Before the rumors surface about the nature of Peter Roebuck’s confrontation with the police and the motivation for his tragic departure impacts upon my perception of him I wanted to express my current view of the man.
Roebuck is perhaps best known for his controversial calls for the sacking of Ricky Ponting following the second Test in the 2008 Border Gavaskar Trophy. Naturally Roebuck gained some praise from Indian readers but his reception in Australia was venomous with prominent journalists responding in turn by calling on the Fairfax papers to dismiss Roebuck. In truth he did reveal himself to be somewhat out of touch with the practitioners of the modern game, particularly in Australia. His article seemed to expect Test cricketers to be a bunch of dashing Victorian gentleman, drinking tea and complimenting each other on their buttonholes but cricket has always had a corner defending itself as the gentleman’s game. When you wade through the thicket of emotional metaphors and purple prose, Roebuck was really calling upon these national role models to conduct themselves with a little more grace and good character which is not altogether a sinister thing to do.
When I look at the way Roebuck conducted himself as a player, as coach and as a commentator I imagine that he was a fan of the former English cricketer come team manager Sir Pelhmam Warner. Warner was most famous for his showdowns as team manager with captain Douglas Jardine during the infamous Bodyline series of 1931/32. Warner disliked Jardine’s ruthless and unsportsmanlike conduct and on one notable occasion advised the captain “History will remember you as a man who stooped to conquer.” On another unrelated occasion Warner said to an audience “Cricket has long since become more than a sporting contest, it is synonymous with all that is true and honest. To say something is not cricket is to say it is not in keeping with the highest standards of conduct.” And indeed there was some truth in Warner’s statement, history had a long legacy of noble displays of honourable, good sportsmanship, from Victor Trumper to CB Fry to the Nawab of Pataudi senior to Bill Woodfull, it was not unnatural for Roebuck to be attracted to this.
With the professionalization of cricket it was inevitable that these good natured displays of grace and fair play would become fewer and less pronounced but for many of us it would be a tragedy if they were to ever completely vanish for the game, and for rallying for such a cause I could not then hold Roebuck in contempt. As it were however, Roebuck’s criticism of Ponting appears somewhat prophetic. Ponting’s sportsmanship had always been the subject of conjecture, as was his tactical nous but these criticisms were always waived aside by his impressive accumulation of wins. Yet after Roebuck’s call for Ponting to be sacked he lost the next test of the series, drew the last one and struggled to win a subsequent series. Although Australia made easy work of the West Indes and New Zealand they were soundly beaten by the Indians in India before losing to South Africa at home. Australia subsequently lost consecutive Ashes series and Border Gavaskar Trophies. Shortly thereafter Ponting resigned the captaincy a defeated man. It would seem just months before his death, Roebuck may have felt somewhat vindicated, or perhaps he’d moved on with his life.
To judge Roebuck’s entire career by one incident however would be a grave injustice. He was a master of the English language, a word smith and a poet, instead of the blunt straight talk of most sport journalists with Roebuck you got Wildesque prose, vivid metaphors, flowery expression; for Roebuck a news article was as much about entertainment as information and his literary flourishes were so very entertaining. That is not to say he was guilty of style over substance, his ability to analyze technique was second to none as he demonstrated time after time in the commentary box as well as in his column. His legal background was apparent in his near flawless approach to writing: present the evidence then draw the conclusion. For every controversial article he wrote, there were dozens of insightful, logical pieces full of irrefutable logic and astute analysis. To replace Roebuck’s column in the Fairfax papers is an unenviable task.
But what I will remember most about Roebuck was his cricket commentary. His chirpy chatter with Jim Maxwell and Glenn Mitchell over the past decades has been a delight to listen to. Cricket is always fun for me, but when listening to Peter Roebuck yakking alongside Maxwell, Mitchell, Jonathan Agnew, Harsh Bhogle or Drew Morphett it became unequivocally pleasant. Roebuck was genial, always self deprecating and always entertaining. I have many a fond a memory of grinning stupidly while walking the streets of Sydney or riding a train due to some charmingly silly little tangent Roebuck had taken with his fellow commentator and I will truly miss it. This year I imagine I will find myself tuning into Grandstand 702 to listen to their cricket commentary and I will laugh at Kerry O’keefe’s absurdist humor amidst generally enjoying the coverage as a whole but I will do so with the twinging melancholy that is the knowledge that I would never again hear the chipper sing-song verbosity of Peter Roebuck, and then when I contemplate that beneath the chipper exterior there was a storm on his horizon so dark that he would eventually take his own life I’ll feel quite sad. And until I hear a cogent case against his character I will continue to view Roebuck as that charming, intelligent, quirky man who decided to leave this world far earlier than any of us wanted him too. RIP