If we take the Prince of Pop as precedent, it’s inevitable that the salacious details currently emerging in the aftermath of Peter Roebuck’s death will overshadow the man’s body of work.
These frantic final moments will no doubt obfuscate his charitable deeds in Petermaritzburg, where the politically active Roebuck housed 16 young men and spent huge chunks of his personal income providing them with the building blocks for a better future. Alas, speculation now surrounds his motive behind helping these underprivileged young men – which, without the grubby context of his reported suicide, can only be described as a selfless, philanthropic venture.
Roebuck enjoyed a moderately successful first-class career in England in the 1980s before revealing his flair as a writer and broadcaster. Were it not for his second career, the man was set to be remembered as a dour, untalented cricketer who always seemed a bit aloof, a bit weird. Sharing the sheds with Viv Richards, Ian Botham and a host of other voraciously heterosexual, fun-loving county cricketers must have been tough work for the “nerdy” law educated Cambridge graduate. Ian Botham, his Somerset teammate, in particular provided the starkest of contrasts; needless to say, the reserved Roebuck did not share Beefy’s affinity for women, wine and weed.
From all reports, Roebuck was a solitary loner of a man; a bookish – and at times bizarre – intellectual who possessed a personality separate to that of the typically boisterous, beer-guzzling, type-A 1980s cricketer. In Sir Vivian: The Definitive Autobiography, the author deliciously recounts a moment when Somerset lost a quarter-final against Hove and Roebuck, who had travelled to the ground with a fellow player, refused to go back with that person and instead walked all the way back home (a startling 171 kilometres, according to Google Maps). “It was a very strange thing for anyone to do, but for a captain it was inexplicable,” Richards said. “There were certainly occasions when his personality alone could create disharmony within the team.”
If nothing else, it is worth remembering Peter Roebuck for the simple fact that he brought some much needed opinion to cricket, an often staid subject which many journalists treat as such. It requires colour and energy from its scribes – and Roebuck had that in spades. He had finally found his niche – and it was not on the cricket field, but in the stands, armed with a pen and paper, an eye for detail and a mind for metaphor. The task of filing copy every match day for several seasons in the Australian summer cannot be an easy one; arcing a narrative, providing political context, adding colour and texture to a daily article – that, ostensibly, centres around 90 overs of often tedious Test Match cricket – requires a rare talent. It’s fair to say he met the brief of his Fairfax employers.
In Australia, cricket has taken an anti-intellectual shift over the past 15-20 years – something to be lamented. Many of the old fans have been left disillusioned and disengaged, while newcomers are blissfully ignorant of the game’s many traditions. There are obvious scapegoats for this – meaningless T20 fixtures, One Day cricket, a swathe of smutty Max Walker novels – but Roebuck remained an unlikely old-world scholar in a space that was being to lose traction with its roots. For in a decade of iPhones, MySpace and FaceBook, even Bradman has been forgotten. The national discourse surrounding cricket has changed. No one cares for the romantic aspects of the game anymore; fresh grass clippings or the thunderous applause from the SCG Members Stand rewarding a well-deserved Test Match ton. But Roebuck never forgot.
Writing aside, he was a fabulously pithy commentator on ABC radio. And I hated his arrogance. A fast-talking know-it-all with a toffy English accent; a Colonial master with a cane and straw hat. He was an excellent foil to his friend and fellow commentator, the respected Jim Maxwell, the last civilian to see him alive.
This website could be expected to have produced a scathing, sarcastic article on Roebuck’s life and times. And it would have been easy. And probably quite funny, if black humour is what you’re into. The sordid events of 2001 are notable for several reasons and have been the focus of most obituaries thus far. I wouldn’t mind betting that ‘Peter Roebuck gay?’ is getting some mad Google hits right this very second.
But for now, it is worth paying a small tribute to a polarising figure who kept us talking about cricket. Those who read the back pages of the Sydney Morning Herald will feel his conspicuous absence; indeed, it will leave a gaping hole for many years to come. And no number of Greg Baums, Chloe Saltaus or Peter Lalors could possibly fill that void.
For what it’s worth, I can’t remember a Roebuck article that I didn’t finish.
By Dave Edwards