November 13, 2011

A writer of defiance and beauty

Cricket and the English language were the twin loves of Peter Roebuck's life, and in his hands they forged a fine partnership

This piece was first published as the introduction to Roebuck's autobiography, Sometimes I Forgot to Laugh, 2004

Peter Roebuck is born to write about cricket in the manner Sachin Tendulkar is born to play it. The right grammar, style, substance, and the occasional rasping statement that takes your breath away. Peter wraps cricket in fine clothing; he lends the weight of words to the deeds that a Tendulkar performs.

Indeed, I have long felt that the writer needs to look upon himself as a performer, in much the way the sportsman does. Peter does that. He will be the first to admit, though, that his barely legible scrawl did the words he meant to shape no credit at all! They deserved better, and when the impersonal typeface finally replaced the medieval shapes he created, it came almost as a relief.

Peter once told me of the twin loves in his life - cricket and the English language. In his hands they forged a fine partnership, the equivalent of Greenidge and Haynes, Hayden and Langer. The relative timelessness of Test cricket, the sub-plots within the larger story, the personalities who seem to have enough time to pose for a writer, all create a game that demands the beauty of words and a writer to produce them. And yet the game suffers in its obsession with the end-of-day "quote", a collection of words that have no feelings, coming from men who are far better at putting bat to ball. Peter bucks that trend and does so with a combination of defiance and beauty. He gives you a reason to read the newspaper even if you have watched the day's play.

I met Peter for the first time in a commentary box, though his forthright, rasping style took some time getting used to. I hope he doesn't remember much of that first session of commentary in Brisbane in November 1991, for, unable to pick his accent immediately, I could offer only a slightly stupid grin to most things he was saying. As that summer wore on, and many more after that, I looked forward to the experience, because Peter always challenged you with his views. He made you think, and you worried about a sentence you had let go lightly.

Peter the commentator is little known outside Australia. Sometimes one skill can overpower another (how many remember what an extraordinary fielder Viv Richards was?) but he brings a different air to broadcasting. Where Peter's writing in the newspaper shows the love the English have for the language, in the commentary box he is Australian: direct, unafraid to be blunt and perfectly capable of saying in 10 words what his column the next day will take 100 words to dwell over. I like both facets to his personality, but there is a greater permanency to writing.

I don't remember when I first sampled his works. By the time I went to Australia in 1991, Roebuck was already the king of the written word in my eyes. Like good home cooking, the precise moment of discovery is lost in a world of pleasure

I can see why Peter is more Australian than English now. Australians are rather more feisty, game for a difference of opinion, holders of strong, often intractable views, and yet perfectly capable of laughing over a drink at the end of it all. I suspect they secretly admire people with a contrary point of view. The English, on the other hand, a bit like the Indian brahmins, tend to pronounce judgement rather than debate it; occasionally the conversation will grow cold. With his strong views on the game, Peter took to Australia like the great white did to its coastal waters.

I can't imagine Peter in a jacket and tie amidst the establishment at Lords. If I had to paint him, it would be in a loose shirt, slightly dreamy eyes beneath the glasses, with his straw hat looking like it was nicked from a lampshade. He would be sitting in a corner of the press box, an occasional darting comment ("Why isn't that Harbhajan going round the wicket?") interrupting the words settling around his thoughts.

But there is more to Peter than the mere magic of words, and that by itself is not to be trifled with. He understands the subcontinent better than most, has strong views on Zimbabwe and South Africa, and has an acute sense of history. You can see that in the metaphors that abound, the awareness of politics, the grasp of history.

I don't remember when I first heard his name or indeed sampled his works. It might have been the lone season Sunil Gavaskar played for Somerset, when suddenly I heard names like Denning, Rose, Roebuck and Slocombe. And by the time I went to Australia in 1991, Roebuck was already the king of the written word in my eyes. Like good home cooking, the precise moment of discovery is lost in a world of pleasure.

By then I had decided I wanted to write like Peter: the keen observation mingling with the precise metaphor, and then the throwaway line delivered, like by an actor who knows he has the audience in his grip. I gave up pretty quickly - I might have been condemned to an unfulfilled life otherwise.

An autobiography is a different genre of writing from, say, an expression of joy at another Gilchrist swashbuckler. Peter manages it with equal élan, and his grandmother emerges as much a heroine as some of the stars he writes about. Luckily for Peter he too has a long innings ahead of him; maybe he will want to laugh a lot more. After all he has even learnt to use a laptop!

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here