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Cricket’s public voice and private man

by Malcolm Knox.

Peter Roebuck was much more than a sports commentator.

Vivian Richards said Peter Roebuck’s personality was like “a country house with fierce dogs outside” – beautiful, unique, but well guarded. As young men, the great West Indian and the bespectacled Cambridge graduate roomed together while playing for Somerset. They talked politics, race and cricket. In such friendships the themes of Roebuck’s life were forged: the love of reasoned argument, a fervent anti-racism, progressive political principles, and the yearning to find in cricket the expression for these themes. The competitive and individualistic nature of professional sport brought out his extrovert side and gained him countless friends and admirers, but also exacted its price.

Peter RoebuckThough he was identified with the West Country and he later became an Australian citizen and a home-owner in South Africa, Roebuck came from working-class northern roots. That Peter Michael Roebuck was born, on March 6, 1955, in the village of Oddington, outside Oxford, and not in a grim northern city was due to the character and aspirations of his parents. His father, Jim, had grown up in Manchester, left school at 14, worked as a printer and served in the Second World War before winning a mature-age scholarship to Oxford University. His first wife had died and their children, Rosalie and James, were living with relatives when Jim met and married Elizabeth Morrison, a sports-loving young woman who was also on a scholarship to Oxford.

The couple became schoolteachers, sustained on little money but plenty of reading, humour, sport and Labour politics, a legacy of Grandpa David Roebuck, who, like Jim, had worked as a printer and served in the army. Peter was the second of Jim and Elizabeth’s four children, coming after Margaret and before Beatrice and Paul. While Jim studied and worked in research, Peter spent his first three years at Oddington, becoming a neighbouring farmer’s right-hand man rounding up cows and poultry, living off farm produce, winning a baby prize at the Oddington Vicarage Fete and attracting attention for his outsized feet.

The needs of a sick relative drew the Roebucks to Scarborough, where Peter discovered cricket. He soon had a bat in his hand most of the time and conscripted long-suffering siblings to bowl to him on the beach or in a neighbouring garage forecourt. Cricket intensified when they moved to Bath in 1961 where, even though the Roebucks lived in a third-floor flat above a shop, Peter contrived pitches on the landing outside the flat and in a garage. When he could not find playmates, he invented his own teams, selecting everyone from Charles Dickens to Mickey Mouse, the Queen and even God. These games were documented and narrated – the first sparks of Peter’s later career in the press and radio box.

“Cricket,” he wrote in his autobiography, “forced me into family life, and turned a reticent child into a leader.” Jim, a good footballer, focused his ambitions on Peter’s cricket with intensive coaching. It strained their relationship, though Peter wrote that “if someone is to blame, might not they also deserve some credit?” His brother Paul remembers: “When I was young, whatever sport we played, from tennis to golf to pingpong to darts, he was a wonderful competitor and companion. Mind you, woe betide me were I to have the temerity to win. I might have to walk home!”

Peter recalled a boyhood “double life” phase, gregarious at school and withdrawn at home, though his family remembers him as an entertainer with plays and stories he invented, his exuberant cymbal-playing, and his high yet still-forming intellect – he had a half-stammer as his thoughts jostled to get out of his mouth. Peter also started wearing his red cricket cap night and day and never lost his penchant for headwear, no surprise to those who rarely saw him later without his battered straw sun hat.

Thinking formal cricket coaching might turn Peter to more realistic dreams, Elizabeth sent him to Peter Wight, a Guyanese batsman who had played for Somerset. Instead of turning Peter off, Wight’s high opinion of his abilities solidified the obsession. When a fast ball from James hospitalised him after a blow in the “unmentionables” and he still wasn’t turned off, his family realised he was hooked.

Peter’s interests flourished at Millfield School, where under the eccentric headmaster R. J. O. Meyer he developed his love for literature and cricket. He joined the RAF cadets, getting a friend to attend roll call, “hiding in the cricket pavilion smoking cigarettes and hoping to hell no fool would ask me to fly an aeroplane”. He rose through the Somerset club system into the county’s junior teams, where he met Richards and several other teammates who would become lifelong friends. Known as a dour opener, he had his moments. The first time his uncle Gerald and Aunty Mairead saw him play, he hit a six into Mairead’s lap.

While Meyer could not initially “detect much activity in the thinking department”, Peter did well enough to read law at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. His domestic incompetence became legendary: he followed instructions to boil an egg for three minutes in a pan “but nobody said anything about water”; told to turn the Christmas cake in the oven, he flipped it; he pruned the roses with a breadknife and dug up the flowers instead of the weeds. Later in life, though his gardening skills improved, his friends took endless amusement from his inattention to personal comforts; when one couldn’t get him to launder his shirts, she bought him a steady supply of new ones; when a curtain got stuck, rather than fix it he left his living-room dark. And he wasn’t the first babysitter who, confronted with a crying child, called England from Australia asking what to do.

When Peter was on the field for Combined Universities against Greg Chappell’s 1977 Australians, Margaret came with the news that he had graduated with first-class honours. Barred from the pavilion, she hovered on the boundary until he came close enough. He was more interested in the match; by then he had decided law would be too confining a career.

He spent his off-seasons in Greece and Australia, where he taught and coached at Sydney’s Cranbrook School. “I wanted and needed to get out of England,” he wrote. A former student, the publisher Ben Ball, says, “I once drove Peter apoplectic by referring to the ‘left’ and ‘right’ stumps. It was very funny. Needless to say it was a mistake I never repeated.” Peter moved to Bondi and began what his family saw as a migratory life, following the summer. Each year he left his car with Rosalie in Maidenhead, flew to Australia, coming back six months later to pick up as if nothing had changed.

Batting practice at Park School

Peter practising in 1968.

Much did change in his cricket life. Somerset won its first trophies, but Peter fell out with Ian Botham and Richards who both left the club. He was a breath away from representing England and led an “A” team to two matches with Holland, one of which England lost. He wrote for the Sunday Times in England and Fairfax newspapers in Australia, published highly praised books – one, nodding to Bob Dylan, was called Tangled Up In White – and succeeded Bill O’Reilly as the Sydney Morning Herald‘s columnist. He played 335 first-class matches for Somerset until 1991, then began a decade-long connection with Devon, winning its first four championships.

His writing, which expanded into broadcasting with ABC Radio, brought Roebuck’s insight and erudition to a hungry audience. Among colleagues he was a stimulating, provocative, socially awkward yet popular and admired workmate. His resistance to new technology and forthright independence tarred him as eccentric and a loner, but few made as many friendships.

Some loyalties were tested in 2001 when he pleaded guilty to symbolically caning three South African men, through their clothes, at his home in Taunton. After the affair he felt alienated from England, yet, he wrote, “I was always uncomfortable in the land of my birth, and felt throughout like a man born in the wrong place or, anyhow, at the wrong time”.

He found a new mission in the next decade. An anti-apartheid advocate since youth, he bought Straw Hat Farm outside Pietermaritzburg, in Natal, where he housed tertiary students hoping to improve their lives through sport, work and education. He sold the farm in 2009, set up a large house for the men in a suburb of Pietermaritzburg, and was funding up to 42 students at the time of his death. In 2006, in Australia, Peter was one of five founding directors of the LBW (Learning for a Better World) Trust, which has raised more than $600,000 in assistance for disadvantaged students in cricket-playing countries in the developing world. He resigned from the board in 2008, and the Trust’s operations continue today.

Though he had become estranged from the country of his birth and spoke little of his family while in Africa and Australia, he remained in regular contact with his mother and siblings. He risked his doubtful driving and navigational skills to take Beatrice to her wedding; “auditioned” Margaret’s fiance, Simon, by giving him a cricket net (Simon passed); had a fond involvement with his 11 nieces and nephews; and sent money home for Christmas presents, phoning in from the Melbourne Test match to hear what his family had got from him. In an email to his mother two weeks ago, he exchanged lively family gossip and suggested a return to England in 2013. He said he was desperately missing the relaxation of family life.

Paul remembers a big brother who “was always there for me, and particularly in the last two years, he was a constant support and contact. I have lost not only my elder brother but a huge influence on my life.” The migratory bird did not come back.

As well as supporting students in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world, Peter arranged – unbidden – loans, scholarships for friends in need in Australia and Britain. His generosity to them engendered an unbreakable loyalty.

Peter Roebuck plunged to his death from his sixth-floor hotel room in Cape Town last Saturday after police questioned him about an alleged sexual assault. He is survived by his mother Elizabeth, his siblings James, Rosalie, Margaret, Beatrice and Paul, 11 nieces and nephews, the hundreds of adult students in Africa and around the world who saw him as a father figure, admiring workmates, a multitude of friends inside and outside cricket, and a global audience of readers and listeners.

This article was written for The Sydney Morning Herald.