, he would stand beside the batsman and direct the fielders to their places, shouting to the bowler about the qualities of the batsman as he did so.  This was ostensibly to see how the field placings looked from the batsman’s perspective, but in truth it was designed to get up the batsman’s nose.  Brearley did this to Peter later that season, moving some of the field over to the leg side, to which Peter responded by mischievously telling him that this year he was playing on the offside and that mid on would be wasted.  Brearley was non plussed.  The biter had been bit.

Peter had read CP Snows’ “Variety of Men”, and the essay on the Cambridge mathematician, G H Hardy.  He (perhaps unwisely) shared with the Somerset team Hardy’s maxim that in cricket you play against eleven of the opposition and ten of your own men.  This was taken by some to suggest that he wasn’t a team man; nothing could have been further from the truth.

He has written extensively about the superstars he played with throughout his career.  In my time it was Viv Richards, Ian Botham and Joel Garner.  He held these men in the highest esteem, but thought too that no single individual or group of individuals was greater than a team.  The success of the collective endeavour was of paramount importance to him.  As he said about the Gillette Cup win in 1979.

“Recapturing that moment of victory, finding words to express the elation felt by a group of competitors in the hour of hard pursued triumph is not the easiest of tasks.  It is the sensation for which sportsmen yearn. The sense of meaning and unity obtained at the end of a long and successful campaign fought alongside friends in a common cause, a campaign that had included times of sharp disappointment, times when this hour seemed far distant.  It is the feeling of uncomplicated camaraderie, of uncompromised accomplishment, of something shared and binding that had finally been achieved”.

One of the times that I saw him at his happiest was in 1983 when, during the World Cup, he was made captain of a much weakened and inexperienced Somerset side.  We had three and a half weeks of cricket, off the reel, most of it played away from home, and he revelled in it.

He says this “I found leadership invigorating, parts previously subdued were released, including concern for other players and commitment to the cause.  Colleagues were surprised to find warmth buried beneath the frost.  Of course it is always easier to captain a fresh young side.  Still the responsibilities of leadership and the opportunity to put a mark upon the team were appreciated.”

The period was capped with a “memorable and stirring victory in a John Player league game against Glamorgan” in which Pete dropped down the order and, chasing 240 in 40 overs, hit the winning runs in the last over.  And whilst his captaincy played hob with his catching (he dropped anything that came to him during this period) it had the effect of recharging the batteries of those of us who played.

His team talks at that period were, surprisingly, gruff and brief for someone so eloquent.  He was much more of the “up guards and atem” or “they’ve gottem, we’ve gotta gettem” school, than conducting a detailed analysis of the strengths of the opposition.  In this he was influenced by his experience in a Benson & Hedges game, when playing for the Combined Universities against Yorkshire.

Peter, the senior opener, was asked who he wanted to open with.  Should it be his Cambridge colleague, Stephen Coverdale or a flamboyant but unknown Sri Lankan from Oxford, Gadge Pathmanathan.  Peter asked Steve, who had played for Yorkshire’s second 11 what the Yorkshire bowlers were like.  “Well Old, he is quick, mainly swings the ball away but nips the odd one back; then there is Sidebottom, he is not quite as quick but he swings it both ways and is able to nip the odd one away.  Stevenson, well he is quick and skiddy and you need to watch his Yorker. Ramage, now he is really quick with a fierce bouncer and a good slower ball…

After this Peter thought that Steve was unlikely to be able to play the bowlers on their merits, and so opened with Gadge, who raced to 50 before Peter had got off the mark and provided the basis for a rare Oxbridge victory.

Having brought me to Somerset, he took me under his wing, and forced me to try to make the best of my cricketing ability.  He did this by a mixture of direct observation (“what sort of shot was that……” he’d say, or “bowling leg stump probably isn’t the place to bowl to Tavare…….“), and verbal and physical ridicule.  He thought me (quite correctly) too cavalier.  So he called me a Radley Ranger (my old school boys team) and a happy hooker (a shot I play hopelessly); gradually making me realise that to survive in county cricket, one had to concentrate hard and develop a game, perhaps not a natural one, which reduced unforced errors to a minimum.

I opened the batting with him for a couple of years.  Studying him from the other end I realised just how good a player he was.  He was good to bat with and would run your runs. Interestingly, although he admired physical courage in others, he thought he was slightly lacking in it.  This was clearly selling himself short.  He had it in spades.  He faced the muck and bullets for many years without a backward step.

He had determined that he would develop a game to reduce the number of ways he could get out, he had natural talent for stroke play that needed subjugating.  This would seldom come out in country cricket, only when it might be needed in one day games, or in a run chase.  But he recognised his responsibility to the team.  He says in his autobiography that the only press cutting that he has kept was one relating to a benefit game in Northumberland after the end of the 1983 season when he scored a brilliant 100 off 84 balls against an attack which included Courtney Walsh (bowling properly).  Pete had decided that his role in the team (whether opening or batting 4 as the jam in the sandwich of Viv Richards and Ian Botham at 3 and 5) required him to stay at the wicket and accumulate.  And it was this sense of responsibility that he imbued in me and is something that has been a guiding principle of my life ever since.  You cannot rely on the superstars to win you the games.  The responsibility for winning rests with each and every member of the team.  When I first went to Somerset, I thought the game was just like playing for the Radley Rangers but getting paid.  Eight weeks later I was a changed man, and Peter had done that.  He had shown me by words and deeds that for the game to be worthwhile playing (for any job to be worthwhile doing) you had to be wholly committed to it, and you couldn’t leave it to others to get the runs, take the wickets or argue the case.  We were not just padding for the Prince Hamlets.  We, the attendant lords, needed to accept that we were equally accountable for getting the job done.

I think of Peter whenever I tell people that the buck must stop with them.  I was lucky to see many of his faces and many expressions on them.  He was bright, convivial, and charming, he had a penetrating insight into the way people work, he was an extremely shrewd judge not just of cricket but of life in general.  If he ever did less than his best, I was not there to see it; if he ever backed away from Malcolm Marshall I was not there to see it; if he ever beat the outside edge with one of his leg spinners, I was not there to see it.

I look on the period that we spent together with affection and gratitude.  He was a very good lad.  We shall all miss him.