The Roebuck riddle

When The Wisden Cricketer launched in 2003 Peter Roebuck was one of our associate editors. The marketing conceit was to select a first XI of writers and contributors who could be touted to readers or potential readers. Roebuck was one of the first names on the team sheet.

His relationship with the magazine didn’t last long, or at least the formal element of it didn’t. He remained very civil and engaging when we met in a press box somewhere in the world.

It took me a while to remember that he was ever formally connected to the magazine because I think he only wrote one piece: on Graeme Smith for the first issue after Smith’s brutishly brilliant series against England.

Even though the magazine had an international reputation and covered the game all over the world, we were a UK publication and for Roebuck that was a no-no. His antipathy towards Britain after his conviction for assault in 2001 had consumed him to a point where he wanted to have no formal connections. He no longer contributed to British newspapers and seemed to spend little time here.

I think he resigned as an associated editor out of the blue. I tried to dissuade him but didn’t hear back. So I just left his name on the masthead and hoped that he would contribute again when the mood took him. At some point he contacted me to ask why his name was still on the masthead. So it was removed and that was that. It was all very polite and businesslike.

I was laughing with Sambit Bal, the editor of Cricinfo, last night about Roebuck’s chaotic manner of email communication: short, unpunctuated statements or thoughts, sometimes barely intelligible. It was, Sambit reckoned, because his career had begun in the pre-electronic era of dictation to copy-takers. It was as if the keyboard was his copy-taker and it was up to the machine to make sense of his words.

I wrote alongside him when he was still working for the Sunday Times and he was always an engaging and interesting colleague though Greg Baum’s acute observation in the Sydney Morning Herald about him “not indulging in such fripperies as deodorant” rang true.

So did Daily Mail cricket correspondent Paul Newman’s frank experience from his time on the Sunday Telegraph, that he was “the rudest, most prickly and unhelpful colleague I have ever experienced”. Not that I experienced that side of him but I always got the impression he didn’t have much time for the editors and sub-editors back in the office, certainly when he was working for UK newspapers.

Steve Waugh called him the “premier journalist” but he’s wrong really. Not that Peter doesn’t deserve the accolade but that he wasn’t a journalist. He was a commentator, an opinionator, a campaigner even but not a journalist in the conventional sense. Not that he had much time for convention in his life, as has been painfully apparent.

But that made him all the more important. His separateness and his individuality created a unique voice, one that had real value in Australia and the wider cricketing world. Cricketwithballs supremo Jrod observes that he was the only dissenting during his youth when no one questioned the all-conquering Aussie side.

Roebuck’s obituary and Derek Pringle’s tribute to him made the front page of the Daily Telegraph yesterday which I found a bit bewildering. I suppose it’s in part due to the horrific and untimely nature of his death, the whiff of scandal but also the regard in which his writing and commentating was held by the cricket-loving public as well as those in the media who obsess about these things.

I am sure someone somewhere is contemplating the publication of a Roebuck anthology. It’ll be a mighty good read.


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