I first met him when he was still playing first-class cricket and our paths crossed in press boxes and commentary boxes on a regular basis for the next 23 years.
For a long time, like many of his colleagues both on and off the field, I was intimidated by his eccentricities. We naturally fear or avoid what we don’t understand – human instinct. But I didn’t avoid conversation, far from it. I just avoided debate on the basis that I didn’t stand a chance and preferred to defer to his vastly superior knowledge.
Then, almost a decade after we first met, he was travelling around South Africa during Australia’s 1997 tour of South Africa looking more and dishevelled. Nobody ever saw him at the ‘usual’ hotels and he brushed off my queries about his accommodation with a casual “oh, just with friends.”
We had just moved into a house we really could not afford and furniture was not only second hand but sparse. Still, I invited him to stay and he gladly accepted. He wore tracksuit pants the first evening which must have been at least 20 years old and a sleeveless Somerset sweater that was filthy, and smelly. My wife asked, understandably, when it had last been washed. He looked down at his chest and then up to her before replying, nonplussed: “But, it’s a cricket sweater…?” Evidently they were not intended to be washed. That night she put the entire contents of his duffle bag in the washing machine.
We had a new puppy at the time and we were battling to train it. The only decent piece of furniture we had was a beige sofa. The puppy fell in love with it and, if it wasn’t trying to jump on it, it was chewing the legs off it. He sat down on it and the puppy jumped on him. I removed the dog and asked our guest not to encourage it. This request was infinitely more difficult to comprehend than washing a dirty sweater – and impossible to comply with. So the dog stayed. It was a bit like having two dogs, actually. One was only a little bit better house-trained than the other.
One was a stubborn animal with a sense of mischief which seemed to revel in the attention it got from doing something naughty, and the other was a six-month old Ridgeback puppy.
It used to infuriate me that he would write so many articles about players, analysing their personalities and characters, without even talking to them. Maybe it was the fact that he was so accurate most of the time. I would challenge him about it and he would simply say: “Was I wrong?”
Then he really did get it wrong – horrendously and embarrassingly wrong in my opinion – when he suggested that Herschelle Gibbs should be made captain of the national team. “The maverick is often a leader in disguise,” he said. “Empower the rebel and the rest will fall into line.”
“Have you even spoken to him?” I asked. “Peter, you’re mad!” I said, smiling.
“Ah well, you can’t be right all the time. Never mind. Still, it got people talking, hey?” He didn’t mind one little bit.
I consulted him intensely when Zimbabwe Cricket invited me to return and help with their return to Test cricket after an absence of six years. Peter had campaigned with passion against Zimbabwe’s right to play on the international stage claiming that ZC administrators were as corrupt as Mugabe and his ZanuPF cronies. I told him I wanted to go and see for myself – I said it was time I stopped judging from afar (and suggested that he might consider the same.)
He gave me his ‘approval’ and wished me good luck and I completed two short tours with the Zim national team as their media liaison officer. One evening I was surfing the web and was shocked to see an article in which he described me as a turncoat and accused me of having double standards. I was furious. We had a blazing row next time we met and I reminded him that I had sought the blessing of three critical people before accepting the assignment: Andy Flower, Senator David Coltart – and him. We did not speak again for over a year.
Then, on Thursday, he asked whether he could buy me a coffee on Sunday morning, the scheduled last day of the Newlands Test. He wanted to “repair bridges.” I agreed – but made him promise to talk and listen with an open mind! He smiled. I’m pretty sure it meant ‘yes.’ But I’ll never know now.
A radio station in New Zealand asked me for an interview about the man I had known for so long. The presenter told me beforehand that NZ law precluded him from using the word ‘suicide’ in his interview. I assumed that meant it was my job to say it. “No, no – you can’t say it either,” he replied. “It’s against our law.”
It was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. It would have made Roebuck laugh out loud: “Australia and New Zealand are nanny states, I love them, but Africa is so much wilder and more free,” he told me more than once.
“After questioning by the police,” I heard myself saying, “he left his hotel room via the window, apparently without the assistance or intervention of anybody else.”
Roebuck. No wonder he wrote so brilliantly on the subject of flawed genius.
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