‘Sport is human or it is nothing'

Peter Roebuck, the renowned cricket writer, passed away in tragic circumstances in South Africa recently. Here's his last despatch to Sportstar.

Sport's ability to transcend the normal never fails to amaze. It's tempting to put leading players onto a different plain from the rest of humanity, to regard them as well nigh infallible, like clocks made in Switzerland or German motor cars. Press a button and they perform. And then comes the debacle.

It is an outlook that fails to take into account our own fallibilities. Even now I toss and turn in bed and think of blunders made in playing days, and not in the first flush of youth but towards the end of a long career, in the forties when the brain is supposed to rule the roost.

But the truth is that the grey matter never entirely holds sway, and does not always work properly. Even at the highest levels, games are played by mere humanity. Certainly top sportsmen do not make as many mistakes as lesser lights but they are not immune to emotion or error. Even in this time of advisors, psychologists, coaches, rolled pitches reviews, dieticians and so on a player can take to the arena with a head full of nonsense.

In a way it is reassuring, a reminder that sport is human or it is nothing. A mighty golfer might lose all the balls in his bag and stamp from the course never to be seen again. A great batsman seeking his 100th hundred for his country can try to pull a ball too full for the purpose. An entire team can fall apart. Did not Arsenal recently lose 7-1 at Old Trafford? Did they not bounce back impressively?

A sportswriter becomes accustomed to the extraordinary, tries to explain it to readers, seeks to chart the course of events that led to it. After a few decades the reporter takes everything in his stride, recalls previous occasions when just such a calamity occurred. History lends perspective.

John Woodcock, for so long the doyen of English cricketing scribes once began a report with the words “As recently as 1936…”!

Nothing, though, prepared journalists for the events that unfolded on a sunny afternoon in Cape Town. Already the day had been dramatic as the Proteas struggled to collect the 85 runs needed to avoid the follow on. It had not seemed a difficult task, not after Michael Clarke has scored 150 on the same pitch. But South Africa almost made a hash of it and it was left to the last wicket pair to take them to the required tally.

Australia walked out to bat with 188 runs already to the advantage. To all intents and purposes the match was over. An hour later the visitors had staggered to 9/21. Funny how easily that score slips off the tongue. Put the averages of the batsmen together and the Aussies could expect to score 394. And they were 9/21.

Steve Waugh used to talk about mental disintegration. Professional batsmen hone their games and apply those skills on every trip to the crease. Waugh understood the importance of getting under batsmen's skins, into their brains.

On this occasion the Australians did the work themselves. Batsman after batsman convinced themselves that the only hope lay with an aggressive approach. It was a colossal concession and utterly wrongheaded.

Bill Lawry, John Edrich and other stalwarts must have been aghast. Here was a chance to show fortitude and skill, to play late and straight, to survive the tough period and to score runs later. Instead the Australians panicked.

Upon reflection it was partly about something about the vagaries of sport and the frailty of mankind but it also said something about modern batting.