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.

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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

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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