Politics via Cricket: Peter Roebuck had the rare ability to speak truth to power

Andy Bull, courtesy of The Guardian, 14 November 2011

Pic from SMH

on Sunday, roused by the buzzing of my phone on the  bedside table. A text message from Rob Smyth. What does he want at this
hour? “Roebuck …” it began. What a way to start a day. Like most people in this profession I have been feeling both angry and sad ever since,
sad that he died so young, and angry that he reached the point where he  felt that the best choice in he could make in the circumstance was to
jump. “One emotion is never enough,” a friend told me later that day.  Least of all for a man like Roebuck. It seemed that his opinions were
the only thing about him that came in black and white, everything else could only be captured in shades of grey.

“Peter Roebuck was a
fantastic cricket writer,” Rodney Hogg wrote on Monday night. “But if
you are a true fan of his then now might be a good time to stop
following the media.” That depends which way you cut and whether you
bleed. Harold Pinter wrote that “the mistake they make, most of them, is
to attempt to determine and calculate the source of the wound. They
seek out the gaps between the apparent and the void that hinges on it
with all due tautness.” You don’t need to ignore Roebuck’s flaws, nor
apologise for them. But you don’t have to dwell on them either.

who knew Roebuck more than I did and understood him more than I could
will write better tributes than this. They are the ones who knew how
much baggage he had picked up along the way, and were least surprised by
the way his life ended. If you haven’t already, take a little time to
read what Vic Marks has to say about his old team-mate, Derek Pringle about his old opponent, Greg Baum about his old friend and Peter English about his old mentor.
Younger writers like myself knew him mainly as a man who was always
willing to give support, advice and encouragement to people who were
trying to get on in this profession. And if you look you’ll find no
shortage of tributes from them too. This is one week when nobody owes an
excuse for tackling the same topic as everyone else. Perhaps the most
amazing thing about Roebuck’s death is that for all his imperfections
there is no end to the number of writers willing, wanting, to testify to
his good qualities.

It’s been 80 years since Grantland Rice wrote
what has become the sportsman’s epitaph, in his poem Alumnus Football.
“For when the One Great Scorer comes / To mark against your name / He
writes – not that you won or lost / But how you played the Game.” There
are consolations in that, but only for those who prefer not to think too
hard about life, and Roebuck was never among their number. They gave
him all of a minute or two on the sports bulletin on BBC Radio 4 on
Monday morning, during which time Pringle, amusingly, gruffly resisted
all the presenter’s attempts to boil Roebuck’s life down into the bare
essentials of whether he had won or lost and how he played the game.

may as well try to map the Himalayas by sketching an outline of the
topmost peak and the lowest trough. There was nothing simplistic about
the way Roebuck saw the world. And anyone who wants to look back on his
life through rose-tinted glasses can never have read much of what he
wrote. They might be fooling themselves if they think he would
necessarily have done them the same favour.

There were better
writers around, many funnier, several warmer, and some more evocative,
but there was no one who was as willing to talk truth to power.
And this is where, for me, his talent will be most missed. Cricket is
not blessed with so very many who have the combination of will and wit,
intelligence and anger, needed to stand up to the men who are running
the game and making what most of us suspect is a dreadful mess of it.

In the two days since he died a lot of people have pointed to his evisceration of Ricky Ponting in 2008 as the quintessential Roebuck article. But for me a better example of the man at his best was his Cricinfo column on Kumar Sangakkara’s Spirit of Cricket lecture earlier this year.
He described Sangakkara’s speech as “the most important in cricket’s
history”, and, tellingly at a time like this, praised it for “brushing
aside the twin temptations of romance and sentiment”.



cricket and Sri Lanka deserve better from the governors. Alas, the
worst remain in office in so many places, with Ijaz Butt running amok in
Pakistan; Givemore Makoni, with terrible inevitability, returning to
official ranks in benighted and betrayed Zimbabwe; Gerald Majola still
in charge in South Africa; and a mixture of government lackeys and
bookmaking families running the show in Sri Lanka. Nor is there any
reason to retain faith in Giles Clarke, England’s puffed-up principal,
or Australia’s Jack Clarke, whose limitations have been exposed often



There, in the space of a single
paragraph, Roebuck made himself more political enemies than many cricket
writers do in a lifetime. It can be easy to say such things, but it is
harder to argue them. But Roebuck could. He was an iconoclast and a free
thinker, with an inquiring mind and a thirst to learn that meant he
never stopped looking at the world around him and questioning what he
saw. And most of my memories of him are of his constant conversations
with friends, colleagues and acquaintances, whom he mined for
information on the inside story of what was happening in the countries
they came from, digging out dirt on the governance of the game around
the world.


It seems fitting to give the last word to the
man himself, and what he said of Sangakkara also serves his own memory
well. “Like the rest of us, Sangakkara is no saint,” wrote Roebuck. “But
his denunciation of the controlling forces spoke of frustration not
ambition, affection not scorn, contribution not calculation. Its value
lies in its very independence … When cricket falls into the hands of the
narrow-minded, it withers. To prevent that it’s essential that men like
Sangakkara speak out.” And men like Roebuck too. But there aren’t so
many of them to be found.

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