Death and cricket are constant companions. In March 2007, in the West Indies, it was suggested that murder had taken place when Pakistan’s cricket coach Bob Woolmer was strangled.
A Jamaican jury’s open verdict made matters more enigmatic than ever.
The more one looks at cricket and its sad demise in terms of reputation – weakened over the years by the spot-fixing charges and match-fixing designs – vulnerability is evident.
The calm, indestructible cricketer, just as the game, is very much a fiction.
The game absorbs; it is meditative, entailing large periods of glum reflection, sessions of intense pondering in such positions as the ever-baffling silly point.
It is the game of supreme guile and masterful stratagems, a game that conceals as much as it reveals.
To instances of murder can be added suicide. Somerset and England batsman Harold Gimblett scored 123 on debut at number eight in a mere eighty minutes in 1935 after having his bat replaced by the renowned hitter Arthur Wellard.
‘I don’t think much of your bat, cock. Borrow one of mine’ (ESPN, Sep 24).
The innings won him the Lawrence Trophy for the fastest hundred of that season.
Gimblett proved a masterful stroke-maker on the field and a deflated, difficult individual off it. His anxiety was hampered by the unimaginative selectors, who were only generous to give him three Test matches – two against India in 1936 and a solitary show against the West Indies at Lord’s in 1939.
A life of mental illness and self-doubt came to an end in 1978, when he took his own life.
David Frith’s gloomy study ‘By His Own Hand’ noted the passing of at least 85 top cricketers in that manner, figures dissolved by crushing depression, hopelessness and paranoia.
The perplexing finger spinner Jack Iverson, and Turnip-Head Trott were such men. The Victorians were also very much in that mould – adopting suicide as an emancipative move from loneliness (Andrew Stoddart) or hypochondria (Arthur Shrewsbury).
Stoddart himself was something of a freak of nature – 485 for Hampstead against a hapless Stoics side on August 4 1886 being his stunning highlight, not to mention 10 rugby union internationals for England.
The late Peter Roebuck himself reviewed Frith’s book for the Sydney Morning Herald in December 1990. And he quoted those fateful lines: ‘Who hath gazed full in the face of beauty, Doth himself so unto death deliver.’
When the news of Roebuck’s demise in Cape Town came through on Saturday, intrigue came galloping with it.
An Indian news anchor suggested an element of ‘murkiness’ in his death. There was supposedly an officer in the room of the Southern Sun Hotel at Newlands when the fateful decision was made.
He was being questioned by Western Cape provincial police over an alleged sexual assault on a Zimbabwean Facebook friend.
Cricket tends to invite its own guile and giddy speculation. It demands it. Through the glass darkly, we find an intensely shy man who proved overly enthusiastic about standards, a person who would retreat to write his columns – firstly in long hand, dining alone in a simple restaurant.
This led to Roebuck blotting his copy book at stages. For one thing, it did feature a conviction of common assault against three South African 19-year olds in 2001 at Taunton Crown Court.
The cane was procured when the unfortunate youngsters proved unable to meet Roebuck’s exacting standards.
‘Obviously I misjudged the mood and that was my mistake and my responsibility, and I accept that.’
In terms of Roebuck’s own judgment, speculation of what wounded him, and those last minutes when was still alive, will remain. Did he depart life, as Cicero pondered over the younger Cato, rejoicing in having found a reason for dying?
Such questions remain unanswerable and deservedly so. We have a delightful, insightful oeuvre on the most sublime and enigmatic of sports, and we only regret that it was cut short.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.
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