Roebuck's writing was the touchstone for quality

2011 Nov 14 by Suresh Menon

Roebuck was a conflicted man, the tormented soul barely visible beneath the joy of writing, traveling, meeting people and giving back to society through his charities.

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By Suresh Menon

How does one reconcile the many Peter Roebucks that were contained in one personality? Is it even necessary? He was a conflicted man, the tormented soul barely visible beneath the joy of writing, traveling, meeting people and giving back to society through his charities. He was a master writer who brought to his craft the familiarity of a journeyman player and the moral certainty of a true guardian of the game.

He was a brave man who supported causes against dictators political and sporting, and shook cricket writing clean of the partisan morass it had dropped into. He was an internationalist when it was both more paying and more convenient to be a mere nationalist. He served cricket, not cricketers, and his straw hat and colourful shirts were a comforting sight in press boxes around the world. His writing was the touchstone for quality against which others measured themselves even when they didn’t agree with him.

He was passionate about both the form and the content of his work – the tools of his trade he honed were the telling description and the ability to connect with startling effect apparently disparate elements. “Botham is the man,” he wrote of his one-time friend, “who would have charged at the head of the Light Brigade, but he is also the man who would have issued the order.

I knew and admired him for two decades, he had meals in my home and took great interest in the work of my sculptor-wife, reacting to her bronzes with the same wonderful originality he brought to his writing. He was a regular correspondent on my son’s blog on music, his child-like wonder shining through in everything he wrote. And yet I hardly knew him. He would talk for hours on cricket, politics, personalities, tactics, music, books but indicated that his personal or cricketing life was off limits in any conversation.

Like all great columnists, he had an opinion on everything, often provocative, always well-argued. He was surprised at the reaction to his column asking for Ricky Ponting’s head after the Harbhajan Singh incident in Australia where Andrew Symonds accused the player of making a racial remark. It made him a hero in India, but that was incidental. Few wrote with his cavalier disregard for personal consequences.

Not surprisingly, the least insightful book he wrote was his own autobiography, written when he was fifty. He probably had as much trouble figuring himself out as did everybody else – long-term friends, colleagues, teammates, family, his wards. His masterpiece – It Never Rains: A Cricketer’s Lot – was published when he was just 28. “Some people,” wrote Roebuck years later in an introduction to a book on cricket’s suicides, “have predicted a gloomy end for this writer .”

It Never Rains must rate as one of two or three best cricket books of all time; the diary of a season, its mixture of self-doubt and self-renewal is comparable in texture and tone to G H Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology.

He says in it: “It’s strange that cricket attracts so many insecure men. 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.”
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.
Writers, like players, can trace their spiritual ancestors too. Roebuck's is Raymond Robertson-Glasgow (‘Crusoe’), that master of compression. When I once pointed this out to Roebuck, he was pleased, and said that he always considered Crusoe his mentor. Both played for Somerset half a century apart, both narrowly missed playing for England; both took their own lives.

Roebuck's short commentaries distil 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.

Among those writing on the game day in and day out, only England’s Mike Atherton and Australia’s Gideon Haigh have Roebuck’s authority; in the pantheon of post-Cardus writers, Roebuck stands among the best.

Roebuck was both of this age and of all time. That made him special – and neither his suicide nor the reason for it (if we ever get to know) can alter that.