New book, new questions

Peter Roebuck was a fine journalist just as he had once been a determined batsman and I promise you there are not enough reporters of that calibre; even though I admire the way Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge have assembled an excellent book.

Peter Roebuck during his playing days for Somerset.   -  Getty Images

I am probably the only person who was part of the cricket circuit for 27 years from 1980 who did not think Peter Roebuck was outrageous; but then I had been closely associated with that world class oddball Alex Higgins for the previous 10 years. I think it is fair to say Higgins was very peculiar.

A new book — written by two Australian journalists — details Roebuck’s behaviour and asks new questions about his death while he was being interviewed by two South African policemen.

The book, which is long and detailed, might profitably have inquired further into the connections between his death and those of Bob Woolmer and Hansie Cronje. There is a case to answer about that link, but Roebuck as a peculiar human being — I beg to differ.

As far as I can judge from this book Chasing Shadows: The Life and Death of Peter Roebuck his strange behaviour included denying he had a family when, in fact, he spoke to his mother regularly, failing to take advantage of a law degree because he preferred to play professional county cricket, writing articles in which he criticised members of the Somerset team he captained and abusing orphan boys he adopted.

His behaviour towards the orphans was appalling — and often criminal — but otherwise he was just a badly adjusted cricketer who did not quite make it even though his admirers thought he ought to have played for England.

The contrast with Higgins, twice world snooker champion who died alone in a tiny flat in central Belfast, is stark. Higgins threatened to withdraw from a tournament — BBC’s Pot Black halfway through unless he was paid more — argued with officials, insulted pressmen, fellow players and spectators and became so violently aggressive, he was banned. He was an arch rogue and Roebuck was never that. Neither was he what his public school and university peers expected.

Roebuck fell out with the two stars of the Somerset team, Viv Richards and Ian Botham and, so they said, was responsible for Richards and Joel Garner not having their contracts renewed. He blamed Botham for his troubles with the police in South Africa. One of his enemies hung a sign “Judas” from his dressing room peg. The atmosphere in that pavilion must have been toxic.

After his death all sorts of theories were put forward often connecting the tragedy with Woolmer’s demise in the West Indies and Cronje’s death aboard a plane on which he had cadged a lift. The inquiry into Woolmer’s death was a mess from beginning to end; Cronje’s death was ruled an accident although there were plenty of reasons to extend the scope of the investigation.

Was there any connection between the three deaths? Was there a powerful godfather behind the plots? As much to the point, was there also a massive cover-up?

I knew each of these men well and my own verdict, from nearly 8,000 miles away, was that the Cronje accident was a misadventure and that Roebuck killed himself because he could not stand the thought of being questioned again, particularly after he had been given three suspended jail terms in England for similar offences.

I do not believe there was any plot to get rid of the three of them. I have had my suspicions about Woolmer’s demise in his hotel room after his side Pakistan had been beaten but it will need a great deal of new evidence to stand up my theory.

The mystery of Peter Roebuck, alive or dead, remains. He could have been a hero still, in his adopted country Australia, in India where he was a regular contributor to The Hindu and Sportstar as well as in other parts of the world.

The greatest tragedy was that Roebuck wrote elegantly about cricket as few men have ever done. Unlike most of his peers he was willing to work hard to learn the truth, to stand up to the game’s often unhelpful officials, to interview those he had once played alongside and to carry out his own research until he knew the full story.

It made him a fine journalist just as he had once been a determined batsman and I promise you there are not enough reporters of that calibre; even though I admire the way Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge have assembled this excellent book.