August 10, 2008

Pen mightier than bat

Rumours of the death of cricket literature are highly exaggerated: Peter Roebuck is writing still

Roebuck, 'bespectacled, rather severe-looking', in the early 80s © Getty Images

Obituary writers have a precise date for when cricket literature died - it did so with the passing of Alan Ross, they say. This is unfair to modern masters who are as typical of this age as Cardus was of his more leisurely one. Today there is greater homogeneity in playing styles and personalities; above all there is television. The writer's quirkiness, passion and style must make up for the lack of differentiation.

No one knows this better than Peter Roebuck, the most intelligent and articulate of our cricket writers. In England, where he was born, he has virtually no peer. In Australia, his adopted country, he is an institution. His books, many of them collections of his newspaper writings, provide some of the best perspectives on the game. It Never Rains, his diary of a season, is a remarkable document. Its mixture of self-doubt and self-renewal is comparable in texture and tone to GH Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology.

"It is strange that cricket attracts so many insecure men." Roebuck wrote, "It is surely the very worst game for an intense character, yet it continues to find many obtuse sensitivities amongst its players. Men of imagination, men of ideals risk its harsh exposures."

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.

It is no coincidence that today's champion writers are the columnists. The 1000-word men marry form and content with an assurance that the Carduses and Arlotts of the past brought to their book-length ruminations.

At its best, cricket writing is evocative, passionate, humorous, quirky, and teases out character. It can be read by those who love the game for its insights, and by those who love the language for the turn of phrase and mental pictures conjured up.

The best of the post-Ross generation are exciting, even if the majority are like one-day internationals, indistinguishable from one another. The latter are merely clinical where the masters are passionate. The utility player has his recorder in the utility writer. Roebuck, a utility player, is a master chronicler. Of Sachin Tendulkar he wrote: "... [he] has lived with the worship of a cricket-mad public that wants him to be infallible, ruthless and destructive, supporters inclined to forget that he emerged from a womb and not from the pages of a comic book".

At the end of Tangled Up in White, Roebuck devotes a chapter to "maxims" such as: "Traditionally, cricket has been a game lacking in thoroughness and American proficiency. None of the efficient countries seem to play it." Or, "Being dropped and rested is like getting a hiding at school, the sort of thing that sounds a pretty good idea for everyone else."

Viv Richards once described Roebuck as a "country house with fierce dogs outside". There was, for years, no love lost between the two. Richards held Roebuck responsible for his sacking from Somerset. Roebuck was captain, and once said his job was to bat at one end to keep Richards and Ian Botham apart for as long as possible as they tried to outdo each other, often to the detriment of the team.

Top Curve
Recommended reading
  • It Never Rains
    Tangled Up in White
    In It To Win It
    Sometimes I Forgot to Laugh
    It Takes All Sorts
    From Sammy to Jimmy: History of Somerset Cricket Club
    It Sort of Clicks (with Ian Botham)
    Slices of Cricket

Bottom Curve

As an opening batsman he was seldom in danger of playing for England, although he was in the frame as captain for the 1989 West Indies tour. He did lead an English team to Holland, though. Already his fame as writer has overtaken his reputation as player. The bespectacled, rather severe-looking Roebuck will not complain. His pen is mightier than his bat ever was.

As he says in his autobiography Sometimes I Forgot to Laugh, "Of course it was ridiculous that my self-esteem should ever have depended so much upon a constant flow of runs. But there is no reasoning with such things. Recognition as a promising performer with the pen eased the pressure and allowed a broader and more confident character to emerge."

Writers, like players, can trace their spiritual ancestors too. Roebuck's is Raymond Robertson-Glasgow, that master of compression. When you read Roebuck you know the stories of the death of cricket literature are greatly exaggerated.

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Saptarshi on August 11, 2008, 9:27 GMT

    Gideon is the worst cricket writer the world has ever seen. Even a lunatic can write better than him. The aussies dislike Roebuck bcos he speaks out the bitter truth. Gideon just turns out good columns for the nationalistic and narcissist aussie crowds. Apart from that the whole world knows what a bigoted fool that celtic man is.

  • Sriram on August 11, 2008, 4:14 GMT

    Roebuck is impulsive and tries to write as though he is Shakespeare. He was stupid in stating that Ponting should be sacked for offending Harbhajan's (who I feel is a loser) feelings. He later had to eat humble pie when Harbhajan slapped Sreesanth. Using words like banana bender consistently does not make one a great writer. Peter Roebuck is mediocre.

  • Nicholas on August 10, 2008, 22:48 GMT

    Don't bandy the word "literature" around, certainly not with someone so self-important as Roebuck. We all like cricket and literature it seems but saying Roebuck writes "literature" is like saying I'm better than Sashin Tendulkar or Ricky Ponting's or their love child is at batting.

  • Stephen on August 10, 2008, 22:40 GMT

    Roebuck is a good writer - but the best writer in Australia is Gideon Haigh, who consistently turns out excellent columns and books.

  • Mina on August 10, 2008, 17:23 GMT

    While Peter Roebuck's pen may be mightier than his bat, there are many great Indian writers who can match him, and more - stroke for stroke : Harsha Bhogle, Ram Guha, Nirmal Shekar, Kadambari Murali, Rohit Brijnath, Sambit Bal...

  • Mina on August 10, 2008, 14:48 GMT

    An avid reader of Roebuck's columns, I generally enjoy his incisive writing. But great cricket writers can also be short-sighted - once in a while !

    In June 2006 Sachin, coming back to international cricket after shoulder surgery, joined the Lashings Club in England. And promptly made a smashing hundred.

    Mr. Roebuck in turn, wrote a 'lashing' piece "Tendulkar's decision lamentable' (The Hindu 24 June 2006) wherein he castigated Tendulkar for the "mistake" in joining "past players in their unending parade" in playing for the "wretched concept" 'Lashings Club' For "casting himself as over the hill" "swanning around" in the quest for rehabilitation. Time proved Sachin right. In Sept 2006 he scored a scintillating comeback century(40th one-day ton)in the DLF Cup. It's all very well to be appreciated as a great cricket expert, but greatness also means acknowledging one's mistakes -- especially when readers follow cricket keenly and can judge players and situations for themselves !

  • Sandip on August 10, 2008, 13:57 GMT

    It's an attractive line- a pen is mightier than the bat.At least for the man who did cricketing fraternity whole lot of good ,it comes as a fitting tribute.I have always marveled at his journalistic prowess and his few guest appearances in commentary boxes.One thing about Roebuck's writing is that he provides weighted insights which other people around the modern cricketing journalism seem to lack.His stance during the rift between the sub-continent;India and Australia is a clear example of this clear-minded cricketing journalist.

  • Ajay on August 10, 2008, 13:00 GMT

    There is little doubt that Roebuck is the best of his breed.It is important for a cricket writer to feel an overwhelming passion for the game, almost to the exclusion of everything else. The stringing of words together is done easily but it is the soul that is in the writing of Cardus, C.L.R.James, Ray Robinson and their ilk that makes their writing classic and timeless. In India,I have enjoyed every one of Ramachnadra Guha's books thoroughly.Also, Mukul Kesavan, Kadambari Murali and you, Mr Menon, write exceedingly well on the best of all games.

  • James on August 10, 2008, 12:35 GMT

    Roebuck is unquestionably articulate, but he often articulates questionable views. More heinously, his apparent judgement and opinion veers wildly from one day to the next in a manner not dissimilar to his former charge Ian Botham. His writing is too consumed with his own ego and his words frequently race ahead of his brain, such that his comments appear ill-considered and hasty in the immediate aftermath of an event. To call him the 'most intellingent and articulate of our cricket writers' does great disservice to those many others whose opinions are more measured and more constant; Gideon Haigh springs immediately to mind, and as an ex-player Mike Atherton seems far more able to distance his own ego from his analyses. Passion is a good thing in a writer, but not at the expensive of reliability in the insights offered.

  • Nanda on August 10, 2008, 12:21 GMT

    Agreed, Roebuck is a fine writer, but was this eulogy really necessary? The man is still in business, so let him produce a monumental work before pronouncing him a great writer. Cricket literature hasn't blown my mind yet, may be I'm not such a prolific reader.

    PS: Agree with snarge on Roebuck's somewhat hysterical tone after Perth. It was embarrassing even for an Indian supporter.

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