Derek Pringle: Suicide ends life of talent and torment


Peter Roebuck possessed one of the keenest, most analytical minds of his generation, and one not easily swayed once made up.

What made him consider all outcomes bleak enough to launch himself from the sixth floor of a Cape Town hotel on Saturday night is not yet fully understood, only that the fall ended a life as troubled as it was rich with talent.

Suicide is something Roebuck, 55 when he died, predicted would never take him, though those who had known him since his youth were less certain.

In his foreword for the reprint of David Frith's book on cricket suicides, Silence of the Heart, he wrote: "Some people have predicted a gloomy end for this writer. One former colleague said so to my face in September 1986. It will not be so. The art is to find other things that matter just as much as cricket, which stretch you just as far.

"Certainly a man needs beliefs. Principles are not enough. But belief can spring from satisfaction in his own work, for to believe in yourself is an act of faith. Since 1983 I have led a stable, remarkably untroubled life, and such vicissitudes as have occurred have been connected with cricket form rather than temperament."

Roebuck wrote that early in 2001, a few months before the scandal of him caning three 19-year-old boys in his care in Taunton came to court and he was forced to admit common assault.

Like his controversial move in 1986, when he replaced Somerset's overseas players Vivian Richards and Joel Garner with Martin Crowe, a tempestuous time that saw him branded as "Judas" by Ian Botham, who left Somerset in protest, the stain never really faded.

Time usually dilutes such things but with Roebuck, who shunned England as a result to become an Australian citizen based in Bondi, you sensed these were seminal moments in which the shame and controversy were accreting with age, not dissipating.

Suggestions that he was gay have circulated since his playing days, but if true he has never acknowledged it to anyone I know. In any case, he did not crave partners on an equal footing, but followers. An intense, driven man, Roebuck was never destined to have an easy life and in a way he resented those who did.

He despised sloppiness of any kind, though that contradicts his hero worship of R.J.O. Meyer, the controversial founder of Millfield School in Somerset, which Roebuck and his younger brother, Paul, attended on scholarships.

Meyer, a former Somerset cricketer, would think nothing of gambling school fees on the stock market or a horse race, any winnings providing extra bursaries for the talented but less well heeled.

Roebuck acquired Meyer's educationist zeal, setting up scholarships for the underprivileged in South Africa, but not his raffish touch.

Roebuck was a fine cricketer; a brave, organised batsman who could have considered himself unlucky not to have been one of Graham Gooch's opening partners for England in the late 1980s. He probably came closest when asked to captain an England side, in which your correspondent also played, in two one-day matches against Holland in Amsterdam during 1989.

England lost the first game but won the second, though the lack of faith in Roebuck was immediately apparent when Mickey Stewart, the coach, rushed up to journalists after the defeat and told them to discount everything Roebuck had said at the press conference.

He had the sharpest of minds (he took a double first in law at Cambridge) and, when the mood overcame him, a lacerating tongue as well. A brilliant writer on cricket for among others the Sunday Times and the Sydney Morning Herald, he was once accosted by Mark Nicholas, who penned a regular column himself at the time and informed Roebuck that they were the best cricket writers around. "Who told you that," quipped Roebuck, "your mother?"

An acquaintance who played cricket at Cambridge with both of us once said Roebuck was destined to be a discontented soul, as a single lifetime was not long enough for him to achieve his ambitions. That he has not seen even one through suggests that any hopes he still had were suddenly replaced by an insurmountable wall of fear.

- NZ Herald

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