There (was) something missing as the summer cricket season (began last Thursday) at the Gabba.
His death creates a gap in our seasonal lives that is only beginning to be felt. But it also provoked an outburst of public grief, affection, suspicion and dislike that Australian cricket has rarely seen. A response that says as much about fault lines in our society as it does of the place that cricket continues to hold in our culture.
There’s nothing Roebuck would have hated more than this. It’s why he jumped. The explosion of controversy, scandal, fear and malice which allegations of sexual assault inevitably bring to a man in his position.
The jump was not an acknowledgement of guilt - although he may well be guilty. It’s a clear indication that scrutiny of his private world was unbearable - licit, illicit, or otherwise. And yet he’d be utterly amazed too by outrush of public and private grieving. He would be touched, and not want to show it. Or be touched, and show it, but then feel instantly self-conscious and retreat a thousand miles.
With one or two notable exceptions, the response of the media has been all-too revealing. Two clear conversations have ensued. On the one hand there has been a series of beautiful eulogies - oftentimes a genuine public keening - replete with awkward silences. On the other we have been provided with increasingly salacious accounts of Roebuck’s life and last moments that seek to paint him as a predatory monster. Both lines of reportage have been searching for the revelatory truth which might explain such a shocking ending.
The two conversations have rarely intersected. The tributes to Roebuck have often been more sympathetic than other men facing a similar accusation might have expected - seen as an illustrative ‘double standard’ by critics who have contrasted it with contemporary responses to Church scandals. Meanwhile, those investigating the possible sexual assault increasingly read every aspect of Roebuck’s as evidence for his perversion. The Herald Sun, for instance, found clues on the Roebuck’s laptop written in the hours after the alleged assault which ‘proved an eerie pointer to the troubled days ahead’. Namely a line that ‘Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future’. The cry of a tormented soul? Perhaps, but this is also a typical Roebuck ‘couplet’. It points to the studied ambivalence about the usually accepted types of good and bad, about how much or how little these public selves, and public types can project of authentic reality and truth. Aside from anything else, it’s a robust engagement with questions of good and bad, which is largely missing from both media conversations.
One unifying theme that columnists have fallen back on has been the unknowability of Roebuck. We can attest to this too. The man we first interviewed in 2003, assisted with several books, and broke bread with each Boxing Day test match, never once alluded to a personal life. He was an intensely social loner, a sharp, demanding, witty and compassionate conversationalist who kept a part of himself shut off. But while none of his colleagues claim to have known Roebuck well - including the men he worked side-by-side for decades - the public response to his death indicates that many of his listeners and readers felt a deep connection to him. The outbreak of keening is more than simple media construct. It’s an indication of the considerable personal loss that many cricket followers are experiencing.
Inga Clendinnen’s recent essay on her memories of cricket provides a typically suggestive insight into the potent place the game occupies in Australian culture. Clendinnnen recalls a childhood where the shared ceremonies of cricket were ‘specially sanctified’ and ‘consolidated into lore through the slow drip-feed of talk, time and experience’. It was a place of wilful self-assertion, masculine displays and revelations of character, of styles of self, mediated through ‘that most intimate and insidious form of public communication, the radio’. Nowadays the observation is commonplace: cricket is a game of money and dramatic entertainment. But Roebuck’s death and the response to it shows something else. It remains for many Australians a sacred place that revolves around talk. About what each ball means. What an innings means. What a person’s display and play means. It is a paramount theatre of values, dreams, character, wishes, and fears. If the talk is good enough it can be about all of these things.
At his best, Peter Roebuck spoke and wrote of all of this. He brought the struggles of cricket to life. His particular genius lay in the ever-fresh charting of the inner turmoil of cricketers and nations, that lies at the heart of this game of bat and ball, and through which character is revealed.
The best commentators speak directly to us in words that illuminate not just the outward struggle of contest on the field of play but the inner as well, revealing the burden and joy of existence, the soul at large in the world. Roebuck did so with an earthy lyricism (likening Steve Waugh, for example, to a ‘bloke whose lawnmower has broken down again’) - sharing his fascination with cricket in a manner that provided insights into the subtleties of the game and was frequently uplifting. Little wonder that he engendered significant affection and gratitude from much of his audience.
Roebuck spoke frequently of the fine line between good and bad, victory and defeat, agony and ecstasy. But as a culture we’re still uncomfortable with the notion that someone might be filled with desires at once virtuous and disreputable. We struggle especially to deal with the complexities of sexuality and even more particularly with the vagaries of sexual assault. It’s very hard for many people to comprehend that someone we cherish is capable of harmful deeds. And it’s also very hard for many to understand that someone guilty of significant misdeeds might also be capable of noble actions. Those who treasured Roebuck thus treat his misdeeds, both real and alleged, with a sympathy that fails to address his victims, while his accusers entirely misread his house and programs for young Southern African men as evidence of perversion despite the protestations of the men actually concerned.
The truth is harder than both these things. The truth is not always clear, or easy, or simple. It takes lyric insight and hard reality and transmutes them into a singular vision, a synthesis of thesis and antithesis. The hardest thing for many, ourselves included, is that right now what’s needed most is what can’t be had - a Roebuck couplet to help us make sense of it all.
Alex McDermott is an historian and writer based in Melbourne. His most recent book is Australian History For Dummies, (2010). Matthew Klugman lectures in Sports Studies at Victoria University and is the author of Passion Play: Love, Hope and Heartbreak at the Footy.
This essay first ran on The Drum: HERE