Robbo just ‘knew’

After fifteen years as a colleague and over ten as a fellow tourist on 20 or more overseas trips, it’s not easy to pick a moment or a memory that best reflects the relationship I had with Peter Robinson, the brilliant cricket writer whose innings was ended by cancer on Wednesday.

He was sharper than any of us, often wittier and certainly more argumentative. Forget crosswords or Sudoku for mental exercise, on long tours to India or England we would stay in shape by disagreeing with Robbo on a subject we knew he felt strongly about. I never saw anyone win – but it was fun trying.

One of the subjects about which I have always written is the effect that years and years away from the ‘normality’ of a family environment can have on the minds of professional cricketers. Throughout the last century, there has been more dysfunctionality amongst cricketers than any other sportsmen.

Many years ago Robbo convinced me to accept that it was pointless trying to convince supporters that international cricketers deserved any sympathy whatsoever following a poor match after two months on the road. “In fact,” Robbo said, “it’s actually counter-productive. Unless someone has been away from home for that long, on a repetitive basis, they cannot understand. And you’ll just turn them against the team if you suggest that people who get paid very well to travel the world and play cricket deserve any sympathy.”

Robbo would always play the Devil’s Advocate when the subject came up.

He would often point out how much the players were paid, that they were professional and that they had chosen their career. Nobody had forced them to become professional cricketers, he would say. It wasn’t as if they were working 12-hour shifts in a coal mine.

Seven years ago, roughly, we were in Derby. I don’t mean this to be an anti-Derby ‘thing’, but give me Jamshedpur, Baroda or Karachi any time ahead of Derby. I can’t recall how many weeks we had been away but all I could see was black/grey sky and rain. It was cold and the bedsit I was confined to was damp and smelled of urine. My career was at a crossroads and, at times like those, it’s hard to see the bright side – of anything. Especially in the centre of Derby.

As hard as I tried, I couldn’t drag myself out of the slumber. Like Marcus Trescothick, I decided I had to leave the tour. I didn’t really care about anything else at the time. I called Robbo in his only marginally better hotel room next door.

“You doing anything…?” I asked, trying to sound normal. I hadn’t spoken to him all day.

“I’ll see you downstairs – in two minutes,” he replied. Just like that.

And that was that. He put his arm around my shoulder and walked me to the nastiest pub I had ever seen. It had plastic tables, plastic chairs and a plastic, lino floor. It was full of men who had been sitting in the same plastic chairs for 30 years with the same, almost-finished roll-up cigarettes stuck to their bottom lips.

He ordered two pints of something warm and brown and sat down next to me. People were staring at us. We exchanged two or three mundane sentences before Robbo ordered the next pint. We just sat in the corner surveying the scene and looking at the cold, grey, wet skies outside. It was truly bleak.

I was thinking of how to tell Robbo that I’d had enough and was planning to leave the tour.

Then he looked at me and smiled. “You’re not the only one feeling like a pile of shit, you know!” I laughed. Then he laughed. Then we both laughed and laughed until we could hardly stop. We ended buying nasty, greasy fish and chips and waking up with a hangover. We both finished the tour strongly but mine might not have finished at all had Robbo not been there for me that day. He just ‘knew’.

Thanks mate. I’ll have a pint for you next time I’m in Derby – and then I’ll get the hell out of there.

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