The focus on Peter Roebuck’s tragic death has been intense. Of course the circumstances were ghastly and extraordinary. But it has not just been the newsmen who have been filling the pages and the websites; the tributes and the attempts to explain have flowed from both sides of the equator.
Just about every cricket correspondent on the planet has burst into print. Everyone has been striving to get inside Roebuck’s head, something he seldom permitted when he was alive. There have been some wonderful tributes and much weighty analysis. I can imagine Pete being fascinated by such widespread attention from his peers, though not surprised; for this was his due. Almost without exception those peers have lauded his writing and broadcasting as well as acknowledging that he could bat.
His tragedy has become an irresistible subject. Pete was one of us, though rarely among us: singular, complex and brilliant, we read. The picture is of a sombre, flawed man forever crusading, with words as his weapons, against injustice in Zimbabwe, the ICC, match-fixing; a brave, uncompromising commentator on the game, prepared to swim against the tide, but not prepared to let his colleagues get too close. He had his secrets and we will never know them. But that is not the complete picture.
I knew Pete better when he was a cricketer rather than a journalist, as a young man rather than in middle age. I shared countless car journeys with him – inevitably much longer than necessary since neither of us could read a map – as well as hotel rooms and even the odd partnership out in the middle, usually to the dismay of the paying customer, who preferred to be entertained by one or two other members of the Somerset team at the crease.
This week I have been flicking through It Never Rains, Pete’s diary of the 1983 season. Life was not always straightforward then but nor was it quite so earnest, sombre or tormented as has been painted in some of the tributes.
Re-reading that diary, it is striking how warmly he writes about Ian Botham and Viv Richards. This was before the fall-out. Pete tells us how he had the same self-doubts, the same nerves and superstitions as every cricketer. But he could articulate them better than most. He laughs at the absurdity of his profession – he could have used his first class mind to be a lawyer of some sort yet cricket was always an irresistible magnet and a greater challenge. Sometimes he laughs at his own absurdity, wryly, but without abandon.
In fact, there were plenty of moments like that. There was his helmet with the solitary earpiece. It was assumed by more distant onlookers that there must be a carefully conceived theory behind this oddity. In fact Pete, who was not a practical man, could not be bothered or minded to replace the missing earpiece. What I hadn’t realised until last week was that Chris Balderstone of Leicestershire, was apparently so impressed by Roebuck’s helmet that he actually removed the right earpiece of his own helmet in the belief that this would enhance his batting.
Then there was the time at the Oval when Pete was captain of Somerset and he contrived to drop approximately four catches within an hour. Suddenly he sprinted off the field to the dressing room without telling anyone why. He returned at the start of the next over explaining, “I had the wrong trousers on. Had to change them”.
His reaction to dropped catches was rarely orthodox. Later in his career when he was skippering Devon, arguably the most satisfying cricket he played, he reacted to a rash of spilled chances by his team by instructing all the fielders on the leg-side to go to the off-side; and all those on off were instructed to go to the on side. Where is the logic in that? His team laughed…and obeyed.
There were misconceptions too. It seems to be widely assumed that the young Roebuck was the architect of Somerset’s devious (and dubious) declaration at Worcester in the B&H competition of 1979. We declared on 1-0, which, theoretically, guaranteed us a place in the quarter-finals. My recollection of that day is genuinely hazy, but I’m sure that this cunning plan was not exclusively the product of Roebuck’s fertile brain. He did not drive that decision.
These memories are not meant to sweep aside the tragedy of Pete’s death or to mask my sadness at losing a friend. But they are a reminder that he was not crusading or pontificating or agonising throughout every moment of his life. He called his autobiography Sometimes I Forgot to Laugh. But sometimes he did laugh, which is how I prefer to remember him.
*Vic Marks, the Observer’s cricket correspondent and regular columnist for TheCricketer.com, played with Peter Roebuck for Somerset’s junior teams and for almost two decades in first-class cricket