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Soup of This Day #98: And The Cotton Is High

November 14, 2011

Newlands Cricket Ground
Newlands Cricket Ground, Cape Town, South Africa. It’s a long way from Somerset – Photo: Paddy Briggs, 2005. Paddy Briggs is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

This post was going to be about football shirts. I own a number of them and I was going to write about what they meant to me. I reckon I could do that in a way that it wouldn’t bore the crap out of everyone.

Now though I have decided to give it a miss – Something else has come up. Sport does that and the shirt thing was only going to be a kind of filler – This is Soup #98 – I’d already written #99 and for reasons that will become clear when you read that I couldn’t just shove it back down to #98. The problem is that this weekend was kinda divolved of Longworth72 sport – An international break meant no football to cover and the 1st Test between South Africa and Australia didn’t make it past the halfway mark or Friday night. There is a Grand Prix tonight but the season is over bar the shouting and this round was on 1 of the sleep inducing modern tracks. Tiger Woods was playing golf here in Australia but whilst I care about tigers, woods and Australia deeply I really don’t care about golf.

And that’s even when I’m playing it.

Nope, nothing going on and so when I sat down to write last night I looked around our home office/gym/future 2nd child’s bedroom and saw 4 Liverpool FC shirts hanging up I thought: ‘Cripes, that’s it! I’ll write about those 4 shirts.’

It will be riveting when I do. You’ll see.

It just won’t be tonight. Tonight I’m reflecting instead on something a little more serious than how Adidas has built a chimney of silver-coated conductive fibres up the back of a shirt that I could have sworn looked perfectly bloody normal.

This post is about the death of Peter Roebuck.

To be honest I wasn’t all that fond of Peter. I knew him as a cricket commentator. A darkly cynical scribe of the game whose opinions always seemed a little too strident, a little too out there. When others called for moderation, there was Peter Roebuck, suggesting that someone should be sacked and that some conspiracy needed to be peirced. That he was often right made no difference – His was the opinion that most didn’t want to face, at least partly because he was often right. His was the dangerous voice of someone who cared about not just how the game was won but how it was played.

This was apparent in 2008. Australia was hosting India in a hard-fought Test series and there had been a series of petulant escalations that threatened to blow up into something that damaged the well-being of the game. Peter Roebuck felt they already had taken on that dimension:

‘If Cricket Australia cares a fig for the tattered reputation of our national team in our national sport, it will not for a moment longer tolerate the sort of arrogant and abrasive conduct seen from the captain and his senior players in the past few days. It was the ugliest performance by an Australian side for 20 years. The only surprising part of it is that the Indians have not already packed and gone home.’

Roebuck scathingly called for the head of Australian captain Ricky Ponting. Australian cricket was reeling and the captain should bear the brunt of the responsibility for fostering such a culture was the tenet of his argument. Almost nobody else agreed, in fact almost nobody else would have used the word ‘reeling’ as I did in that last sentence. Until they read Peter Roebuck that is – The truth was that Australian cricket should have been ‘reeling’ and because Peter Roebuck demanded a high standard I get to accurately use that word here.

It was a stark example of something his father highlighted in his 2005 autobiography:

‘He is an unconventional loner with an independent outlook on life, an irreverent sense of humour and sometimes a withering tongue.’

As a consequence I almost never turned the radio off when he was talking and I tried to read his articles when I could. There are those, such as John Stern, the former editor of the cricketing bible The Wisden Cricketer, who describe Roebuck as, ‘One of the two or three best writers on cricket in the world.’

Fellow cricket scribe Gideon Haigh said of Roebuck’s approach:

‘He was so fresh and so different and so off the reservation that he made it easier for all the writers who came after him… …And an outsider he remained – I think to the benefit of his writing, but perhaps in the end to his cost as a person.’

Perhaps it did, for Peter Roebuck, just 55, took his own life Saturday night. He had been in a hotel in Cape Town, South Africa where along with Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) collegues he had been covering the 2 Test series between South Africa and Australia. Just days before I had heard him talk on air through 1 of the most extraordinary days of cricket you’ll find. As wickets fell at Newlands Cricket Ground and heads rolled Roebuck had calmly kept his, accurately calling the outcomes, both on the field and off.

That was Friday. On Saturday night he was with police in his 6th-floor hotel room as they apparently questioned him about an alleged sexual assault. It’s not known if he was complicit in a crime or perhaps just a witness. Either way, at some point the former Somerset batsman decided to take his own life, jumping out of the window with the police still there.

No one but Peter Roebuck could say for sure what fueled this last step but if we don’t know the fuel then we can at least say that the mechanics are kind of familiar. Winston Churchill called depression a ‘black dog’ and it’s as apt a name as I’ve ever found, albeit with 1 correction: It’s not fair to call it a dog – dogs are by-and-large balanced – They might be overly happy or malevolently evil but they achieve those states without complexity. Depression by contrast is vastly complicated, a chasm that has handholds and ledges on which to cling but which are prone to crumbling beneath you.

Which doesn’t make it unknowable. Eventually you get to recognize which handholds are going to be ok, which cracks you can hammer a piton into and which patches of snow really have a crevasse underneath them. You can still succumb to them but chances are as you fall into the hole you’ll think ‘I bloody knew that snow was a fraction too yellow’.

Depression in short is an utter bastard of an illness but it’s recognizeable, identifiable. That’s not to say that it’s acceptable – Just that we can go to bed tonight understanding in a limited sort of way that Peter Roebuck got to a point where in his mind his life couldn’t continue. It doesn’t make it right, it just makes it desperately sad.

The title of this post comes from Gershwin’s Summertime. We went to see the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra do a program of Gershwin on Friday night. Don’t beat me up or anything but I love going to see WASO, sitting in the choir stalls and looking down into the orchestra. And I think Rhapsody in Blue is about as brilliant as it gets – We were maybe 15 feet from the Principal Clarinet as he ripped out the opening glissando. They did the Catfish Row suite as well, featuring Summertime and the line about cotton being high was a smart-arse play on the doped fabric they use in the shirts.

Now though the line means nothing much. Instead the song, with it’s long languid texture that lazily evokes summer afternoons, could easily fit cricket. Summer for Australians means cricket season and for the past 15 years, the voice of Peter Roebuck. Perhaps the line about the livin’ being easy isn’t right – I can’t imagine it was easy. Still the theme is there and it’s maybe something that for 1 cricket fan at least summertime won’t quite be the same this time around.

For Australia: beyondblue: the national depression initiative

And The Cotton Is High

One Comment
  1. I was not familiar with this man or his passing but your post certainly was a great tribute to him…as well as a cautionary tale for us all. The mind is so complex and difficult to understand, yet we sometimes think we know people. We know no one. We barely can figure ourselves out.

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