Peter Roebuck is no more.
It has taken me a few hours to write this next sentence.
As a first-class cricketer, Roebuck was an important cog in a great wheel, playing a steady, vital role for a side that was blessed with Richards and Botham. He was often classed as ‘unlucky’, missing out on being selected for England.
As a cricket writer, Roebuck was an institution. He would have read the above paragraph and chuckled. He would have probably chastised me for saying ‘often classed’. “Specify who did the classing, and how often,” he would have said. And he would have almost surely made me change the word ‘unlucky’. ‘Luck is something too often bandied about in cricket writing,” he once said.
Roebuck was a giant. He was an imposing presence, tall and floppy hatted. He had gigantic palms and astonishingly long fingers that hammered away on miniature keyboards. Just as you thought he was intently focussing on the piece he was writing, he glanced from his laptop monitor and took in a slice of the action from the cricket field. A few seconds later, his elephantine fingers would continue to devastate the keyboard.
Talking to Roebuck was an education. He could traipse from anecdote to anecdote, from pronouncement to pronouncement, from one personal experience to another. He spoke quickly and assuredly, made jokes with a straight face and had this wonderful avuncular habit of throwing in bits of wisdom when you least expected it.
“How are you?” he asked me cursorily on the first morning of the Bangalore Test in 2004, a few minutes before Shane Warne handed Michael Clarke the baggy green on his debut. “I’m good,” I said, twitching nervously before what was also my first Test as a reporter. Roebuck looked at me with surprise: “You’re American”. I didn’t understand. “When I used to visit India earlier, everyone said ‘I’m fine’. Now so many people say, ‘I’m good’.” I tried my best to come up with a response but he had moved on, peering through his binoculars, “It’s a wonderful tradition, handing a cap to a debutant.”
At the end of the Test, he asked me if I was going to be traveling to Chennai for the next match of the series. I said I wasn’t covering that game and was heading back to Mumbai. “How are you traveling?” he asked. “I’m flying,” I said nervously, not knowing where he was taking this. “Why don’t you take a train?” I was confused. I said my employer had booked my tickets and that I had no say in the matter. “But do you travel by trains?” Of course, I said. “I love trains.” He broke into a smile. “Good. We should all travel by trains. If it’s good enough for Gandhi, it’s good enough for us.”
For me, Roebuck’s most enviable quality as a writer – and he had many! – was his ability to capture the quintessence of a momentous event. Those born after 2001 may find it hard to understand what VVS Laxman’s 281 meant at the time but thank god Roebuck was around to capture that innings with such glorious eloquence:
‘Like a back-bencher in an important school debate, Laxman produced a speech of such intense gravitas, that even the government took notice.’
Roebuck saw cricket as starting point to write on personalities, egos and race. He understood the insecurities that haunt players. He leaves us with It Never Rains, his personal account of the 1983 county season, which remains one of the finest cricket books. It is in here that you will find the best of Roebuck: honesty, wit, irony and a deep understanding of a player’s insecurities.
Sample this passage:
‘God, how I hate getting out. I poked around again, edged a single somewhere and then had my off stump knocked back. It was a good ball, or at least I think it was. I say it left me and kept low. My partner Richards says it kept low and nipped back. It was probably straight.’
‘The Times says I was uncharacteristic in the first innings, the Guardian unsympathetically says I failed twice in the day and the Telegraph reckons I was out to a cruel shooter in the second innings. Luckily it’s the Telegraph most cricketers read …’
Over the years, Roebuck’s writing style changed. He once said how he had become “more Australian” as a cricket writer, “looking ahead, driving the piece forward”. His more recent pieces were characterised by pithy sentences, strong opinion and, sometimes, sweeping generalisations. He admitted he was writing too much but said it was out of his desire to establish himself as a global voice.
Yet, he never ceased to fuss about a comma here or a semi-colon there, he complained about sub-editors changing a word or modifying a sentence. He was extremely finicky about his work and took immense pride in every piece he wrote.
Roebuck leaves us with a vast collection of memorable pieces, unforgettable passages and immortal sentences. He leaves us with books, magazine pieces, newspaper reports, player profiles, columns and interviews. He leaves us with a colossal crater, which can never be filled up.
In 2003, Roebuck wrote about his favourite cricketer, Harold Larwood:
‘Harold was a man without pretension or ego, a man sustained by pride in his performance, loyalty to the deserving, and the satisfaction to be taken from the contemplation of a job well done.’
The same could be said of Peter Roebuck, a most singular cricket writer and the game’s most global and authoritative voice.