Keep On Driving

We were in the car, golf clubs rattling around in the back, on our way north to the driving range at Silverstream. Bella was behind the wheel. I turned to her with a stupid grin and said, “So, when was the last time you went driving?” I then laughed for a while, and I seem to remember that she laughed too but memory has a funny way of serving ego before truth.

Her last time hitting golf balls was in February. My last time was in January with my brother Rua, and the time before that was the previous January, also with Rua. Both of those times were at Chisholm Park Golf Club in Dunedin, which has world-class views over the cliffs and down to the Pacific Ocean, and both times I was surprised to learn I could still swing that shaft of metal over my head and whack the ball far enough to lose it. Used to play golf when I was kid, you know. Procedural knowledge is an extraordinary thing, especially when the procedures are embedded at a young age: hitting a golf ball 200 yards, kicking a soccer ball with power and accuracy, riding a bike. Do it enough times and something clicks in your brain so that years down the line, the knowledge can be called back in an instant.

Chisholm Park Golf Club | Dunedin | Seaside Golf Course
‘Tomahawk’ at Chisholm Park Golf Club

I remember going to the driving range in Hamilton for my 11th birthday (or thereabouts) with brothers and mother. At one point, they stood behind me and watched as I played a few shots and said, “Barns is quite good, isn’t he?” I was the mocked ‘sporto’ of the family, forever bowling a tennis ball against the fence and shooting hoops while my brothers got quite good at the guitar and went off to university. Nothing ever really came of golf — I essentially stopped playing when I was about 14 — but that moment of approval is enough for it to have been a worthwhile part of my life.

The ping of the ball off the tee, though. For all the madness golf can bring, that ping makes it worthwhile, too. I stepped up at Silverstream with my bucket of 118 balls, a six-iron, and a driver with a clubhead the size of my fist. First ball, I swung without really thinking, just hoping to connect. Ping. It flew off into the distance, straight as an arrow. I was sure it had sailed past the 250-metre mark and away over the back fence into Tiger Woods territory. ‘Still got it,’ I thought to myself.

Of course I hadn’t hit the ball that far, as the next 117 shots proved. Still, I was amazed at how forgiving the driver was, how it didn’t seem to demand you make it go ping instead of clunk to allow the ball to fly straight for a fairly long way.

Silverstream Golf Park
The driving range at Silverstream

After a while, I started using the six-iron to try and hit the ball into a derelict car at the 50-metre mark, which appears to be an obligatory feature at many driving ranges. Got it on about ball 103, I believe. Bella missed the moment but I insist it really happened: one bounce and in through the smashed back left window. She was probably focusing on ironing out her own technique at the time, which I suppose is fair enough.

(By the way, her name isn’t Bella. It’s Isabel. Two things led to my foisting this nickname upon her: 1) her distaste for the Twilight series, of which Bella Swan (played by a dead-eyed Kristen Stewart in the films) is the main character; and 2) her admission that once, after learning her name was Isabel, a guy asked if he could call her Bella. “No you may not, sir.”

Presumably I have enough other qualities for her to tolerate my being ridiculous all the time.)

Silverstream Driving Range at Night
Isabel with an iron

“How’d you go?” asked David, the silver-haired, craggy-faced man at reception. His blue (it may have been red) pullover said ‘Manor Park Golf Club Centenary’, and I guessed he would’ve been around for about three-quarters of that. He gave a tentative smile as I handed him that absurd driver, commenting on my surprise at the powers it had afforded me. “Yes, you’ll find that the modern clubs are a lot more forgiving than the old ones.” He seemed like a man who knew a thing or two about a thing or two, so, having given him an opportunity to talk, we simply stood and listened.

David’s life story is easily structured around his golf handicap. He said he got down to scratch after a couple of weeks as a young fella, which seems impossible to me given how long it takes — and how many balls you have to hit perfectly — for the finer points of technique to be proceduralised. Maybe he was a superhuman, or still is one. Or maybe his memory had embellished things somewhat. He then took a long break to build a house, which he might well have designed and built himself. Then back into it for a few years, lowering the handicap once more, a notable figure on his club’s fairways. He didn’t say how he became a tetraplegic — though I think he alluded to some time in the military — but the long recovery process put him out “for a couple of decades”. It only showed in the odd halting movement.

Finally, a few years ago, David got back amongst it for presumably his last golfing stretch. “I struggle to hit the ball now, but playing with those young fellas, I’m still keeping up with them—” he raised his thick eyebrows and opened his eyes wide “—and even out-driving them sometimes.

“But anyway, you’re always playing against yourself, and trying to beat the course. There’s always something to overcome. You know? It’s all in your head.”

Bella drove us back to Wellington in the dark. We listened to a selection of 90s hits on Classic Hits FM, delighted to find we are finally old enough to hear formative childhood favourites on a radio station that always looks backwards. Accompanying them in my head were David’s simple but far-reaching words, and the lifetime of experience and imagination behind them. I wonder what else he has yet to overcome.

A tribute to Peter Roebuck

Peter Roebuck © Cricinfo

Former Somerset cricket captain and respected cricket writer Peter Roebuck has died aged 55 in Cape Town. He was covering Australia’s tour of South Africa. Ian Fuge, managing editor for sport at the Sydney Morning Herald, a paper for which Roebuck was a regular columnist, said “Peter was a wonderful writer who was the bard of summer for cricket-loving Australians. He was also an extraordinary bloke who will be sorely missed.” [source]

For me personally, Roebuck’s death signifies the passing of a writing hero. I grew up reading the sports section every morning before school, hoping that if I wouldn’t some day realise my dream of being an All Black or a Black Cap, I could at least write about them for a living. Of all the sports writers I’ve discovered through those years and into adulthood, Roebuck’s byline is the one that will ensure I read the piece. He seemed such a naturally gifted writer, one who could’ve written about any subject he chose but found himself most entranced by cricket. He wrote honestly, never afraid to confront the darker aspects of ‘the gentleman’s game’, One could be certain that nothing less than the highest quality would be attached to his name.

Now that he’s gone, I am of course discovering that his exceptionally high standards were a hallmark of his career with Somerset, as well. From this citation for his being recognised as one of Wisden’s Cricketers of the Year in 1988:

Roebuck in action for Somerset © Getty Images

His current vice-captain, Victor Marks, a friend of many years, said, He seems to thrive on contest, competition and conflict. He rises to the occasion, is very much alive and always reacts in a positive way. He has improved dramatically over the past few years, with the security of his position and the captaincy. He puts a great deal more energy into his job than most people could. Somerset’s coach, Peter Robinson, recalled many hours spent with the bowling machine, ironing out technical faults which he, Roebuck, had found.

Roebuck also contributed routinely insightful columns to Cricinfo. Fellow cricket writer Suresh Menon wrote of his work:

Roebuck’s short commentaries distill a lifetime of experience through history and anecdote. There is a purity in the form that is at once attractive and challenging. Of all cricket writers, Roebuck is the least imitated because he is the most difficult to imitate.

I suspect millions of cricket fans over the coming days will be scouring Cricinfo and the web for information about Roebuck and, like me, discovering things they might never have looked up had he not died so devastatingly young. As much as anything else, this could be a commentary on the incredible value offered by his columns: I never sought to know more of the man to whom such a distinctive, essential voice belonged. His ever-articulate words were enough to form a deep impression – of decent character, of high quality and of deep understanding.

May Peter Roebuck rest in peace, and all his fans continued to inspired by his words for decades after he’s gone.


Here’s an excerpt from what turned out to be his final column, about the Australians’ performance in an utterly bizarre first test. It is a technically minded piece, not the best representative of his work, which tends to be wide in scope and lofty in ambition. But notice the economy of language with which he makes his points:

Apart from technical flaws, the collapses raised even more fundamental issues. How long can Shane Watson continue as a front-line bowler and opening batsman? History provides few instances of a cricketer able to sustain both workloads. The time is ripe to put him in the middle order.


Brad Haddin also needs to rethink his batting. His reckless shot was a droppable offence and confirmed his confidence is in his boots. He, too, has a single match to turn around his fortunes. A new broom sweeps clean.

Ironically Johnson, a bowler, is the most likely player to be dropped. However the team for the first Test against New Zealand has become harder to predict. Mind you, a lot can happen in a week. It just did.


UPDATE: I’ve been reading a lot of Roebuck today. Here’s an excerpt from one of his 116 columns for Cricinfo entitled ‘Stuck in the middle’:

As a breed, batsmen are haunted by the prospect of failure. It hardens them, tightens them, sometimes exhausts them. A centre-forward unable to score can still chase and create. A tryless winger can tackle and support. A batsman must score runs: it is as simple and stark as that. No words can protect the player from this truth. His existence depends on his productivity. Arthur Miller could have written a play about it. Every time he goes to the crease, a batsman confronts doom.


Also, the cause of Roebuck’s death has not yet been announced, so conspiracy theories will surely follow – especially in light of reports that he seen talking with police and ‘in an agitated state’ on the same night. Whatever is written in the coming days, and regardless of what actually happened, I hope everyone can remember that we would do better to mourn a fine writer than play pseudo-detective. I’m sure Roebuck would agree. After all, he wrote in 2007 of his disgust at the hackery that followed Bob Woolmer’s death:

But let us not allow one man to carry the can. Although it was reasonable to accept the experts’ initial verdict that Woolmer had been strangled, too many of us were too easily prepared to believe that Pakistani players or at any rate supporters were the culprits. In our own way we were as guilty as those involved in the burning of the witches in Salem or the rounding up of supposed American communists in the 1950’s.

[…] At such times we must be thankful for due process, that a man may be condemned only by fact and not prejudice.

Talking points from India v Bangladesh

I have written before about being tired of too much cricket, but this World Cup is in India, and I’m beginnning to care more the national team’s fortunes. I think that just happens to everyone who stays here long enough, because India is completely cricket mad. It’s not that every last person is in a cricket thrall, but even if only half the population cared – and I’m guessing the percentage is a little higher than that – you’ve got 500 million plus flag-waving, tv-shooting supporters.

In the first match of the tournament yesterday, India thrashed their co-hosts Bangladesh with a fantastic batting performance. Follow the link below for my talking points from the match, including why Virat Kohli is the most dangerous player in India’s batting lineup, but for now here’s why the Kerala connection – wild and wacky fast bowler Sreesanth – was my favourite thing about the day:

Personally, the best moments of the day came when Sreesanth was bowling. He’s the one wild card in India’s pack: utterly unplayable one ball, overstepping and shipping wides the next. To me, he looks perpetually in need of a cigarette. Even if he goes for ten an over, I hope he keeps his place purely for the entertainment value he brings.

Read more at The NRI…