by Vijay Lokapally
14 November 2011.
“Does he watch the first ball?”
Only if he did would a young cricket scribe have attracted Peter Roebuck’s attention. “You have to watch the first ball!” was his unfailing advice to any aspiring cricket writer.
Strong in his criticism but generous in his praise, Roebuck’s suicide should shock the legions who relished his insightful despatches on the game.
Roebuck was a captain at Somerset, which had among its ranks the likes of Sunil Gavaskar, Viv Richards, Ian Botham and Joel Garner. It is another matter that he fell out with most of them; sad, but then, Roebuck was one of a kind – unpretentious and unsparing.
And, that was how he wrote too. He liked his cricketers brave. He pushed for cricketers who took the initiative – not the ones who played to the gallery, but the ones who battled for the team.
Naturally, he was a much sought-after columnist. And he was also the least demanding.
“How much can they afford?” was all he would ask, when requested for a commissioned piece. “What length? And, by what time, please?” He knew his job well.
Needless to say, he was a delight to read. His analysis was an impeccable commentary on the state of the game. Performance of this duty was a natural act for he believed in conveying what he saw.
“To the best of my abilities,” he would insist. “I am committed to my reader,” he would say.
I once asked him if he had ever missed a deadline.
“Was never late for the toss, mate,” he replied with a smile, crisp and precise, as always.
Roebuck was a traditionalist and an unwavering loyalist when it came to the longer version of the game. He appreciated the three-slip and two-gully, white-flannel version of the game.
Not for him the slam-bang stuff. Not for him the frivolous ways of modern cricket.
Even the tour games, he maintained, were far more meaningful than some contest decided in the span of 40 overs.
He never deviated from his role as an unambiguous critic. Particularly memorable for his Indian readers would be the way he was uncompromising in his criticism of Australia, his adopted country, during India’s eventful tour in 2008.
When talking cricket, Roebuck disliked frivolous discussion.
It is difficult to imagine him applauding a shot, even from a Rahul Dravid or a V.V.S. Laxman – incidentally, his favourite cricketers – if the ball did not travel to the intended destination.
Yet, he would rave about the artist in Laxman and the architect in Dravid. They too cherished his writing.
Discussing and understanding the nuances of cricket with Roebuck, the analyst and raconteur, was an essential part of a cricket scribe’s learning process.
He was passionate about what he knew and more about what he wanted to learn.
Always keen to gather information on promising talent, Roebuck never hid his obsession for correctness.
If you told him a good youngster had arrived on the cricket circuit, his response would be a cool, “How good is his defence?”
The incisive style that marked his observations put Roebuck in a rare class of writers.
Never one to run his colleagues down, even in what can be a fiercely competitive profession, he stood out for his reading of the game.
Alas, cricket writing will never be the same. Nobody wrote on cricket like Peter Roebuck did.