A sharp mind, a tormented soul
"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.
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