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.