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Legends: Peter Roebuck

12 June 2019 by Steve Hill.

Peter Roebuck divided opinion and continues to do so after his untimely death. Many regarded him as an extraordinarily generous philanthropist, while others spoke of a dark side to his character. Some found him an engaging conversationalist while others thought him self-absorbed and venomous. He had friends aplenty, but most of them were inclined to admit that they did not really know him. He will be remembered for many years to come either as the man dubbed ‘Judas’ who sparked a civil war that split his club in two or the leader who had the courage to confront the issues of a crumbling once-glorious empire, by then in decay.

He was born on 6 March 1956 in Oddington, Oxfordshire, into a devoutly Roman Catholic family. His parents were teachers, Jim having met Elizabeth (née Morrison) while the former was a mature student at Ruskin College. Elizabeth, for her part, was highly intelligent and fine sportswoman who was awarded a cricketing blue and represented England at lacrosse. Shortly after Peter’s birth, the cottage in Oddington was gutted by fire. In earlier times this might have been seen as a premonition of a troubled life that burns brightly and is extinguished prematurely.

He took to cricket at the age of seven, by which time the family had moved (via Scarborough) to a flat in Bath, that also happened to be gutted in a fire. Coached initially by his father – who shared his son’s austere approach to personal improvement, as well as some of his idiosyncrasies – Peter came to the attention of Jack Meyer, headmaster of Millfield, who agreed not only to offer the boy a scholarship but to grant teaching posts to both parents. Thereafter, the diary commitments of the promising young cricketer played a prominent role in determining the rhythms of Roebuck family life, their efforts reaping clear reward, with Peter making his first appearance for Somerset Second XI as a thirteen-year-old leg-break bowler.

Offered a place at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, he shut himself away in his room for hours at a time, studied hard and emerged as both a first-class cricketer and a man with a first-class degree in Law and a gift for an incisive and well-crafted turn of phrase. By now cast as a batsman and occasional bowler, he would make his Championship debut for Somerset in 1974 and, although he was slower to make his mark than others among his intake, his dedication and will to succeed meant that he carved out an invaluable role as a steadying influence in a star-studded batting side prone to occasional over-exuberance. Over the course of eighteen seasons he would average 38.34 in 306 first-class appearances, with thirty-one centuries to his name. From 1984, he averaged approaching fifty runs each season on a regular basis. Consistency became his hallmark, the hours spent at the crease – with his unusual hunched stance, his concentration rarely wavering – were impressive. He also contributed forty-five wickets at 54.26 apiece. He was talked about for a while as a potential Test player, but never progressed beyond an England B match against Pakistan and, later, captaincy of an England XI in the Netherlands. Many felt he would be ill-suited, temperamentally, to the sustained stresses of Test cricket. His teammates became accustomed to Peter’s changes of mood. Each August, he would suffer a loss of confidence, and despondency would set in as the pressures of the first-class game once again assailed him. In the early years, he sought solace recharging himself as an English teacher at Cranbrook School in Sydney, an environment where his idiosyncrasies were more likely to be embraced. Earlier, he had found brief and wholly unsuitable employment as a quality controller for a peat extractor on the Somerset Levels. A self-confessed innumerate and a young man not cut out for a career in business, he had had no idea what was expected of him. He confesses to having poked and prodded at the occasional bag and declared everything satisfactory. Writing was, of course, the alternative career at which he would excel. Somerset cricket has perhaps thrown up fine writers more regularly than great cricketers over its long history and Peter would surely find his way into most people’s all-time Somerset Cricketing Literary XI.

Peter Roebuck leading the side into tea

He was, to the surprise of many, appointed Somerset captain in 1986. Acceptance of the role would prove the defining moment of his career. It is surely fair to state that his captaincy was flawed. A private man and not one to conform to social norms, the role was never likely to come naturally to him. Captaincy is a stern test for any first-class cricketer: they generally have no grounding beyond having watched others in action, no years of preparation or training, as might be expected in business. Leading a team you have grown up with is harder still, particularly if some of them have risen to greater heights than you as players. Tackling issues requires vision, courage and excellent man-management skills. He had the first two in abundance but was found wanting in the third. The decision to shed his star players (whom some felt were living on past glories, though Vivian Richards in particular would demonstrate that there was still plenty in his tank) was not his, but he led the assault. Marshalling the opposing troops was Ian Botham.

The two main protagonists were polar opposites: one studious and the other with a piratical sense of fun and adventure; one introverted and the other a raging extrovert; one cautious, the other a daring chancer. In the early years they had formed an unlikely friendship, but a lack of common ground would cause the relationship to sour as irreversibly as spoilt milk. Their differences had always been apparent. As an example, both were struck in the head while emerging cricketers by unplayable bouncers from Andy Roberts. Ian Botham refused to buckle, spat out a few teeth and fearlessly carved out an unlikely victory for his team. The twenty-year-old Peter Roebuck, reeling from the assault that had him taken to hospital, later shut himself in a darkened room, played some Joni Mitchell music and gathered his thoughts while he decided whether or not he wished to continue as a cricketer, whether he believed he had what it takes. He had emerged the stronger for his experience and found a way of dealing successfully with the short-pitched stuff. Here were two very different characters united in finding the idea of compromise anathema.

The civil war that broke out has been extensively documented (including elsewhere in this volume) and the wounds took a long time to heal. For a while, the need to prove his critics wrong galvanised Peter, but – worn down by the responsibility – he would hand over the reins to his good friend, Vic Marks, in 1989. And then in 1991, he departed the stage.

He was bright enough to learn from any mistakes he had made and enjoyed success when he transferred his allegiance to Devon. It helped, too, that he was Devon’s star player. The invitation had come from Nick Folland at a time when Peter was already carving a successful career for himself as a distinguished writer and broadcaster. He would prove himself able to manage the two careers concurrently. Devon became serial winners, with Peter more often than not starring in the unfamiliar role of bowler. At the same time, his journalistic output, primarily for The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald won widespread praise and his radio commentary for ABC was frequently as arresting as his attire. As his friend and colleague Kerry O’Keeffe would write, Peter had ‘the clothes sense of a blind man and shoelaces that appear[ed] twenty years older than the footwear itself’. His trademark straw hat had seen better days, too. He continued to write his books, expressing opinions with great verve.

Having purchased a house which he shared for a while with Nigel Popplewell, Peter never bothered with niceties such as a front door key or a kempt garden. Later, he would offer lodgings to promising youngsters whom he sponsored to come over to England to further their development. Sadly, the fact that he was insistent on a regime of corporal punishment – completely at odds with societal norms – later came back to haunt him when he was pursued through the courts in 2001. He had made enemies in 1986 and many of them were more than happy to air their misgivings about him. He refused, however, to change his ways. Stubborn to the last, he continued to support youngsters in the developing world, helping to set up the Learning for a Better World (LBW) Trust in 2006 and offering a refuge to young boys in a house he had purchased in Pietermaritzburg. Rumours of an unhealthy sexual interest in his charges continually bubbled up but others felt that Peter was guilty only of naivety, too generous and open-hearted for his own good.

Houses were also purchased in Sydney, as he sought a fresh start, having successfully applied for Australian citizenship. His life continued to be chaotic, money thrown without a care at his projects while he paid scant regard to the finer things in life. In Australia, they accepted and even celebrated his oddities.

And then, in a matter of hours, it all came to naught.  He was in Cape Town in his role as a Test Match commentator for ABC.  The police came knocking on his hotel room door. The accusation hanging over him was that he had sexually assaulted Itai Gonda, a young Zimbabwean who had come to him seeking financial support. Itai remains the only man who knows precisely what had happened behind closed doors. We are unlikely ever to be able to ascertain the circumstances that led to his death, when he fell from the sixth floor of a hotel in Claremont on 12 November 2011, aged only fifty-five.

How do we summarise this complex man? He could be sharp, otherworldly, funny or exasperating in equal measure and was regarded by many, to put it more simply, as an oddball. Friendships based on wit and intellectual jousting came more easily than affection and he was happiest when in control of events, whether crafting a patient century, captaining a compliant Devon team or overseeing with a strict, unyielding regime the young dependants who benefited from his charity. Former Somerset cricketer Adrian Jones once observed that ‘he just seems so bloody lonely… I think he likes to be contrary, but as soon as people react to that he doesn’t seem sure whether to back down, laugh it off or come back at you.’ Liked by many but uncomfortable with the idea of intimacy, he felt – wrongly, and to the lasting regret of friends and family – that he had no one to turn to. Peter had written of ‘the joys to be found in nature, music, friendship, literature and humour’ but had also confessed that, ‘I fear love for its intrusion of privacy.’ His rejection of love in all bar exceptional circumstances offered a shield for fifty-five years, but it also destroyed him. It was perhaps part and parcel of a wider fear of failure, which he had earlier confessed to, observing: ‘Perhaps the insecurity of batting, sharpened as it is by being my career, has caused me to concentrate on the avoidance of failure rather than accepting the challenges.’

‘I’m not perfect,’ he also wrote, shortly before his death, ‘but I think the good outweighs the bad.’

Taken from the book Somerset Cricketer’s 1971-2000 by Stephen Hill, including additional research from Julian Wyatt. Published by Halsgrove you can buy this book for £16.99 at Halsgrove, Somerset County Sports at the Cooper Associates County Ground or Brendon Books in Bath Place, Taunton.