Peter Roebuck. RIP.

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.’

And this:

‘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.

RIP.

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22 Responses to Peter Roebuck. RIP.

  1. Thejas says:

    Superb. As usual.

    RIP Peter Roebuck. One of the greatest cricket writers ever.

  2. Venkat Ananth says:

    Brilliant, Sid. Really well written tribute to one of the best ever. An institution, as you rightly write. RIP Peter!

  3. Rohan says:

    Will miss Roebuck’s articles badly.. It was really a shock to hear about his demise this morning. And glad that you paid such a glowing tribute with beautiful words to a man who himself wrote beautiful words..! Thank you mate..!

  4. dyogesh4u says:

    As a regular reader of The Hindu for more than a decade, he is one of the three Hindu columnists who developed my love for sports. Rohit Brijnath and Nirmal Shekhar are the other two. His metaphors and turn of phrase were something else…..

  5. Rainbow says:

    Sid:

    Your writing has this ability to make one really enjoy the moment. Though this piece was a bit more poignant than the others due to the context, one could not but help enjoy the beauty of the art. As a lover of good English writing, I always read your posts a second time, this time more slowly, savoring and taking in each tasty morsel.

    Thank you sir!

  6. Sriram says:

    Great write-up. Peter will be missed.

  7. Rahul Bhatia says:

    Sid, this is superb.

  8. kbalakumar says:

    A heart-felt tribute indeed.

    To me, his prose, pared down and almost ascetic in its feel, was, however, able to convey rich meanings that more flamboyant writers could scarcely reach. He never stretched or strained for effect, because he used the words not with the insouciant swish of a knight’s rapier s but with the calm precision of a surgeon’s scalpel.

    For a man so prolific, he was not prolix. The thing is he managed to see the bigger picture and its inner truth because he never lost that one quality which has to be the keystone to any serious writing effort: empathy. It’s because of this he was able to show us, through his cricket writings, that cricket is after all a trivial pursuit in the larger scheme of things. With him, the eye on the paradox never blinked.

  9. Raj Namboodiri says:

    Nice one..God bless !!

  10. Deepak Rao says:

    Roebuck was a brilliant cricket writer.. although did not always agree with him, but was impressed that he always had a strong opinion on things.. For eg : -Could not understand why he said what he said about Pointing after the Bhajji-Symmonds incident.. I thought that article was straight out of some half witted indian television news channel “sports expert”.. There was no way any other australian captian would have done anything differently

    • sidvee says:

      I guess Roebuck was one of the most un-Australian journalists who wrote for the Australian press. It was brave of him to have wrote what he did, though

  11. A great article, Siddartha, thank you. I am still shocked and upset at Peter’s death. Cricket has lost a vivid character and its best writer. His articles inspired me.

  12. Hari S says:

    He was my favourite living cricket author. I will miss him. Thanks Sid for capturing this so well.

  13. Pingback: Peter Roebuck | madracity

  14. godof86 says:

    Thanks for writing this first person piece, mate. Roebuck was my favourite writer bar none, and I do’t care if I am perceived as a pleb for that.
    It never rains, was a tiny book which said a great lot. And his piece on Chanderpaul in it takes all sorts! Those are my favourite 600 words or so in sport.

    Suicides. Why are there so many of them these days? Gary Speed, one of my first few PL memories, passed away as well last week. What’s with the world?

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