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A sharp mind, a tormented soul

Peter Roebuck was determined as a player, a fearless internationalist as a cricket writer, and desperately conflicted as a man

Rob Steen

November 15, 2011

Comments: 25 | Text size: A | A

Peter Roebuck on his way to 147, Somerset v Worcestershire, County Championship, 4th day, Clarence Park, Weston-super-Mare, August 5, 1986
Roebuck was good enough to amass nearly 25,000 runs and 38 centuries as a professional, if not represent his country © PA Photos
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"Tragedy" is a noun flung around with thoughtless abandon these days but the life of Peter Roebuck is one that fully justifies such a description. One of the better English openers of the 1980s, consistent and disciplined, if seldom a crowd-pleaser, good enough to amass nearly 25,000 runs and 38 centuries as a professional if not represent his country, he found far wider acclaim as a highly literate student of cricketkind whose erudite analysis of the male psyche informed every word he typed. Behind it all lay a tormented soul, his sexuality a perennial source of gossip in a field of endeavour - male team sport - that still looks dimly, even now, on those who refuse to conform to the heterosexual norm.

Born in Oxford on March 6, 1956, he was one of six offspring of schoolteachers, and grew up initially in a flat in Bath. It was a cricket-loving family: mother kept wicket for Oxford University ladies, who were later captained by one of his sisters. His parents, though, sought to dissuade him from pursuing the game by exposing him to its physical perils. Taken to Peter Wight's indoor school at Bath, the slightly built youth was hit, hurt and whisked to hospital, but desire was undented: "That was the first hurdle overcome." Other, vastly thornier ones, would follow.

He was playing for Somerset 2nd XI at 13, by his own account "a four foot two legspinner, with a good googly, who batted at No. 11 with a sound technique but not enough strength to get runs against far bigger chaps". It was in the halls of academia that he stood proudest, gaining a first-class honours degree in law at Cambridge, making 158 in the 1976 Varsity Match, and helping Combined Universities beat Yorkshire the following year.

That, crucially, was also the summer he suffered a near-fatal injury, ducking into a bouncer from Andy Roberts. He had the gumption to resume his innings, only for another Roberts bumper to dislodge his cap. Retreating to a darkened room and the music of Joni Mitchell, he realised how much he still had to learn: "You never know until you've been hit like that - the smell of leather, you know." This awareness of his own fragility, and the way the game challenged one's courage, fuelled his writing. He proved a compassionate as well as astute judge of cricketers.

He and Ian Botham joined Somerset the same day, and were close enough to co-write a book, It Sort of Clicks. Though chalk and cheese in most respects - Roebuck the introverted loner, Botham the boozy extrovert - the allrounder liked having brainy friends: it fed his ego. Their passion for the game, moreover, was entirely mutual.

Further evidence of a sharp mind and that legal education came at an Oxford University Cricket Society meeting in 1979, shortly after Brian Rose had infamously declared Somerset's innings at 0 for 0 against Worcestershire to secure qualification for the Benson & Hedges Cup quarter-finals (the loophole was quickly closed; what part Roebuck played in advising and emboldening Rose remains open to conjecture). Rose was invited to address the society but sent Roebuck and Peter Denning instead. One member of the audience recalls admiring Roebuck's determination, "as a young man faced with a hostile audience, to speak up for his team and his captain - I remember thinking, 'This is a smart guy but I don't like him.'" In his native land at least, that duality would persist: admiration proved easier to come by than affection.

Expressing himself in print soon proved profitable. Illuminating indeed was his willingness to open up in this context: the preface to It Never Rains - A Cricketer's Lot, his diary of the 1983 season, certainly hinted at inner turmoil. He had been inspired by David Foot's "extraordinary" biography of another Somerset batsman who ended his own life, Harold Gimblett: Tormented Genius of Cricket: "I'm not a genius nor tormented - well, not much…"

The book's title echoed that of Fred Root's autobiography half a century earlier (A Cricket Pro's Lot): if there was one word you couldn't use to describe the way Roebuck painted his lot, it was "glamorous". He also gave due warning as to his future modus operandi: "You will not find much of sex, violence, drugs and booze within these pages. Probably you will suspect, as must a dog surveying a bone, that all the best bits have been taken away, I leave out that side of professional sport because it does not interest me much. It is the individual battles I find fascinating." Which made his subsequent reluctance to interview players all the more curious.

 
 
The awareness of his own fragility, and the way the game challenged one's courage, fuelled his writing
 

It was in 1983, while Rose was injured and Somerset's stars were immersed in the World Cup, that Roebuck led an inexperienced side and impressed. Three years later he inherited the full-time job from Botham and supported the sacking of Joel Garner and Viv Richards, portrayed as a poor influence; the ensuing row split the club and prompted Botham to leave Taunton in solidarity with the Caribbean duo - and daub "Judas" on Roebuck's dressing-room peg. Roebuck, meanwhile, became unhealthily obsessed with Botham, about whom, ironically, he wrote his most eloquently perceptive sentence: "What happens when you reach the pot at the end of the rainbow too soon?" The feud only ended with Roebuck's death.

How typical that he should enjoy his best summer for Somerset the following year, prompting Wisden to honour him as a Cricketer of the Year. In 1989, with the national selectors all a-dither over the captaincy, he was appointed to lead MCC on a short trip to Holland, only to suffer immediate defeat. After Roebuck had offered his alibis to the press, Micky Stewart, the England coach, advised reporters to disregard what he had said - a door had closed for good.

Retiring from the first-class fray in 1991, he led Devon until 2002, while building a career as a journalist. Making his name at the Sunday Times (where his refusal to cover the Mike Atherton dirt-in-pocket affair at Lord's in 1994 left me holding the baby), he found an even more appreciative audience among Australian editors and readers, who relished his insightful evaluations of their own heroes as much as his often derisory observations of the Poms, a legacy of the rejection he felt so profoundly. An internationalist, his work for the Sydney Morning Herald, already fearless, and later ESPNcricinfo, became admirably, even aggressively, political. "He certainly plays more shots as writer than he ever did as player," attested Simon Wilde in The New Ball Vol. 5 - The Right Type. "For that, we should all be grateful."

Come decade's end Roebuck was rarely seen in England, but it was there, in 2001, that he was convicted of assaulting three young South African cricketers who had lodged at his bungalow near Taunton. Sentenced to three four-month jail terms, suspended for two years, he claimed in his all-too-aptly titled autobiography, Sometimes I Forgot To Laugh, that he was unaware his guilty plea meant accepting the plaintiffs' statements as fact. Some suspected a stitch-up - he himself believed the youths were pressured by his Westcountry enemies - but he could no longer call England home. South Africa beckoned, and a tragic end he himself had long foreseen, the sadness heightened by further allegations of sexual misadventure. He had properties in Sydney and Pietermaritzburg but it is hard to believe he ever felt able to call anywhere "home".

Whether he was actually homosexual, or was compelled to repress such urges and chose asexuality, we will probably never know. It doesn't really matter, not now. The point is that he was different, and that being different in the way he was perceived to be different was far more of a liability 25 years ago than it is now. The heart bleeds.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

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Posted by lorro on (November 16, 2011, 12:09 GMT)

I didn't always share Peter's views but I always read his comments. His opinion cut through the wasteland of cricket writing & celebrity and allowed a wide audience to connect with the game and its place in our world. There are a few touchstones in my summers and one of them was the ritual unwrapping of my newspaper from the front lawn and digesting the events of the previous day's play through Peter's eyes and voice. It is difficult to comprehend how different this summer will be. Already missed.

Posted by talk2kish on (November 16, 2011, 5:50 GMT)

Superb article Rob.

I always waited to read Peter Roebuck's article. Sad, there won't be anymore.

Posted by harshthakor on (November 16, 2011, 2:52 GMT)

A sad loss to the glorious game of Cricket.His writings were invaluable.I really liked his recent articles on how many great players were left in the game or in the making as well as his superb comparison of Sachin Tendulkar and Viv Richards.Many years ago he brilliantly described the batting genius,Brian Lara.He had the ability to make accurate evaluation and his writing was above all lively.He was a model in the art of cricket writing.

Posted by thejesusofcool on (November 15, 2011, 20:44 GMT)

A truly great person is missed because they have left you feeling good about things & that is not how Roebuck made me feel.

Pity you & Roebuck haven't read John Arlott extensively.

Here was another man who suffered from deep & frequent depressions & constantly felt himself unworthy and untutored in the press box. It didn't stop him taking sides very actively in the D'Oliviera affair without turning his fire on the various guilty parties in that affair.

Arlott would never have engineered the deilberate removal of Richards & Garner from Somerset because they were both massively more talented than him and made him feel inadequate. Nor would he have condemned Ponting over the Sydney Test without castigating India for their equally deplorable behaviour that lead to the whole thing blowing up as it did.

Posted by josef_kaye on (November 15, 2011, 19:50 GMT)

"[H]e claimed in his all-too-aptly titled autobiography, Sometimes I Forgot To Laugh, that he was unaware his guilty plea meant accepting the plaintiffs' statements as fact."

If he was as intelligent as all these tributes are saying, then that sounds like a pretty disingenuous claim.

Posted by sgqm on (November 15, 2011, 19:30 GMT)

his write-ups had an endearing quality that made reading them a pleasure. RIP Peter Roebuck

Posted by esesbee on (November 15, 2011, 16:44 GMT)

What a piece Rob - absolute literary magic. You certainly did justice to the man in so few words - very impressed, hats off.

Posted by   on (November 15, 2011, 16:41 GMT)

Rob your encomiums are great and heartfelt!Indeed he was a tormented soul and he had an innate knack of being Deep and meaningful yet kept it so simple..he always left the reader wondering as to why they couldn't see the stuff in the same light that he did..and aside ofcourse one's curiosity heightened after his sporting metaphors.Brevity was his strong-point .Succinct and crisp his bywords.All the above panegyrics are due to you too ROB!SPLENDID PIECE.WORTHY OF A SAVE!

Posted by ssm2407 on (November 15, 2011, 15:25 GMT)

A very good article but there is one massive contradiction. It is beyond comprehension that whilst Roebuck had a first class honours degree in Law (at Cambridge!), how can the author possibly claim that "he was unaware his guilty plea meant accepting the plaintiffs' statements as fact" during his court case in 2001?

Posted by   on (November 15, 2011, 15:22 GMT)

Great piece, Rob. Really Peter Roebuck's passing away is tragic news for all those true cricket lovers, who wished to hear the real stories and insights behind the headlines. He will be mightily missed.

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Rob Steen Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton, whose books include biographies of Desmond Haynes and David Gower (Cricket Society Literary Award winner) and 500-1 - The Miracle of Headingley '81. His investigation for the Wisden Cricketer, "Whatever Happened to the Black Cricketer?", won the UK section of the 2005 EU Journalism Award "For diversity, against discrimination". His latest book, Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport, will be published in the summer of 2014

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