January 25, 2017

The return of Peter Roebuck

The typescript pages of his newly discovered diaries from 1986 provide an intimate window into the man's thoughts and reflections

Roebuck: back in our minds, via his diaries © Getty Images

There is something intimate about a page of typescript, something that has vanished into the age of digital. It's there in the way that single letters cut into a page, some leaving sharp edges, others little indents into which ink from the ribbon would well and smudge. The paper itself, chosen and wound into the machine by the writer, and the corrections they have made - words crossed through with a line of xxxxs, others corrected by hand - speak.

It is as if you can trace the thought emerging onto the page, read the line as it formed in the head. As a kid writer, I caught the very tail end of typed copy, a year or so before what we quaintly called "desktop publishing" came along and wiped it all away. I worked in an office that had six or seven writers hammering away at the keys at any one time. After a while it was easy to tell who was there just by the sound they made - some were peckers, some were rattlers, and almost everyone smashed the carriage return triumphantly hard on completing their final sentence.

This all came floating through my mind when I was looking at Peter Roebuck's newly discovered diaries from 1986, uploaded in pdf form to the family website, and reported brilliantly for ESPNcricinfo by David Hopps.

I always liked Roebuck's writing, which became spikier and more certain as he grew older. For a while, years before I got that first writing job and back when playing cricket occupied much of my psyche, it meant a huge amount to me, especially a book called It Never Rains, a diary of his 1983 season at Somerset.

Staring back through time at the actual paper that Roebuck wrote on, yellowed now, and with stains splattered near the top, feels almost voyeuristic

Roebuck's writing was less certain then, and it's a book full of the ambiguities of playing cricket for a living, truths that I hadn't realised existed in the minds of people I saw on the television. One of the most revealing moments comes when he hears he is being considered by the England selectors and admits to himself he's unsure that he wants to be chosen. Suddenly it was okay to feel daunted by the game - how big it was and how good at it other people were.

A lot of It Never Rains is about Somerset's three best players, Ian Botham, Viv Richards and Joel Garner. They have none of Roebuck's doubt. Instead they are full of the superstar's self-belief and the ability to laugh at occasional failure. County cricket for them is easy, a nice way to spend a summer between the real business of international engagements.

Their separateness and difference is acknowledged by Roebuck. That is not to say that he was afraid of them. He had a rock-solid intellectual confidence which enabled him to accept them without allowing the fact that they were better at cricket to affect his judgement. Vic Marks, another from that dressing room who went on to a writing career of great distinction, recalled: "They [Roebuck and Botham] would have preposterous, noisy arguments about anything, with Roebuck's forensic skills matched by Botham's bombast." They even authored a book together, It Sort Of Clicks, billed as "Ian Botham talking to Peter Roebuck".

Roebuck recognised Richards and Botham were on a different plane but was not overawed by them © PA Photos

The new diaries begin starkly on September 18, at the County Ground in Taunton. The great schism created by the Somerset committee's decision not to offer contracts to Richards and Garner, provoking Botham's resignation, has just begun.

Staring back through time at the actual paper that Roebuck wrote on, yellowed now, and with stains splattered near the top, feels almost voyeuristic, his fastidiousness evident in the patiently centred and underlined "CHAPTER I" (a far more laborious process on a typewriter than the flashing couple of keystrokes required now). That, and the careful comma after "Thursday" in the dateline, say something about him, as does the patience with which he sets the scene in a paragraph describing an arena "deserted except for some of the ground staff lads who were collecting debris from yesterday's benefit game against a West Indies team captained by Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards".

There is something writerly about the use of Richards' full name. The rhythm of it stalks pleasingly across the page and through the head. And Roebuck's anger is contained in the same writerly way, with respect for how the words will feel and sound, how they carry a different weight once on the page.

For all that he wrote, and for all that has been written about him, Roebuck has remained somehow unknowable

His next paragraph is about the discovery of the "Judas" sign left over his peg in the changing room: "immediately I knew the identity of the author of this rotten word". He suspects Botham. "I decided to leave it where it was. To take it down would be to admit that it hurt. One day I would give it back to Ian."

"So it is Judas now," he goes on. It is uncomfortable to read, the typescript pages adding that intimacy missing in a completed book.

Amid it all, though, there are lovely moments, flourishes of writing and observation that marked Roebuck out. One entry runs:

"Botham, who went in at 4 and had wanted to hold himself back till 5, smashed a memorable 179 in 30 overs or so. This was an outstanding, generous innings. When Viv bats like this he is brutal. Botham sweeps and laughs and smiles, as if this is a game in a back yard which everyone, including the bowlers, is enjoying. Viv hates the bowlers. Ian likes them."

It's all so long ago, and yet it was a crisis that would define the rest of Roebuck's life. For all that he wrote, and for all that has been written about him, he has remained somehow unknowable. These few lost pages, for a while, bring him back with some force.

Jon Hotten blogs at The Old Batsman. @theoldbatsman

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Cameron on January 27, 2017, 4:51 GMT

    It's too easy to jump on the bandwagon with what Roebuck may or may not have done in his private life. His contribution to schoolboy cricket in Sydney in the '80s was always positive and when boarders at Cranbrook were taken in to his home as an alternative to the accommodation offered by the school there is no hint of anything untoward, rather, only gratitude and respect for his generosity and passion for the English language and the game.

  • laksvi5642713 on January 26, 2017, 0:42 GMT

    Yeah...agree wit u - GULU EZEKIEL....lets leave it at remembering him for the champ word artist that he was, his wondeful articles....instead of focussing on whatever flaws he had...a pity that such thing inevitably accompany such people....much like the travesty it is that the fair name of Mankad-a terrific sporting family who gave us two gen of test and FC crickets, just because his name is catchy-is associated unfortunately with this form of dismissal-having slightly negative connotations of unsportsman like behaviour-never mind the fact that Vinoo mankad warned the batsmen concerned for a similar transgression earlier, just the fact that heaps of cricket lovers associate Mankad with this dismissal when Vinoo mankad played the game in exemplary fashion, with dignity, honour and not with the boorish one upmanship so common nowadays....just human nature i gues...cricinfo plz publish

  • Ashok on January 25, 2017, 18:58 GMT

    I agree with other commenter who has posted here. I used to like Peter Roebuck though in later years I felt became a bit too pro-India. He was no Jimmy Saville but he had a darker side. This should not be forgotten when remembering him.

  • Dominic on January 25, 2017, 15:11 GMT

    Peter Roebuck was one of the columnists I had looked forward to reading to help me scythe through all the fluff and get to the crux of the matter. He was always insightful and the only reason i opened up smh.com.au website from India.

  •   Gulu Ezekiel on January 25, 2017, 15:01 GMT

    This is all getting rather morbid. Far too much fussing over what happened in an English county decades back. Peter's legacy are his printed words. Perhaps best to leave it at that. Why go over and over this particular incident?

  • Raghuvir Khanna on January 25, 2017, 12:48 GMT

    May he find peace wherever he is .He left the game richer with his words.