January 19, 2017

Peter Roebuck's Somerset agony

Previously unpublished material reveals the anguish he felt about being made the man to blame for the decision to let the club's long-serving West Indian stars go
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Richards and Roebuck at the wicket in a county game. Roebuck reveals he lived in fear of Richards' temper © Getty Images

The civil war that beset Somerset cricket more than 30 years ago was all the more remarkable because of the unimposing, bespectacled figure at its centre. Peter Roebuck would not have immediately struck a casual observer as a man capable of going to war. An unconventional loner, gauche even with close friends, he did not meld easily with either the old-fashioned administrators in charge of the club or the imposing superstars, Ian Botham, Viv Richards and Joel Garner, who would eventually be expunged from a Somerset dressing room that had fallen on hard times.

The conflict that took hold of the sleepy market town of Taunton throughout the summer of 1986 dominated the sports pages in a way that now is hard to imagine. Until now, it has only been possible to hazard a guess at Roebuck's state of mind as he became the principal hate figure for rebel supporters who were campaigning against the county's decision to release their great, long-serving West Indians, Richards and Garner and, as a consequence, accept the ensuing departure of Ian Botham in protest.

Previously unpublished diaries, which were not made available to the authors of the excellent Chasing Shadows: The Life and Death of Peter Roebuck in 2015, have now revealed the full extent of Roebuck's mental anguish. Condemned by his critics, increasingly reviled by Botham in a rift that would last a lifetime, and often left to flounder by Somerset's archaic administration, he presents himself as an honourable man who made his choice and forever fretted over the consequences.

"Lots of people are asking about my health," he writes as Somerset's warfare reaches its height. "I suspect they are waiting for a crack-up." Somerset comfortably won the vote to let go of Richards and Garner at an emergency meeting at Shepton Mallet in November 1986, and Roebuck took the spoils, but his life would never be the same again. Even as victory approaches, he rails at English society as "mean, narrow and vindictive" and falls out of love with the country of his birth for the rest of a life that was to end in tragic circumstances 25 years later.

Condemned by his critics, reviled by Botham, and often left to flounder by Somerset's archaic administration, he presents himself as an honourable man who made his choice and forever fretted over the consequences

By the time he wrote his autobiography, Sometimes I Forgot To Laugh, in 2004, Roebuck was able to tell the Somerset story with relative calm. Not so in his diaries, typed out contemporaneously in obsessive detail, complete with scribbled adjustments. Three unseen chapters of a book called 1986 And All That have been discovered and placed on the family website. "The truth can finally be told," is how the family puts it.

Roebuck was in his first season as Somerset captain, regarding himself as a more relaxed figure, at 30, than the intense batsman who had written the self-absorbed study of life on the county circuit, It Never Rains*, a few years earlier. That self-ease soon departed. In midsummer he was informed at an emergency meeting of the management and cricket committee that Martin Crowe had been approached by Essex. Crowe was fast becoming an international star and he had filled in handsomely for Richards during his absence on a West Indies tour. He had long been eyed as a future signing.

Crowe, Roebuck writes, was "a man of brilliance rare in the game, a man of standards rare in the game". Roebuck's yearning to reshape a failing, ageing Somerset side has youth and work ethic at its core and encourages him to support the majority preference on the committee to sign Crowe and release Richards and Garner after many years of loyal service. One wonders how Botham will respond to Roebuck's allegation in the diaries that Botham viewed Crowe at the time as little better than a good club player.

In Somerset, Richards and Garner were far more than overseas players. They were part of their limited-overs folklore, as much a part of Somerset as scrumpy or skittles. As Roebuck, this cricketing aesthete, frets over the implications, he writes in his diary: "Echoes in my mind kept repeating that this Somerset team could never work, could never be worthwhile unless we abandoned the past and began to build a team around Crowe. Our chemistry was wrong. It hadn't worked with Botham as captain, and it wasn't working with Roebuck as captain. We'd lose Crowe to Essex."

Botham at the press conference announcing his decision to leave Somerset Adrian Murrell / © Getty Images

A couple of weeks later, that course of action was confirmed. Sworn to secrecy until the end of the season by a Somerset management and cricket committee of 12, a body which Roebuck naively imagines is capable of confidentiality, he ludicrously seeks to maintain discretion in the height of summer in a dressing room awash with rumour. Out on the field, "smiles hid hatred". In Roebuck's version of events, all those responsible for the decision keep their heads down and often fail to tell him what is going on. Rebels soon force an emergency special meeting, and at the end of the season virtually everybody but him seems to disappear for a prolonged holiday - acts, in some cases, of breathtaking irresponsibility. He delays his return to Australia, where he spends the close season, to see the job through.

"I was bound to be forsaken by friends," he writes. "It was all right for them, they were amateurs, committee men, they could leave this club and this game at any moment. It was my living, much more was at stake."

A cerebral and unclubbable man, he is ill-equipped for the task - whether the art of appeasement or politics. Lost in his own thoughts, he reads cricket books, watches movies, takes long baths, and makes impromptu visits around the county in search of understanding. Some imagined friends desert him, some of them quite cruelly, and, for the first time, he is assailed by scurrilous rumours about his private life. Tabloid journalists descend upon Taunton, enquiring about his relationship with the young cricketers he houses on an annual basis. Fifteen years later, his belief in the educative value of corporal punishment was to lead to a guilty plea, to his instant regret, to three charges of common assault against South African teenagers.

Roebuck's insistence that he will not surrender to "moral blackmail" is one of the most revealing passages in these freshly discovered chapters. "These tactics, this moral blackmail, this offer not to tell lies if I will not tell facts, must not rush me into a hasty marriage with attendant car and nappies. Through my life so far, I've tried to be as independent, financially and personally, as possible… I fear love for its invasion of privacy though now, at last, I begin to think about it. For the present, I have two lives (in England and Australia), three careers (cricket, writing, teaching), and a variety of ways of keeping the world, though not friendship, at its distance. I don't care a jot what anyone else does in private, so long as it does not hurt people. I want to help the young, something I've failed to do so far in my years at Somerset because I was too involved in my own game to care for anyone else."

A cerebral and unclubbable man, Roebuck is ill-equipped for appeasement or politics. Lost in his own thoughts, he reads cricket books, watches movies, takes long baths, and makes impromptu visits around the county in search of understanding

The Roebuck family website goes as far as to suggest "a causal connection" between events at Somerset that fateful summer and the manner in which his life came to a tragic end many years later. You would have to be a believer in chaos theory to accept this conclusion without reservation.

Another 25 years elapsed before Roebuck fell to his death from a Cape Town hotel window in 2011 while being questioned by police about an alleged sexual assault, which remains unproven. A police statement at the time said that Roebuck, by then a celebrated author and journalist, committed suicide, a version of events that was accepted by a closed inquest, before last month South Africa's Director of Public Prosecutions responded to family lobbying and agreed to review the findings.

In mental turmoil he might have been, but Roebuck required no passage of time to see the mid-1980s as a period when county cricket's unwieldy amateur committees were no longer fit for purpose, unable to deal with the advent of the celebrity cricketer. It is no coincidence that the mid-'80s also saw county cricket's other great conflict, as Yorkshire descended into internecine strife over the future of Geoffrey Boycott.

"Somerset, a small county area with a small county cricket team is one of the battlegrounds upon which this battle is taking place. It is a battle between old-fashioned standards and celebration of stardom. It isn't really a battle between management and worker at all. Botham is not a worker, cannot pretend to be a working class hero. In this battle the management and the workers are on the same side. "

Roebuck bats in a benefit match for Botham in Finchley, London © Getty Images

Somerset's general committee is elderly white males to a man, and when Roebuck goes to an area committee meeting in the seaside town of Weston, where incidentally he finds warm support, he learns that a 26-strong committee has been extended to 27 just because somebody else asked to join. "We must change this old, male hegemony in charge of cricket," he writes. "A game cannot, in 1986, be run by genial, sensible pensioners. It is frightening how much cricket depends on the tireless voluntary work of old men."

Much has been made over the years about the enmity that grew from this summer onwards between Roebuck and Botham, polar opposites in character and cricketing approach, But it is Roebuck's fear of Richards' volcanic temperament that stands out most in these unseen chapters, such as an exchange during a Championship match at Worcester, after Somerset's intentions are known, a day that begins with Roebuck strolling by the banks of the Severn in search of rural bliss and soon becomes something altogether more tempestuous.

"Viv asked to see me in private, so we went upstairs where we wouldn't be disturbed. For the next 15 minutes he launched a tirade of abuse […] He said I was a sick boy, a terrible failure, an unstable character, someone who should never be put in charge of anything… He said I hadn't yet seen his bad side and he'd unleash it upon me from now on. During this torrent, I sat quietly, not angry at all though a little startled."

Tensions with Botham are also laid bare. "Botham is trying to form the players into a gang behind him," Roebuck writes. "He's shown little interest in these young cricketers on previous occasions, but he is a formidable warrior… If he can't win them over he'd certainly try to bully them into line." He even explores likenesses between Botham and Percy Chapman, an Ashes-winning captain in 1926, who "fell into decline, drinking heavily and putting on weight, ravaging his body". He questions Botham's desire to be surrounded by like-minded "chums", not stopping to reflect that he himself was also bent upon building a Somerset side in his own image.

"I am not a loner," he concludes, "rather my preferred pursuits (reading, writing, music) are solitary. I am private, it is true, and enjoy the companionship of my close friends much more than the conviviality of a loud, large group. As for splitting the team, the whole point of this struggle was that it had been split for years."

*09:58:13 GMT, January 19, 2017: The article originally said Slices of Cricket instead of It Never Rains

David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • NS13 on January 20, 2017, 20:47 GMT

    One of the finest writers, Peter Roebuck's articles!

  • Theluckycountry on January 20, 2017, 10:07 GMT

    Like most Poms, he couldn't wait to leave England to come and live in the most beautiful country in the world.

  • Behind_the_bowlers_arm on January 20, 2017, 8:57 GMT

    Always thought Peter Roebuck was an interesting writer and broadcaster and enjoyed his work. Obviously he was a difficult man but sounds like he was the one thinking ahead for Somerset while others were happy to keep their little club of mates together.

  • dunger.bob on January 20, 2017, 4:59 GMT

    He was a good writer. I used to love his articles. Sometimes I didn't agree with what he said but they were usually good reads even so. As a person, he seems to have been 'complicated', but as a writer he was clear and precise. I miss those articles of his.

  • Swinglish on January 20, 2017, 1:11 GMT

    Of the 3 of us in Maths&Stats A-level, Peter, Phil Slocombe and I, I was the sad guy that didn't play for the 1st XI. The result was that I was the only student for Flash Fletcher: a mathematical genius, completely unfit for teaching. At this age (18) Peter was uncomfortable - possibly caused by his mother (my pure maths teacher) having her job based on her son's ability with the bat? I respected Phil, Peter and his mother; I liked Phil. I have enjoyed Peter's cricketing commentary since I moved to Switzerland in 1990, and, being the grandson of a South-African born Major-General but raised with Peter in a multicultural environment, I can easily relate to the direction his life took him.

  • Dave on January 20, 2017, 0:11 GMT

    Everything I've read about Roebuck, be it from external sources or from his own pen, suggests a man who was at some conflict with himself. I don't think it is coincidental how he dislikes those players who achieve true stardom (one thinks of how he accused Flintoff of chucking). Take this zinger from 2006 in the Indie: "Comparisons with Ian Botham are inevitable. Flintoff is half the cricketer, five times the man and a more mature leader." Roebuck always comes over as being quite jealous, eternally questioning why someone less intelligent than himself can be so loved. When you see his words in this article, where he runs from love, it's not hard to come to the conclusion that a man who flees love in any form can't understand why spectators loved players like Botham and Richards. One should never doubt Roebuck's writing ability and intelligence but emotionally he was lacking.

  • cloudmess on January 19, 2017, 23:20 GMT

    Poida: don't see how your elephant in the room is specifically relevant to the events at Somerset CCC in 1986.

  • InsideHedge on January 19, 2017, 22:27 GMT

    I read Botham's autobiography, it saddened me to read the passage where one evening he finds Roebuck meditating at his home unknown to Roebuck that Botham can see him thru a window. The passage shows Botham as a typical immature. Whilst his loyalty to the two West Indians was impressive, he always gave the impression of being in complete awe of Viv Richards to the point where he felt Richards was a messiah. Any fan who has met Richards will not be surprised to read of his "volcanic temperament" in this article, as mean-spirited a man as you could ave the misfortune to meet.

    And yes indeed, we all wish it could have ended differently.

  • chris54 on January 19, 2017, 19:21 GMT

    I´m surprised that this interesting article fails to make any mention of one of the main reasons for not retaining the services of the two West Indians: The fact that they would not have been available for the 1988 season.

  • Chris_P on January 19, 2017, 19:12 GMT

    @ALFERS You are, of course, correct, what I meant to say that by the mid 80's, they were finished as a force, if not finished, didn't care & these particular guys were not helping the culture of the club with regards to their up & coming players. I actually am keen to hear from Somerset supporters. They picked up Steve Waugh for a couple of seasons after that &it paid off handsomely & he wrote glowingly of his time there, the culture and stuff.

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