November 13, 2011

Remembering Roebuck

Peter Roebuck's judgements were based not merely on the keenest understanding of the game but on a wider understanding of society, history and human behaviour, and his ability to connect the dots

I don't precisely recall when and where I met Peter Roebuck first; it feels like I always knew him. It must have been in the English summer of 2001, or perhaps 2002. I am certain he was wearing a straw hat, and was struck by his physicality: large and strong hands, sharp nose, enquiring eyes, and hair protruding out of his ears. But the strongest, most lasting impression was left by his manner of delivering sweeping snap judgements.

"I think the best cricket writing now comes out of India." He said this out of the blue, without a preamble, and without bothering to qualify it. And this continued through my ten-year association with him, in emails, in conversation, and even in his columns.

Of course, he was not always right. The last time I met him in person was in Sri Lanka during the last World Cup. He spoke animatedly about a young Sri Lankan journalist he had just met, and tried to persuade me to hire him as a writer. The young man in question walked up to us a few minutes later. He turned out to be a photographer. "How many times have we been told not to rush in to a judgement," Roebuck said upon instant reflection. But nothing dissuaded him from making them. And often he was spot-on.

His judgements were based not merely on the keenest understanding of the game but on a wider understanding of society, history and human behaviour, and his ability to connect the dots. Like all good writers, he was observant, sensitive, and deeply affected by the world outside, even as he grappled with his own complexities.

Few drew better portraits of cricketers as human beings because few had the combination of his talents: having been a player himself, he had the ability to view the inner lives of cricketers from the outside. He grasped their torment, and had the gift with words with which to articulate it. At the top of his game, his writing was both profound and poignant. His writing, in a sense, was like Brian Lara's batsmanship: it had beauty and depth, it reflected his moods, and while it could be inconsistent, it attained incomparable heights. Even his poorer pieces contained priceless gems.

Among the cricket people I have known, he cared more than most about the game, and he worried incessantly about its future. He saw his writing as not merely a vocation but as an obligation to the game. To this effect, he became a missionary and avenger. In his latter years his concerns grew wider. He was deeply affected by the political situation in Zimbabwe, where he had a home, and he sometimes began exceeding his brief in his cricket writings. When Firdose Moonda, our South Africa correspondent, travelled to Zimbabwe to cover the country's return to Test cricket, I sought Roebuck's advice on stories she could pursue. For the next two weeks he wrote me almost daily, suggesting ideas, pointing me towards reports and other writings on Zimbabwe. Very few of these were cricket-related.

He wrote for ESPNcricinfo because he wanted to be a global voice on a global platform. The idea mattered a great deal to him. That modern cricket writing for the most part was influenced by nationalism was a constant lament of his. He brought to his writing his own beliefs and biases, but it was refreshingly shorn of any other allegiance. He maintained a curiously complex relationship with England, his home country - it was tough to say at times whether he abandoned England or if England had abandoned him - and was open in embracing the Australian way of life, but his outlook, shaped by his experiences of living in different countries, his curiosity about different peoples and cultures, remained scrupulously global.

In the last couple of years he had been enamoured of the idea of becoming a part-time resident of India, a country he regarded with affection. It was, I suspected, partly down to his restless nature, and partly his unflinching desire to reinforce, to himself, the idea of his rootlessness.

Only a few days ago he was a guest on a yet-to-be-published episode of Time Out, our audio discussion show, hosted by Harsha Bhogle. The subject was spot-fixing, and he spoke lucidly and precisely. He laughed at the jokes and told Osman Samiuddin, our former Pakistan editor, and a guest on the show, that he looked forward to seeing him in South Africa.

For a person who never held back from expressing his views on the affairs of the game or the world, he led a very private life. After he stopped playing, he withdrew completely from the world of players. He rarely met them or interviewed them. Not knowing them personally, he said, gave him the objectivity to write about their cricket. He was usually the first to leave the press box, normally within a couple of minutes after the last ball had been bowled, and if he ever met fellow journalists outside of work, it was one on one. And he did most of talking then.

The circumstances that led him to take his life are unclear. Though I knew the writer quite well, I had little access to the person. Even great men are not free of flaws. I will remember Peter for his gifts.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo