Peter Roebuck - man on a journey

‘For goodness sake do not make me sound good or fine!’ Peter Roebuck wrote to us in an email a few days after the interview. ‘Strong and bad points battle here as elsewhere!’ It was a stark warning—which we solemnly promised to take on board—but not a surprising one, for battles are important to Roebuck. He has a dramatist’s eye for the ordeal.

In Australia we mainly know Roebuck through his commentary on cricket in the pages of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age and through the airwaves on the ABC. His is a fresh voice, often stern and demanding but always engaging with the intricacies of the game at hand, with the plot of each day’s struggle as it unfolds for players and spectators alike.

It’s unusually broad stuff, for Roebuck brings the outside in, revealing the way our shared contexts and stories may illuminate the drama at hand. His writing is as eloquent on the politics of racial slurs as it is describing the wonder of Michael Vaughn’s pull-shot. In recent times he has likened Nasser Hussein to Napoleon—‘waiting around [in vain] for the arrival of relieving forces’—and Steve Waugh to a ‘bloke whose lawnmower has broken down again’.

Here is a mixing of intellect with sport, mind and body if you like. Many of us have dreams of making the two meet; Peter Roebuck has made a career out of it.

But how might such a career evolve, and where might it lead?

It began with cricket. Born in rural England, coming ‘from a struggling family in some ways’, Peter Michael Roebuck had a talent for sport. Soon a respectable school provided him with a cricket scholarship and his parents with jobs. Then, in the early 1970s, in his mid-to-late teens, life became a bit more complicated—it was discovered that young Roebuck had brains. Suddenly, after a youth filled with cricket and hard-fought games, academia beckoned. Oxford offered him a place to study law, but people there told him he should ‘keep quiet about cricket’, that it was best to put aside such childish things and concentrate solely on his studies. This was not to Roebuck’s taste: ‘I wasn’t going to bring my brain and not me.’ So Peter Roebuck accepted a place at Cambridge University’s law school instead. There he found the freedom to both study and play sport, a combination that clearly kept him enthused, as he went on to win a cricketing blue and take first class honours.

At the end of his degree, Roebuck was again faced with a choice—cricket or law. Cricket it was. The choice turned out to be no real choice: ‘the call was loud within’, he tells us now, his tone quietening as he considers the matter thoroughly, fingertips lightly pressed together.

‘You search for the individuality within insofar as you can … There was an opportunity to see what you could do.’ And he took it. He returned to his native Somerset and made a career as an opener, sometime bowler and eventual captain. In the winter months he travelled. Here again cricket was his passport, this time to see the world. Over the next decade Roebuck would coach and play his way through places as disparate as Greece, Fiji, Australia and Hong Kong.

Living off cricket, Roebuck gave little thought to what he might do when his playing days ended. Then one day in Sydney it rained. He started writing down his impressions of Viv Richards, a Somerset team-mate. He sent it off and it was published by the Sydney Morning Herald. Back home in England, Cricketer magazine asked him to contribute some pieces, which he did. Wry, perceptive, humorous, doleful, occasionally acerbic pieces on life as a career County cricketer then followed for the next ten years of his career.

‘A Precarious Preoccupation’, a descriptive journal of a season playing for Somerset, written in the early ’80s, captures this mood perfectly. ‘Botham has called a meeting for this evening at 9:45 to discuss the game’, he notes. ‘Our meetings have never made a scrap of difference before. We don’t so much prepare as arrive. I think our attitude is “Let the opposition worry about us, we don’t want to know anything at all about them”.’

Further on he describes the seasonal bout of despondency, a trough ‘which lasts sometimes a week, sometimes a day’. When even a fiery motivational harangue from Viv Richards proves ineffective, friend and team-mate Vic Marks tries to talk him out of his gloom. This backfires, however, when Roebuck’s argumentative streak is roused, with the upshot being ‘we agreed that not only should I retire but he should, too!’ Thus satisfied, they kept on playing.

Evident within the partly wry, partly maudlin note of these pieces is a love of the life of a middling County cricketer—the people it surrounds you with, the culture of it—for all of its faults, for any of its mediocrity. That peculiarly English talent for using self-mockery as comic device is shown in high relief.

Underneath it all, though, Roebuck was searching for a different life. Anglo-Saxon England—as opposed to the immigrant cultures which sustain multicultural Britain—was cramped, class-conscious, overly subtle, ‘finding fault not strength’ and clinging to an irretrievable past. As he told us, it was an England characterised by ‘lost humorists and fiction writers—a bad sign.’ Not a place for an aspiring writer, nor for someone with ‘youthful idealism … buried but down there somewhere.’ Soon Peter Roebuck was spending more and more time in Australia.

Roebuck’s first foray to Australia produced culture shock: ‘I can hardly tell you how far Australia seemed from England for a boy from the country areas of Somerset.’ On arrival he was struck by the light, the shock jocks that ruled the Sydney airwaves, and—most bizarre of all in a country that prided itself on a rather larrikin disregard for authority—the overriding obedience to rules. At the lights on roadsides ‘everyone would stand there and wait for the little man to turn green.’ This was a rum continent indeed.

But he liked this sense of cultural isolation—‘I wanted to be far away and make a fresh start with a blank piece of paper.’ Most importantly, Australia had the strong foundations that Peter Roebuck craved. There was an honesty and a directness, ‘a willingness to roll up one’s sleeves and have a go’. A willingness to face the ordeals of life and of sport. Roebuck goes on to talk about Aboriginal initiation ceremonies, as an expression ‘of what has been an ancient and long-standing tribal structure in all societies’—that of teacher and pupil, father and son, the need for a period of training and ordeal to precede maturity. ‘I like simplicity, I like tribal structures. We’ve got to tell people that hardship and difficulties are normal. That we will encounter them, and there’s nothing wrong with that,’ he concludes with feeling. ‘We’re making life flatter by protecting people too much … The whole point is not the result, it’s the journey.’

Perhaps it is the path travelled by Steve Waugh—‘a steely-wristed fighter enchanted by history’—that most illustrates what Roebuck loves about Australia and sport. Waugh came early to Roebuck’s attention, spending a season with him at Somerset in the late 1980s. But it was when he became Australian captain that he really came into his own, prodding his team to see the wonders of the Taj Mahal, the sacredness of Gallipoli, the reality of poverty and disease, and the strength within themselves. ‘Sport isn’t a recreation in Australia’—rather, sport offers the chance to strive, and in this striving to meet and explore the depth of one’s being. What Steve Waugh has done is taken ‘himself and the players on this journey, this kid from Bankstown …’

Just as telling for Roebuck was the way Waugh goes against the grain of national identity. He’s an independent outsider, who keeps to himself and is self-contained, a national hero who’s more of a loner than anything else, in a country where the male cultural tradition is a clannish gregariousness of the mates.

Coming to Australia also influenced Roebuck’s writing. He speaks with affection of the late and much lamented Bill O’Reilly: ‘an extraordinary man, and an extraordinary writer.’ A fine exponent of a particularly Australian language, with his mix of bush and Old Testament, the ‘beautifully constructed sentences’ sharpened by the driest of humours. O’Reilly was an old Labor man, a Catholic of the pre-Vatican II persuasion, an old English teacher—the heritage ran deep, and was continually nourished by the simple and most important fact of all: ‘he really enjoyed words’. O’Reilly used to write his reports out, Roebuck tells us, in an exercise book, pick up the phone, dictate the copy down the line and that was it—off he’d go, job done on the first take. ‘Hardly anyone could do that,’ Roebuck says, searching for a few moments for a parallel. ‘Mozart, that’s about it.’ Roebuck asked O’Reilly once how he went about it, and he said, ‘ “Well, I try to work out what I think. Then I state it as strongly as I can. And if they don’t take any notice I do the same tomorrow.” And I thought,’ Roebuck concludes, taking a large draught of tea, ‘that’s a pretty good Australian viewpoint.’

One of the ironies about Roebuck’s recent life as a cricket commentator is his trenchant criticism of the English cricket culture he was born into. For Roebuck, the English cricket system has got worse, which is why he’s so harsh on it. A recent column, titled ‘English Cricket is Full of Nonsense’ (25 January 2003) began:

Ten years ago, a bunch of spoiled brats bearing the name of the England under-19 team arrived in Australia. They brought with them sponsored kit, fat contracts and an air of self-satisfaction.

Unfortunately, they were not much good … Flattered by contracts with desperate and overfunded counties, they have ideas above their cricketing station. Most fall flat on their faces. Many do not train and practise properly, sink to the lower grades and imagine it is someone else’s fault.

You can see why in some quarters he wouldn’t be well liked.

Another major concern for Roebuck, both as a writer and as an individual, has been race. He has written that the colour of people’s skin never seemed a relevant issue for him. Towards the end of the 1980s he became part of the anti-apartheid movement, writing in support of the sanctions against South Africa. Here Roebuck found a new voice, one no longer simply concerned with recording, enjoying and ironically bewailing the life of the County cricketer. Now the system came under criticism: the cricketing bodies for reluctance to act on and regulate an issue so fundamental as equality between black and white, but also the players for being so short-sighted as to insist on their ‘right’ to go and make a living playing in a country like South Africa under apartheid. ‘Can the rights of players to go where they like stand aside the right of races to be equal?’ he asked.

Since then he has coached a number of black African cricketers. And more recently, he bought a property in Natal—on the spur of the moment. Although he describes his attraction to Africa, and the things that took him there, with words that betray an almost dreamy sensibility—the light, the raw beauty of the place, the simplicity—he is not content with that. He adds, ‘If you’re part of the battle you’ve got to be part of the reconstruction or else you didn’t really care in the first place. You cared, rather, for your own mental well-being.’ You have to give the whole of yourself, you have to engage, and Roebuck is also engaging in Zimbabwe, where he supports orphaned children.

Not that we would want to make Peter Roebuck seem only fine and good. In 2001 he received a suspended jail sentence for caning three young cricketers from South Africa. He had offered to coach them at his former home in Taunton, Somerset. When they failed to obey his ‘house rules’ he caned them. Aside from anything else, what is evident here is the hardness of a man with high standards for himself and others—which may surprise those who equate Roebuck’s lyrical writing with a gentle, uncomplicated soul. Roebuck the taskmaster remains as much in evidence as Roebuck the activist.

Roebuck does not find racial politics easy. He has written against a sporting sanction of Zimbabwe—he knows people linked both to the opposition and to Mugabe’s regime, knows some of the complexity of the situation and his own fallibility, and believes that it will be better if the World Cup matches in Zimbabwe go ahead.

Peter Roebuck recently became an Australian citizen. It was one of the proudest moments of his life—even for loners a sense of belonging, of acceptance in a place, is important. Yet while Roebuck has embraced life in Australia, he is not completely comfortable with the culture. There is a narrowness here, a belief that the Australian way is the correct way. And underneath this can be racism. When the Sri Lankan spinner Muttiah Muralitheran was recently targeted by Australian crowds chanting abuse, few Australians condemned it. Murali (as he is called), acclaimed by Wisden as the best bowler of all time, is a Tamil from a war-torn country, considered a gentleman by most of his peers. But in Australia, ‘it is Murali’s bowling action that causes offence, not the actions of Australia’s supporters’. The outrage is palpable in his voice. Australia has the foundations, but not necessarily the vision, for greater justice.

How then, we ask, is one to marry the contrary impulses, the archaic tribal structures of initiation, of teacher and pupil, with political engagement? Ultimately, Roebuck concludes, ‘we’re searching for a broadening of our society but what we don’t want is to take away the strength of our society.’

Peter Roebuck is still on a journey, following cricket. He loves it. Loves, or is magnetically drawn to, the uncertain balance struck between moments of real and possible beauty, and an eternally cussed contrariness. But, as he has emphatically written, cricket is most certainly not a nice game. It is a temptress, a Cleopatra of a game. Herein lies its greatest appeal. Its art is elusive. Cricket cannot be mastered. Like a seductress it moves away, cocking a finger, for you to follow and yet warning you as to the consequences. On the field tragedy follows hard upon triumph, ease and discomfort sit side by side …

Contraries let loose and constantly wrestling, a strong allergic reaction to orthodoxies of any kind, coupled with a refusal to be pigeon-holed in any way: that’s Roebuck, or a piece of him at least. He’s ‘always tried to give the whole of [him]self—fallibility and all’. Not nice, not fine, but a man with that rare gift of being able to make the game, and the world around it, sing. 

Matthew Klugman is a Melbourne writer. Alex McDermott is completing a PhD in history at La Trobe University.

 

 

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