November 13, 2011

An irreplaceable man

Twenty years after Peter Roebuck's last first-class game he was still struggling and often despairing, searching for something to fulfill him

Scatty and focused, brilliant and fallible, muscular yet incredibly fragile, Peter Roebuck was too many men rolled into an irreplaceable one. Individuals like him often sit on the outside, making choices and then fretting over the consequences.

Minor ones, like weighing up describing Shane Watson as a banana-bender, willow-wielder, or leather-flinger. Or see-sawing over whether he really wished he'd played for England or had been right to feel relief that he never faced international scrutiny or expectation. Or life-ending ones like in the moments before his fatal decision in South Africa.

In the end it was a wonder he lasted so long, dealing with demons and demonising which shadowed him during his playing days and forever after. Deep down, I think, he knew he would determine his end. A modern-day Harold Gimblett.

Two weeks ago he wrote that in retirement Simon Katich would enter the most challenging phase of his life. Twenty years after Roebuck's last first-class game he was still struggling and often despairing, searching for something to fulfill him.

He had tried funding orphans in Africa, sending them on to university and successful careers. He'd been a de facto grandfather and cricket coach. Of course there was his prolific writing and his never-to-be-replicated style. There'd been properties a few minutes from Bondi Beach in Sydney and Straw Hat Farm in South Africa, along with intermittent dreams of a shift to India.

Roebuck was full of flaws and imperfections, but this is not an apology for him. Nobody agrees with all the decisions a person makes. Roebuck didn't really do friendship, but he was a cherished one of mine.

As a young man I stayed at his house for a summer. He'd call me 'Master English' and at times it sure felt like boarding school: chores, informal lessons while watching the cricket, and gardening. I'd met him years before at my first Adelaide Test. A friendly hello was followed with tips on writing and a crash-course into the Tale of the Many Roebucks. A letter followed filled with, I presume, more advice - but it was illegible. In those early days of resisting laptops he had developed a style of shorthand for copytaking that only one person could decipher. Eventually emails made written conversation possible and became a popular medium for advice and lecturing which, when you knew him, dripped with Roebuckian care.

"No idea about babies," he typed from Sri Lanka in September, "except don't read books and just respond as a human - no one is perfect!" He was great at delivering advice, but rarely took it. Not from others or himself.

Roebuck occasionally reflected that he shouldn't have criticised Richard Hadlee in the lead-up to Somerset's County Championship match against Nottinghamshire in 1986. As a new newspaper writer he felt compelled to tell the truth and pointed out some weaknesses of a fast man presumed by most to be at his peak. Somerset batted, Roebuck opened and the angry Hadlee's first ball should have bowled him - or hurt him. Somehow it didn't and almost two days later Roebuck's obduracy - the perfect word for him, especially in a three-day game - had taken him to an unbeaten 221, his highest first-class score.

He was one of only two English county players to register hundreds against the Australians in 1989 and it always made him chuckle that the other was Mark Nicholas, another media- and hemisphere-hopping ex-pro. That summer pushed him closer to an England cap, but then he captained the A team in a one-day loss to the Netherlands and that was that. The flashbacks made him smile and he was always surprised to hear stories about himself that were always true.

My favourite Roebuck anecdote has him batting in a county game and calling his partner, wicketkeeper Neil Burns, for a mid-pitch conference, seemingly to discuss the state of the game. Maybe it was 20 for 5, or 30 for 6 (you never relied on Roebuck for a genuine fact or stat) and there was lots to discuss. It was also six days into an away trip for Somerset and Roebuck's brain was scrambling amid the carnage. "Neil, I think I've left the key in the front door of my house."

Doubtless, Roebuck will still be made fun of. Moreover, he will be missed. For his mix of rambling and astute monologues, his engaging company and writing, and being the subject of so many intriguing stories. For always losing his straw hat and complaining about his laptop. For insisting he was more Australian than everyone else in the press box. For so often exiting mysteriously before play, a dinner or a tour had ended.

Peter English is a former Australasia editor of ESPNcricinfo

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