Remembering Peter Roebuck
Roebuck captained the Somerset county team in the 1980s, but he was always better at writing and talking than at batting. Well before the end of his playing career he was supplying lucid, allusive articles about the game that he loved to a range of newspapers and magazines.
I remember a piece Roebuck wrote about my boyhood idol, the great West Indian batsman Viv Richards, for an Aussie publication in the mid-'80s. Richards was famous for his super-confident on-field manner and his violent batsmanship - two of his nicknames were 'the Master Blaster' and 'Smokin' Joe' - and cricket commentators and journalists tended to present him as a fearful cliche.
Roebuck, though, gave his readers a lesson in history and politics, by connecting Richards' on-field persona and batting style to the colonisation and decolonisation of the West Indies. Roebuck noted Richards' support for national liberation movements in Africa, his almost uncontrollable hatred of apartheid, his flaunting of Rastafarian symbols, and his violent clashes with racist white cricketers. After reading Roebuck's article - and I had to read it more than once - I knew that I would never think about the game of cricket in the same way again. (The fact that Roebuck's article was written shortly before his very public falling out with Richards, who had played with him for years at Somerset, only made it seem more poignant to me.)
Peter Roebuck was perhaps one of the last representatives of a tradition of literate, ruminative cricket writing and commentary, a tradition which began in nineteenth and early twentieth century England, and which was continued by the likes of Jim Swanton, John Arlott, and New Zealand's own DJ Cameron. Because of its drawn-out and frequently languid nature, a cricket game invites its observers into digressive thinking, in a way that a football match or an athletics meet do not. Cricket writers and commentators have traditionally had to be much more than mere reporters, because they have had to fill the spaces between balls, overs, and dramatic incidents with their words. Whether he was working in the commentary box or at his typewriter, Roebuck was, like Swanton and Arlott before him, able to enrich and explain the games he witnessed by telling stories, sketching portraits of players and officials, cracking wry jokes, and ruminating on subjects that sometimes seemed distant from the world of cricket. In texts like his article on Viv Richards and in the best passages of his radio commentary, Roebuck was able to turn an eccentric and complicated sport into a sort of telescope through which both history and the present could be viewed clearly and in detail.
With his vast vocabulary, digressive style, and taste for literary and historical allusion, Roebuck often seemed out of place in the era of modern sports journalism. After the 'Packer revolution' of the 1970s made televised cricket into big business, the importance of radio commentary to the sport began to decline. With its visual nature, its endless and frequently pointless 'action replays', its inane charts and graphs, and its commercial breaks between overs, televised cricket requires far less literary interpolation from its commentary teams than radio. Where radio commentators of previous cricket eras were famous for their lucidity, today's television commentators are often celebrated for their buffoonery and incoherence. In Australia, for instance, telly commentators like Tony Greig and Bill Lawry have become famous for their silly catchphrases, their struggles to pronounce the names of foreign players properly, and their on-air stoushes with each other.
The advent of internet cricket commentary has also eroded the tradition which Peter Roebuck represented. Websites like cricket.net nowadays provide ball by ball commentary on every international cricket match, but this commentary lacks the old digressive richness of radio.
I can't help but associate symbolically Peter Roebuck's passing and the recent decision of the Radio Sport network to abandon ball by ball coverage of first class provincial cricket in this country. Radio Sport's decision has drawn complaints from many Kiwis accustomed to listening Otago or Canterbury take on Northern Districts or Auckland as they paint the house or fire up the barbecue or sit on their deckchair in the heat of January. For hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders, the crackly sound of a cricket commentary from the Basin Reserve or Pukekura Park is as much a part of summer as the hissing of cicadas, or the sizzling of a barby.
Speaking on National Radio last Saturday, Jeff Wilson wondered what Radio Sport listeners were getting so upset about. The station would still provide updates on games every twenty minutes or so, he explained. Surely, given the slow-moving nature of cricket, this is all that is necessary?
Like many elite sportspeople, Wilson has little understanding of the leisurely, ruminative pleasures that cricket can provide. Because he was always focused, during his career as an All Black and a Black Cap, on winning, and on winning as efficiently as he could, Wilson has come to think in a completely instrumental way about sport. He judges a game by how it ends. For many old-fashioned cricket followers, though, the result of a game is less important than the way it is played and observed. An update every twenty minutes can never substitute for the flow of discussion and reflection which good radio commentators provide.
In an era where employers, the education system, and new forms of technology are all demanding that we live at a faster pace, and think in more instrumental ways, traditional ways of playing and following cricket have become anachronistic. That is part of the reason why so many people are keen to hold on to them.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]