The return of Peter Roebuck
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.
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".
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.
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