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:
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.