Sunday, November 13, 2011

My Captain

One of the first cricket books I ever owned was by Peter Roebuck. It's called Great Innings - I still have it now, more than 20 years after I was given it. It's simply a series of 50 short essays on some of the greatest innings played over the history of cricket, from the 19th century through to the late 1980s. It wasn't the first great innings anthology written - the sort of mind that tends to commit itself to cricket is always the same kind of mind that will incline towards list-making. And Roebuck would not have been alone in including in his own list Bradman's flawless 254 at Lord's in 1930, or Stan McCabe's 187 in the face of Bodyline. Most people would probably include Botham's Headingley hurricane of 1981 and it's not a great stretch to put in Viv Richards's 56-ball hundred, or Victor Trumper's 104 before lunch on a wet track.

But I don't know anyone except Roebuck who would select from Javed Miandad none of his myriad test match masterpieces, but a virtuoso 200 for Glamorgan. Who but Roebuck would nominate a whirlwind 88 by Kiwi legend Bert Sutcliffe, hit against a fearsome South African pace attack, with a bandaged head, and a broken heart the day after a train crash claimed the lives of 151 of his countrymen, including his teammate's fiancee? Who but Roebuck would bypass Garfield Sobers's dazzling 132 in the Tied Test in Brisbane in favour his captain Frank Worrell's unspectacular 65 in the same innings, seeing the greatest heroism in the inspiration a skipper gave to a young, insecure team?

That was Roebuck's peculair genius: he was not ignorant of the cold hard realities of the game; he didn't disregard facts and figures - often he would remind his readers that in the end that most important thing for a player was to make runs or take wickets - all else was incidental. But while keeping these realities in mind, Roebuck would still see the romance of cricket, its adventure and emotion, as much as its results and statistics.

He was a storyteller, and his greatest proclivity as a sports writer was to discern the narratives in cricket. Every innings, every day, every wicket, every moment was a story to Roebuck. Great feats of bowling or batsmanship were cinematic in their scope: he would relate them in epic terms, setting the scene with passages that could seem gloriously out of place on the sports pages, with their poetic imagery and whimsical metaphors. He would construct his story as if creating fiction rather than relating mundane real events - the obstacles to overcome, the inner turmoil of the individual, the magnificence of mighty champions coming together, and the triumph of a man over his opponents, his environment, and himself, were related as if Roebuck were handing down a legend, a tale of giants in a more momentous universe. Cricket was in his bones, and it ran in his veins, and his life was devoted to helping others to see it as he did. A team game in which personal ambition is supposed to be sacrificed to the collective good, yet which is comprised entirely of confrontations between individuals, he understood its beauty and its strangeness and its otherworldly quaintness, and he told its story in the way he saw it.

Players' careers were novels, tales of struggle and redemption and success and failure that stretched back long before the public became aware of them, and continued long after they faded from view. Roebuck was a very good player himself, a successful long-standing first-class player and county captain who played with Botham, Richards, Garner, Waugh and Crowe, and understood as well as anyone the battle a man can find himself waging against his own limitations; the frustrations to be found in the inability to realise your highest aspirations. When writing of a player, even to judge him as inadequate or to call for his dismissal, his pieces never contained malice, never lacked compassion. He never allowed his objective judgment of cricketing skill to blind him to the humans he was writing about.

And he delighted in those humans' successes. When weaving a story from the threads of a cricketer, he favoured the rags to riches variety. He loved nothing more than to tell the story of a subcontinental street kid, a country urchin raised on dirt pitches, or an island villager who grew up using a palm frond for a bat, rising to the highest echelons of international sport. He rejoiced in men like Ranji, or D'Oliviera, who defied their own bigoted societies to succeed. He took an especial pleasure in unconventional operators who found success despite their disregard for orthodoxy or tradition - the bizarre stance of Shivnarine Chanderpaul, the crabbed, awkward technique of Simon Katich, the cheerful agriculturalism of Colin Milburn, were all admired by Roebuck, lover of the rebel and the innovator.

His sense of justice, his loathing of bigotry and nationalism, were palpable. He hated barracking, railed against those who would place their desire for their own team to win above justice or the good of the game. His opinions were always fiercely independent and scrupulously sincere. I didn't agree with him all the time - I thought he got it wrong on Darrell Hair, and that he completely lost his head when he savaged Ricky Ponting in the aftermath of the 2008 SCG test against India. But whether agreeing with him or not, there could never be any doubt that what he wrote was motivated by nothing more than pure, genuine conviction. If he could be intemperate, if his emotions could overrule his judgment so that he seemed less than dispassionate in assessing the facts, it only ever came from his love of the game, and his hatred of anything that could sully it. He saw such beauty in the game, and what it could do to elevate people, and bring them together, that it distressed him beyond measure to see ugliness intrude, to see his beloved cricket be less than it could be. That was why he wrote with such anger whenever corruption or greed threatened the game, when he saw it twisted to base political ends, used to assist political thugs in Zimbabwe or organised crime in India. He was no starry-eyed idealist thinking cricket could be divorced from the world around it, but that was just the point - he believed in cricket improving the world around it, and was inflamed by it doing the opposite, or allowing the worst of the world to infect the game.

But perhaps most important of all was how he wrote all this. That beautiful, lyrical, elaborate, passionate, impish, sharp, idiosyncratic style that somehow seemed of another time, evoking Cardus and Wodehouse as it painted intricately detailed landscapes and portraits of a day's play, while simultaneously devising new angles, new windows to see the game through that could distort it in new and lovely ways while also clarifying events in a way that other writers never even conceived of. There was simply nothing else on sports pages to compare with Roebuck's words. The art he brought to what can so often be a flat, blunt craft was something to behold. He could make you fall in love with cricket simply by describing the snap of a bowler's wrist, or the flourish of a batsman as he let the ball pass harmless to the keeper. He made me fall in love with cricket.

I was reading Roebuck before I read a word by Douglas Adams. Before I'd even heard of Terry Pratchett. Before I'd watched a second of Monty Python. Before I'd encountered Wodehouse, before I'd thought of becoming a writer myself. Of all the influences on me as a writer, Peter Roebuck is probably the longest-standing outside my own parents. I never net him, and now, to my lasting regret, I never will. I didn't know him - though, from what I understand few really ever did. But if it's true that a writer can show themselves through their writing, that you can get to know someone by the words they put down, I knew him. I knew him by his words, for most of my life, and the devastation I feel at his death is a testament to his ability to touch lives of people he was never even aware of. It's a mad, delusional conceit for me to wish I'd really known him, to think maybe I could have done something for him, as an act of reciprocity. But if I wish I could have been a friend to him, it's because he so often made me feel he was a friend to me. Maybe that was the greatest part of his genius after all.

I don't know all the details of his life, or of his death. I don't want to speculate, I don't want to intensify my own sadness, or anyone else's, by sifting through that which I really know nothing about, or by pontificating on sadness, or loneliness, or the flaws of a man only just gone.

But what I can say is that in recent years, Peter Roebuck seemed to be one of the last bastions of cricket the way it was supposed to be. As the game became more driven by money, by greed, by coldly professional calculations and cynical self-interest, to the point where the lines between corruption and administration were becoming blurred...Roebuck stood as a voice for cricket as pure, as joyous, as the most beautiful of games. As Michael Parkinson said, sport only matters if it doesn't matter - only if sport can remain a game, played for love and by principles of fairness and honesty lacking in the important, life-and-death world outside, can it be a beacon to that outside world, a force for good. Once cricket becomes just like everything else in life, it might as well not exist.

Peter Roebuck felt that. And now that he's gone, I wonder if anyone else really feels it the same way. With Roebuck gone, cricket feels a little more prosaic, a litle more dull, a little more sordid. I don't know if this game that I love still has the magic, the beauty that can make me believe there's something better in the world. Maybe there's nothing better in the world. Maybe everything really is, at heart, dirty and ugly and selfish. Maybe cricket is destined to go the way of everything else, and even the most brilliant of artists among us can't hold back the tide of voracious, remorseless reality. I hope it's not so, but maybe it is. And this summer, this Roebuckless season that is now upon us, can't help but feel grim and hopeless and dark. This game I love...can it be beautiful anymore? His words, today more precious than ever before, will hopefully help it remain so.

Peter Roebuck I will miss you. If I wrote a thousand times as many words as I have here today, I'm not sure I could ever really say how much.


Miss_shiny said...

This is a wonderful piece. It makes me wish I'd known about him before now.

FR said...

Beautiful. I didn't know him at all, and the more I've heard today the more I wonder who did. All I know that I'd always read the score then his story about the day to get a sense of Tests I was sleeping through or a different view of Tests I was watching. On radio and in print, he elevated the game to something both eccentric and heroic, with his talk of flingers and wielders of willow. Cricket won't be the same, nor will listening to Grandstand or opening The Age. Devastating and horrible news, so hard to take in. Thank you for this reflection.

traceyb65 said...

thank you Ben, this says everything i would want to say about Peter Roebuck. even when i was most frustrated by his refusal to acknowledge the difference between opinion and fact, i forgave a him a million times for his passion and the place he came from, a better world made so by cricket.

no public figures are without flaws, and i will not close my eyes to any facts that prove to be less than palateable … let me just say that Roebuck's contribution to sports writing made me very glad he chose cricket as his life passion. xt

Anonymous said...

Roebuck is very lucky to have lived in a country where being a rapist doesn't stop you from being seen as a top bloke, even by people who post about rape culture.

Ben Pobjie said...

Nothing gutsier than making an evidence-free accusation against a dead man while going under the name "Anonymous".

David Horton said...

On Saturday morning I noticed with pleasure that SMH had a new Roebuck essay up. Didn't have time to read it then but made a mental note that pleasure was in store the next day.

Then, before I could read it, I heard the news of his death, and when I did come to read it on the Sunday it was with the sadness of knowing it was the last Roebuck essay ever.

Thinking about it now I guess his greatness as a cricket writer was this. The rest of us revel in a beautiful shot or an accurate ball, sensing it was something special and then awaiting the next. Or seeing a dismissal and appreciating something had gone wrong but not knowing quite what. Or being aware of a player with potential who plays a Test but never plays again, without quite understanding the reason.

Roebuck was like a human slow motion camera, who could analyse each of those kind of cricket events in step by step detail and make you see the movement of the bat, the direction of the ball, the flaw in technique. And in doing so greatly add to your own enjoyment next time you saw that batsman or bowler in action.

I'm guessing he is not someone I could have liked in person, and heaven knows what his personal life was like. Those things have been true of many artists and writers throughout history. In relation to cricket Roebuck was both artist and writer in a way few have equalled.

Those of us who love cricket will find our enjoyment less complete in Summers to come.

P.M.Newton said...

Nice piece Ben. This summer will be missing a little corner of the world where what happened out on the field was the most important thing to think about.

Felix said...

Thanks for the wonderful words Ben. He was my favourite cricket commentator and I feel profoundly saddened by his sad passing. Listening to the various tributes and comments about his life and quirky personality, I feel that he most likely shared some Asperger's Syndrome traits, as I do myself and was, as a result badly misunderstood aqt times as I also am frequently. Vale Peter Roebuck.

Frank said...

Roebuck's death has had perhaps the greatest affect on me of any public figure's death. I feel a personal loss. I'm very surprised by this, but it's so, and your outstanding piece helps me understand why.

Philippe said...

It was a pleasure to read this Ben. I'll remember Peter more for his commentary on the ABC as opposed to his words, but, like you, I admired him for his knowledge and ideologies about the game. I'll miss him too.