Roebuck plunges to death from hotel window after police questioning
Tragedy far greater than 47 all out has struck cricket, and this should be a Roebuck column. But it isn't one, and can't be one, and never will be one again because the tragedy is Peter Roebuck. He is dead.
Two days ago, on the last morning of that bizarre Test at Newlands, he was at the coffee urn, talking intently with Allan Border about solutions for Australian cricket. Their coffees were cold. When the match ended, he filed his column and, since lunch was laid, he sat down to eat it and to mull over intractable problems in South African cricket with Tony Irish from the SA Cricketers' Association. He seemed his usual self, whatever that was.
The second-last person to see him alive was the ABC's Jim Maxwell, who had grown as close to him as anyone did. The last person was a policeman.
In these glimpses there were clues to Roebuck, cricketer, writer, broadcaster, coach, philanthropist, educator but above all, mystery. Clues must do; it is doubtful if anyone on earth knew him intimately. He chose it to be that way.
It is possible to say where he came from, but not where he belonged. After moving from England he kept houses in Bondi and Pietermaritzburg. He lived in three worlds because it suited him not to be tied down in one.
He was English by birth; in fact he captained England A once. He was an Australian citizen who cherished his work for Fairfax and the ABC. He played the Pom in Australia and the maverick in England. But he perhaps found his life's work in South Africa, where he created a community of 40 underprivileged South African and Zimbabwean boys and spent pretty much every cent he earned putting them through school. He talked endlessly about them. They were on his mind at the end.
Roebuck was eccentric. He was a tall, spare, fit man who lived an austere, almost ascetic life, not indulging in such fripperies as deodorant. His trademark was a tatty straw hat with a wide brim. It was one of few possessions found in his hotel room. On anyone else, that hat would have been an absurd affectation.
He was complex, intense, taut, edgy, opinionated, a little manic, mostly cheerful, sometimes broody. He was a contrarian, not for the sake of it, but because he always had another view. He spoke quickly, in a clipped tone, needing to get the thoughts out so that more could follow; his broadcast voice was his street voice. He did not do small talk, ever.
Cricket was his metier, but it did not confine him. He was widely read and supremely intelligent. He was also self-possessed, yet drew people to him. Women liked him, but often he was awkward in their company.
He was warm in his own way. Speaking to Fairfax's Chloe Saltau one day, he pointed to Shane Brown, the MCC's communications manager, and said: ''He has a nice face. You should marry him.'' She did.
He was social in cricket hours, solitary out of them. When the cricket caravaners headed out at night, mostly he would go to a cafe by himself, sit in a corner and read a book. He had the Pimpernel's ability to absent himself from a party suddenly without anyone seeing him leave.
He was a loyal friend who felt the pain of others as acutely as only the highly intelligent do. But he did not express empathy easily. He was flawed; of course he was. He fought to reconcile himself to his flaws, and it was the central drama of his life. He was tormented as only genius can be. The circumstances of his death attest to it.
He was estranged from his family and rarely mentioned them. He played for and captained a Somerset team that included such strong-willed luminaries as Viv Richards, Joel Garner and Ian Botham. He fell out with Botham, bitterly, and the repercussions lasted years. He excited spite towards him as only those who are different can. Botham delighted in marshalling malign forces in England against him.
He was a dedicated but dour opening bat. He made a century against the all-conquering 1989 Australians, but it took him all day.
Intermittently, he was touted as England captain. He did captain an English XI one day, in a match against the lowly Netherlands - and lost. There was a second match and England won it, he always pointed out.
He understood cricket and cricketers. He would spot the deficiency in a field setting, or a kink in a batsman's technique, and explain it. He wrote columns and books on cricket while still playing it. His writing was distinct: fluent, perceptive, vibrant, sometimes whimsical, almost a genre. He was stinging in his critiques, but affectionate in his appreciations and wise in his perspectives. He wrote much, yet no two pieces ever were alike.
For years, he wrote his stories on the back of scrap paper in a longhand scrawl that was illegible even to him. The shape of the story would become apparent to him as he dictated it down the phone to a copytaker.
At least twice, to meet urgent deadlines, he filed off the top of his head, after a fractious World Cup semi-final between India and Sri Lanka in Kolkota in 1996, and when Ian Healy hit a six to deliver Australia victory in a tight Test at Port Elizabeth in 1997. Both were instant masterpieces. Eventually, but long after everyone else, he acquired a laptop and a mobile phone. He was pleasantly surprised by them.
And suddenly, impossibly, he is no more. In the small hours of Sunday, in the foyer of a hotel in Newlands, while police and forensic experts went about their business, there was a wake. It consisted of Maxwell, Drew Morphett, Geoff Lawson, this reporter and another. We talked about the part of his life we knew, because about Roebuck, everyone knew only a part. We babbled, really, because we didn't understand. We never will. But dimly, we already knew this: covering cricket will never be the same again.
Every column contained its gems - but when Peter really had his eye in, he sparkled like no other writer
At 85, sprightly, humble, and still speaking in a broad Nottingham accent, Harold Larwood, scourge of Australia, is alive and well and living in Sydney.
Somewhat short-sighted, he potters around home in his slippers, listening to Harry Secombe and brass band records, polishing his mementoes, sipping tea with Lois, his ''missus'' of 63 years, chatting to such children and grandchildren as pop by.
An old man in repose, his battles lost and won, Larwood lives in a small and comfortable house with nothing grand about it, simply a house in a row of like-minded houses. He lives without pretension and fuss, in his own way and on his own terms, happy with his lot and determined to live on his merits, not on his name. It is this which makes him the most impressive former cricketer I have met.
A glint-eyed toughie, black hat and stubbled chin, the fellow who plays poker and spits in the spittoon.
Watching from the safety of the press box, it was sometimes difficult to see how Mervyn Hughes took his wickets. Facing him on a slow pitch cleared the matter up.
At the academy, Warne was a brazen dumpling. He did not look much like a cricketer for the supposedly modern era. From the start, though, he was fascinated with the intricacies and possibilities of spin bowling. Nonetheless, it was impossible to tell him apart from other promising youngsters. But Warne kept improving. He just did not stop. He relished the limelight and was fiercely competitive. Warne is full of bluff. His annual discovery of a new ball is proof enough of that. He understands the value of theatre and the rewards that await a man prepared to lead his life in public.
He talks about the ability of boxers to destroy an opponent before a fight. He describes the way each boxer stares, forcing lesser men into unsettling introspection. Richards studied the disdainful glares, the upright, confident appearance of champion boxers and realised that they betrayed not a glimmer of doubt, not a hint of vulnerability.
That is why Richards will not wear a helmet; he will not give the bowler that much credit. It is not that he is immodest - he rarely mentions his achievements, even in private - it is simply that he recognises that, to be the best, he must dominate.
PONTING AS A TEENAGER
Ricky Ponting may be the best thing since thick-cut marmalade. He is 17, wears a tiny, defiant goatee beard, a shadow of a moustache, has a pale face and feet that fairly skim across the turf. Already he is a batsman of intuition, power and confidence, one with a sense of stillness and space and a glint in his eye that belies his calf-country, Launceston, the country cousin of a country cousin.
As Shivnarine Chanderpaul, a waif with a pixie's face, was stroking his way to 62 on a Test debut made on his home pitch in Georgetown, Guyana, a female voice cried out across the ground: ''If this Chanderpaul think he marry a foreigner, he don think again.''
Another woman, selling biscuits and sweets by the side of a potholed road, said: ''I like dis boy, he so young and he play all de shots.'' Significantly, too, it was the Afro-Caribbeans who invaded the pitch as this frail teenager of Indian extraction reached his 50. Guyana has taken Chanderpaul to its heart.
He is a local lad, born into a humble fisherman's family in a fishing village, Unity, an hour's drive along the sugarbeet coast of a country whose population hugs the sea, the interior being thick forest. Unity is a subsistence fishing village, its wooden houses are built on stilts and its hospital and leper colony closed long ago, times having been hard in Guyana. Apart from a small field it has no sporting facilities, yet Unity has produced two Test cricketers, Colin Croft and Chanderpaul.
STEVE WAUGH'S LAST BALL OF THE DAY CENTURY AGAINST ENGLAND AT THE SCG, 2003
Steve Waugh's remarkable innings yesterday started with his team in trouble and fast bowlers pawing the ground. Has anyone heard this story before? Justin Langer had miscued a hook and a relieved Yorkshireman held the catch at fine leg as Australia sank to 3-56, a predicament commonplace years ago but unusual in these days of flourishing opening pairs. No sooner had the chance been taken than a familiar figure began to thread his way through the crowd gathered in front of the green-roofed pavilion, a man who comes to life in a crisis. Nor did it take him long to reach the sunlight. Waugh has always hated a fuss, and put on his gloves and started marching to the crease long before Langer's slow withdrawal had been completed. As far as Waugh was concerned, it was business as usual. He has played his cricket as a craftsman and a competitor, never as a romantic. It was 3.26 on a Friday afternoon and there was work to be done.
At Waugh's appearance, an ovation started to spread around the ground, for this was a moment of sporting significance, possibly the last appearance of a respected warrior. By stumps, the warm reception had been replaced by a roar, for Waugh had convinced the packed crowd he had no intention of going quietly with an unbeaten 102, reaching his century off the last ball of the day.
THE AUSTRALIAN GAME
Australian cricket might remain frustratingly Anglo-Saxon in some ways, but it does not exclude anyone and its heroes are down-to-earth characters. Beer is drunk at the matches, and working men's clothes are worn. A man who scores runs or takes wickets rises through the ranks. A fellow in a bad patch falls back. At practices, players bat in order of arrival and never mind that a first-grader must wait his turn. Crucially, the culture is strong. Even the sixth team plays competitively, with short legs and team talks and so forth.
THE SCG TEST AUSTRALIA v INDIA, 2008
If Cricket Australia cares a fig for the tattered reputation of our national team in our national sport, it will not for a moment longer tolerate the sort of arrogant and abrasive conduct seen from the captain and his senior players in the past few days. It was the ugliest performance by an Australian side for 20 years. The only surprising part of it is that the Indians have not already packed and gone home.
A letter has arrived from a rising young cricketer in Zimbabwe, a well-educated black player eager to serve his country. It is also a letter from the betrayed, from a cricketing community let down by greedy, arrogant, hate-filled elders.
Of course it is idle to suppose that the opportunists running Zimbabwe Cricket might care about anything except themselves. But their paymasters, the Board of Control for Cricket in India, ought to rethink a close relationship that brings shame on their house. Perhaps, too, obedient television commentators with international voices will remember they are responsible for confronting tyranny.
THE PRESS BOX
The press box in Australia had no pretension or pecking order and this newcomer was treated on his merits, and never mind that he was from the Old Dart, had been to Cambridge and had spent most of his cricket career blocking furiously. By and large, the English cricket writers were unpleasant and miserable.
Never forget that at the time of his criminal activities, Salman Butt was captaining his country. Never forget that he was at the pinnacle of his career and at the top of a huge cricket community in a nation of 180 million people. Never forget that cricket is one of the few consolations available to the poor of that nation. Never forget that Pakistan is a troubled country with a fractured history and that cricket is its national game. The scale of the betrayal is numbing.
HIS LAST COLUMN
The team for the first Test against New Zealand has become a lot harder to predict. Mind you, a lot can happen in a week. It just did.
Legends lament loss of 'premier journalist'
STEVE WAUGH last night led a quartet of Australian captains in paying tribute to Peter Roebuck, saying cricket had lost its finest writer. Roebuck, 55, died at the hotel he was staying at in Cape Town, where he had covered Australia's first Test defeat to South Africa on Friday.
Waugh, who played alongside Roebuck at Somerset in 1988, said Roebuck was ''without a doubt … cricket's premier journalist''.
''He was never afraid to tackle the big issues in world cricket and would often be a lone voice if he believed strongly in the cause,'' Waugh said. ''As a captain I would always be keen to read Peter's take on the previous day's play. He had the unique knowledge, instincts and gut feel that enabled him to interpret body language, detect the subtle duels and tussles that would often be a precursor to a more defining moment.
''He was able to delve deeper into the technique and mindset of players due to his successful career as an opening batsman and captain for Somerset. His presence and views will be sorely missed.''
Mark Taylor, whom Waugh succeeded in 1999, said Roebuck's opinion was greatly respected as it was based on nearly 40 years' involvement in the game.
''He didn't write articles or say things which he thought would make himpopular,'' said Taylor, who watched Roebuck score an unbeat- en century for Somerset against Australia in a first-class game during the 1989 Ashes tour.
Roebuck wrote what he thought about the game, Taylor said. ''Not every player, me included, agreed with what he said all the time. We did know it wasn't based on a whim, it was based on a lot of experience.''
Greg Chappell said while Roebuck would be remembered fondly by ABC listeners and Herald readers, many would not be aware of the philanthropic work that he did with the charity The LBW Trust - Learning for a Better World.
''Something like 250 kids in cricket-playing countries around the world, underprivileged kids, are being educated through the LBW Trust, and that was from his vision,'' Chappell said.
''He had a very distinctive style and was a well-thought-of commentator and writer on the game.''
Another ex-Australian captain, Ian Chappell, said he enjoyed Roebuck's company not only for his insights into cricket but for his commentary on the game's pressing issues. Roebuck was also a campaigner for human rights and social justice in countries such as Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka.
''We didn't talk so much about the game, more about things around the game, like corruption - he always had pretty good contacts - and things like Zimbabwe, which he felt pretty strongly about,'' he said.
''We'd talk about players a bit, and I always made a point of seeking him out because I enjoyed his opinions … he was a damn good writer, a colourful writer and he brought other things in life into it.''
Former Test paceman and commentator Geoff Lawson, who called the dramatic Newlands Test with Roebuck, said he was stunned by his colleague's death.
''A strong, independent, informed and inquiring mind, he will be missed by many,'' Lawson said.
''His death is a complete shock and unbearably premature.''
Cricket Australia's chief executive, James Sutherland, said Roebuck had been with the Australian team in Cape Town only hours before he died.
''He brought particular insight to his commentary based on his lengthy experience as a first-class cricketer and captain, and combined that with a singular flair for the written and spoken word,'' Sutherland said.
''He spoke his mind frankly and while one didn't necessarily always have to agree, you always respected what he had to say.''
The federal Minister for Sport, Mark Arbib, praised Roebuck for challenging the conventional wisdom with his fearless prose.
''A lot of [the] time I disagreed with his views, but I never doubted his fine intellect and passion for the game,'' Senator Arbib said.
The impact of Roebuck's death was felt around the cricket world. The Indian commentator Harsha Bhogle said he was ''devastated''. ''Peter Roebuck was meant to write about cricket in the manner Sachin Tendulkar was born to play it,'' Bhogle wrote on Twitter.
* Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by calling Lifeline 131 114, Mensline 1300 789 978, Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.
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