A unique writer, a kind but complex man
Peter Roebuck had studied law at Cambridge University, and he brought to his cricket writing the objectivity and incisiveness of a lawyer examining evidence. His style, like the straw hat he wore so often, could only have been his.
He was always forthright and fair, scrupulously so; he hated jingoism, and made sure that he was at all times above it. I always got the feeling that he considered himself to be an outsider looking in, and that he revelled in the status. British-born, he had left his homeland and settled in Australia. And although he embraced the Australian way of life (including having a home near Sydney’s Bondi beach) and was enough part of the establishment to have acquired a huge reputation as a columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald and a broadcaster for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, he thought he was outside it. Certainly, he was fearless in his criticism of Australian players and the country’s cricket administration.
Few Indian cricket fans will forget his call for the sacking of a boorish Ricky Ponting after the bitter Sydney Test in January 2008. I wonder how many of us remember that he was subsequently just as quick to condemn India for wanting to churlishly pull out of the Test series.
His writing was unique. He was marvellously insightful, and – as this selection of his gems from the Sydney Morning Herald shows – “when Peter really had his eye in, he sparkled like no other writer”.
Unlike Matthew Engel and Gideon Haigh, two other modern legends of cricket writing, Peter had an enormous following in India. That could be because his pieces often appeared in Indian publications; it could be because he often appeared on Indian TV.
In turn, he was a huge fan of India: of the country, its players, and its writers. He wanted to buy a home here, he told me on many occasions, and live for part of the year in this country. He often used to say that the best cricket writing now comes out of India.
I remember him as someone who was vastly encouraging of my work – and that of many journalists and writers who were younger than him. Every so often, having come across something I had written, he would email his views. And on one occasion, he told anyone who would listen, in the press box at the Sydney Cricket Ground about a particular piece of mine that had been published that morning in the Sydney Morning Herald.
When asked to contribute a pre-publication endorsement of All That You Can’t Leave Behind – my book about cricket and India – he was kind and thoughtful. It was evident that he had read the manuscript closely. When I wrote to say thank you, he replied that he had much enjoyed the book and had done me no favour. If he was putting his name to a piece of writing (and the piece he wrote was longer than what my publishers could accommodate on the back cover), he said he made sure that he was nothing less than honest.
“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” CLR James had famously asked. When you talked to Peter, you knew how right James had been. Peter knew the wider world, and was keenly interested in it. We talked a lot about cricket, but just as much about literature and race, culture and politics.
He funded the education of orphans in Africa and set them up in successful careers. He had a home in Zimbabwe, and was passionate about that country. He was a deeply private man, and would never let on about the troubled and fraught part of his life.
I say I knew him, but did I really? In a way, Peter was unknowable. Only on one occasion, I recall, as we were striding along the Colaba Causeway (Peter always strode; he never merely walked), he had just begun to say something about that incident in which he had received a suspended jail sentence for caning three young South African cricketers he had been coaching. But no sooner than the guard had slipped was it back again.
And now he is gone. We’ll all miss him. But he has left behind, apart from his several books, a body of journalistic work that will never cease to delight. Here is an archive of the magnificent stuff he did for cricinfo.