The Peter I knew...only too little
As the spot-fixing trial was ending, I was starting to waver in my loathing for Salman Butt, Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif. So they had bowled a few intentional no-balls. Cricket had forsaken if not forgiven them. Perhaps jail terms were extreme. Perhaps Butt should be allowed to hold his newborn son. Amir should be allowed by the side of his wailing mother. And then I read Peter Roebuck: "Sport itself is sincere or it is nothing. Seeing and believing must be bedfellows. Cricket can no longer make any such claim."
There. Three sentences. Not a fancy word among them. Not a twist of phrase as a contrived attention-grabber. Three sentences to re-affirm why these men were criminals. Why they deserved to go to jail. Roebuck wasn't merely a gifted writer. He was the keeper of cricket's morality. Almost a lone ranger in a game over-run by deceit, greed and lucre. Lesser men couldn't be Roebuck.
In my job there are many privileges. To have the company of men idolised and admired by millions. To talk endlessly of an obsession that consumes so many. To watch cricket being played in distant corners of the world from vantage points. Knowing Peter was one such privilege. He was fiercely opinionated. Held positions based on logic and information. He explained through his work how cricket was a tiny sport. That impacted its devoted followers beyond cold statistics and victory or defeat.
I remember well the morning after the rancorous Test match in Sydney in 2008. Australian journalists were in back-slapping, we-told-you-so mode as India imploded to concede the Test match. Roebuck instead turned the mirror on Ricky Ponting and his testosterone injected team. A bold headline in the Sydney Morning Herald calling them a 'Pack of Wild Dogs' for their graceless celebration on a contentious victory. Watching horrified from the press box as the Australians audibly wheeled off profanity after profanity, Roebuck pointed to the disbelief among the faithful who saw this disgrace unfold. He reminded Ponting's men that a cricket team represents a nation as more than mere winners and losers. Roebuck's denunciation was savage and as he later told me "intentionally so". There has rarely been a show of similar idiocy by an Australian team since.
Peter viewed cricket from the prism of a larger world-view. He argued vociferously for Zimbabwe's exclusion from the world game, pointing repeatedly at the seedy corruption among its administrators. He lawyered with passion for the continued presence of minnows in the World Cup, despite their abject performance in the sub-continent. He predicted England's ascent to the top of the World Test rankings when its cricket was in a shambolic state. Peter wasn't always right, but he was never wrong for lack of logic or vision. He was a thought-leader, although if told that, Peter would wave off admiration with a shrug.
In 2008 Peter worked with us during Australia's tour to India. I often wandered into the studio and in the minutes before we went on air, I would notice Peter watching a replay of the day's play. Spell-bound by the action. "It is amazing," he would say, "how much you notice when you just watch what you have seen already." He was an oddball, who rarely, if ever, attended press conferences. Rarely spoke with cricketers. Never coveted the pointless quote. Peter was a devotee of the sport and saw the players as what they were meant to be: custodians. He was effusive in his admiration for men like Sangakkara who showed the courage to speak out against administrative corruption. And when all seemed well, was the first with a cautionary note. Reminding us during the IPL, for instance, that "exciting events tend to distract attention from broader truths. In some cases, that is their intention; elsewhere it is a by-product."
I have been re-reading an email exchange I was sensible enough to preserve with Peter from December 2008. He was tiring of cricket at the time saying to me once, "Gaurav, I am finding it hard to cherish the game right now with so much happening around it." Forever the wanderer, Peter was keen to explore what living in India would be like. He said his idea was "to form a base camp and to work there in the winter months. Might build an informal family and work there as opposed to Australia." The conversation fizzled out and I presume Peter let other distractions take over.
Today, I regret deeply that Peter and I never became better friends. I remained an admirer, hungrily awaiting his next column or the chance to get him talking on an issue of relevance. But I rarely, if ever, picked up the phone to just chat with Peter. Alas, that regret will forever endure. There can never be another Peter Roebuck. He was cricket's most robust protector. He is no longer watching. No longer provoking. No longer cajoling. His legacy is impossible to measure. His shoes, impossible to fill.
More about Gaurav KalraGaurav Kalra has been producing sports content on television for over a decade. He started his career at Trans World International where for four years he worked on a variety of programming including magazine shows, news bulletins and live broadcasts. In his next role at Quintus, Gaurav produced a series of programming under the Wisden brand name, including the Wisden Indian cricketer of the century and the Wisden Awards. Gaurav joined CNN-IBN as Sports Editor in 2005.
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