Like most, I woke up to the beep on my mobile on Sunday to learn of his death. I was devastated. I sank to the floor on my bathroom and ran cold water over my burning cheeks. I was crying. I never knew he mattered so much.
Over the week, I have learnt to make peace with the reality of his loss. He invoked more thought and debate in me than any other writer could. Not even people I knew in life managed to have me on tenterhooks like he did. I read his work always. Sometimes, I felt he was a liar and I quickly realized it was my nationalistic feelings blinding my vision. It didn’t matter what he said, it was always going to take many readings and enough thinking and re-thinking and re-reading for me to fully comprehend what he wrote. It amused me initially that he thought matters like marriage and children could affect great cricketers and their game. To me, a cover drive was a cover drive. Married, widowed or gay had nothing to do with it. He thought differently. Society, background and mentoring, or the lack of it, mattered it to him. He saw cricket through the eyes of a historian, analyst, fan, player, politics, society. Perhaps more. Definitely more. I was never clever to see through all of them.
As a child growing up in a small village in southern Indiain the 90s meant access to television and cable tv was a non option. The Sportstar was the only thing I read. Not even school books, but The Sportstar, yes, many times over each week. But I cannot recall reading Peter Roebuck before 1998. The Aussies had been humbled in the first Test at Chennai following a Tendulkar master class. Two weeks later, I read his column on The Sportstar. He bespoke of India as a nation and gave insights into Kumble and Srinath. It might have been about them being engineers, but I do not recall exactly. Yet I can recall that it left an impression on me. I was hooked. From then on, I have not missed an opportunity to read any of his work.
Like all, I would not agree with some of his opinions. Some of them were seriously above me. His pet hates included Mugabe and Zimbabwe. Perhaps I was too young to understand. Many years later, I still cannot correlate many things he had to say on Zimbabwean cricket and the many reforms he sought from them. Politics never interested me like it did to him. But the black arm-band incident in the 2003 world cup woke me up to some of the realities of Zimbabwe. And since, I have caught up enough to make sense of some of his writings on Zimbabwe and Africa.
Like with all sport and sportsmen, there are intangibles that go beyond the numbers they have to show for the efforts. I learnt how to look for those in my analysis of players as I read and re-read some of his works. I treasure his It Takes All Sorts and often fall back on it to learn about cricketers and cultures and minds. I tried reading the game and the cricketers as I saw them. Yet, his would be the first article I would read the following morning to see if he saw it any differently. He invariably did. And he was often right. And I would go back and read the book again!
Amateur writers like me do not have to worry about deadlines or toe the sensitive lines of the employer. But the freedom that comes with it also bestows the responsibility of trying to write to the best and honest ability of self. Often the style mattered to me though I never got round to figuring out what it was! Words were re-juggled and phrases re-written. Over time, I tried to build my works on my opinions. Unlike he, it was difficult for me to be bluntly honest or be as vocal every time I wrote my opinion pieces. I hid behind the comforting blanket of diplomacy. Perhaps it reflected my insecurity and self doubts. Even fear. What if I’m seen to be a fool, I would think. And I have hated myself for not choosing to be more forthright on those occasions.
He often mesmerized me with his conviction in his opinion and the cleverly and rationally thought-out supporting arguments in proving his cause. Not to mention his ability with words and metaphor. I have often tried imitating and always fallen flat. It didn’t matter if my opinion differed from his, I started to try presenting my honest opinion and build my argument around it. Needless to say, he was the inspiration and the standard I liked comparing myself to. Not that we were equals, but, hey, he was the best and it rarely hurt to compare yourself with him. I knew the answer to that and I tried inching my way closer but the chasm would never narrow. Like I really had a chance!
I never liked him on television when he would appear on cricket shows. His arguments were better in print than it was on television. Perhaps I was more captivated by his writing and I preferred reading him. May be he wrote exactly what he said on radio or television in the newspapers, but they were always impeccable and captivating in print. May be it was also a case of not wanting to find out your favourite uncle was indeed not the all-knowing superman you always thought he was.
Like many intangibles in life, Roebuck was one for me. It never mattered what he did or where he was, but it mattered what he said. I never exchanged an email or saw him in person. He mesmerized with his words and thought. His correlation of cricket to life and vice-versa made him the best analyst of his time. His prose was magic. Or it was infatuation. I don’t care. He remained the most honest of writers who wrote what he saw, unafraid and unbiased. It is a trait I hope to imbibe to my writing. It is the best tribute I can hope pay to him.