Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Remembering Peter Roebuck

Peter Roebuck is dead. Obituaries have flowed, ranging from describing his awkward manner to his favourite straw hat and everything in between - relevant or not.

His death has come with the greatest outpouring of words cricket has seen for some time about one man. When Hansie Cronje died, the internet was still a pre-teen; when beloved commentators died more recently - Fred Trueman, for example - they were remembered with a smirk, a grin and tales of "Aye, and 'twas wasted on thee". Was Alan McGilvray or Brian Johnson remembered so vividly?
Courtesy: Guardian.co.uk
Why contribute further to this internet verbosity? How best to pay respect to one of your writing inspirations? Peter Roebuck is best remembered by his writing, because the complexity of Peter Roebuck tha man was exemplified best in that commentary.

His last column, "No dumpings for the sake of it", was published in the Australian Fairfax media group on the day of his death. It detailed possible responses to the Australian collapse on day two of the First Test at Newlands. As always, his work succinctly summed up what no-one else had thought to: Australia's batting had failed not once but twice; Shaun Marsh's back condition isn't likely to improve and that any potential Australian replacements (David Warner?!) aren't unlikely to be ready or perform better.

He preached measured action. Perhaps his most famous column, coming in the wake of the fractious Sydney Test of 2008, called for Ricky Ponting's head on a platter. Though shouted down by many, this was again a call for measured action. He reasoned the results of Ponting's tetchy captaincy would impinge the spirit of the game. When you read Roebuck, you read foremost about the spirit of the game.

That spirit, however, took him all over the world, surveying and annotating the most nuanced game of all. That he has since been called the "Bard of Summer" sits perfectly.

There's a saying in sportswriting: don't use adjectives. They lead the reader unnecessarily when your words should be able to paint a picture without resorting to blunt instruments. The best sportswriting is often quite spartan, aesthetically simple stuff with elegant results: the reader knows exactly where the essayist is going through clever use of words.

Ever the contradiction, Roebuck eschewed this principle. He used such a variety of nuanced descriptive terms that those adjectives became surgical tools. It was this which set him apart from other writers. His description - simple, measured yet far-reaching - left his audience completely aware of the importance of each event without needing to reach for a thesaurus. His vocabulary, easy and extensive, meant he captured the essence of what it meant to be at the cricket on any particular day.

His successor as the Thinking Man's cricket journalist is likely to be Fairfax Media's Crown Prince of Commentary, Greg Baum. In the hours after Roebuck's passing, Baum wrote an obituary - unsteady but fluent, respectful - hauting, even - which only underlined what a wordsmith the game has lost.

A friend once said of literature that there's not enough time in life for bad prose. If a story was stilted or awkward, it was best to tell only the facts. Those able to afford it could stretch their narrative wings - Douglas Adams did it perhaps better than any.

Cricket writing mourns it's premier artisan.

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