When authority failed its duty, when tyrants trampled democracy, when cricketers became agents and boards became bullies, Peter Roebuck spoke. Roebuck was universal, his voice was deep and insightful, his arguments forensically incisive, and his style inimitable. When there was strife in the little universe of cricket, you waited for that formidable intelligence to weigh the conflicting possibilities and speak the truth. Sometimes he was wrong—but wrong in such beautiful prose! A philanthropist, an avuncular counsel to young writers, an idealist, and the conscience-keeper of the game—that was Peter Roebuck.
Ironical, then, if the man who stood for everything right in cricket and politics were to be deeply flawed in his private life, who ended it all by jumping out of his hotel window when confronted with the accusation of sexual assault made against him by a 26-year-old man.
But each one of us is several people at once. What else was Roebuck behind his public persona? Did the weakness of the flesh overwhelm a man known for his professional rectitude? It behoves us to be careful before accusing the dead. We must presume him innocent until proven guilty—Roebuck won’t mount a defence; he has preferred to exit the game of life. That itself seems damning. Flight is usually seen as a sign of guilt, isn’t it? But suicide is also the last resort of the life-weary. A lot of innocent people commit suicide, do they not?
We’ll never know the truth. The facts that we do know are these: Roebuck let young cricketers into his house in England or Australia or South Africa, for free, sometimes at nominal charges, and coached them. He built a house for underprivileged children in Pietermaritzburg, 70 km from Durban in South Africa. According to Psychology Maziwisa, an orphan who got a chance in life because of Roebuck, his benefactor had spent money “in the region of $5,00,000 of his personal funds to help realise some African dreams”. He was also associated with an Indian charity, Prerna, in Bangalore.
Itai Gondo, 26, an IT student, approached Roebuck for help in funding his education. They met in Cape Town during the recent Australia-South Africa Test. Gondo claims they chatted for two hours in Roebuck’s hotel suite before the writer pinned him down on the bed in a sex attack. He says that the attack ended when Gondo’s phone rang.
When police arrived to question and possibly detain him, Roebuck urged friend and fellow commentator Jim Maxwell to help. Entering his room, Maxwell found that “Peter was in a state of utter despair”. The two cops allowed Maxwell to remain in the room for two minutes. Roebuck asked him to get him a lawyer and contact the students in Pietermaritzburg. Why did he then jump out of the window, minutes after seeking a lawyer? Mysterious, but then, Roebuck was mysterious. “Given his state of mind, he just had a brain snap—that is all I can assume,” Maxwell says.
In the 1980s, someone had told Roebuck that he’d die by his own hand. In his foreword to David Frith’s seminal book on suicide among cricketers, Silence of the Heart, Roebuck wrote: “It will not be so”. At the end, it did turn out to be so. On Sunday when the news of Roebuck’s death emerged, several people across the world had but one thought—“It must be suicide.”
Certainly Frith himself had this thought, and he was grieved by this latest addition to his book’s subjects. The famous cricket historian says that Roebuck was “dark of spirit”. “He presented himself as brooding, suspicious, defensive, potentially aggressive,” Frith explains. “In other words, anything but a relaxed, free-and-easy person.”
This image of Roebuck, a secretive, probably gay man, suspicious and on the edge, recurs in the otherwise deferential obituaries across British newspapers. Former teammate Vic Marks said he
was a “complex man with a brilliant mind...far more troubled and insecure than he liked to let on”. Peter English, one of the few people who seemed to be able to call him a friend, wondered that Roebuck lasted “so long”, for he had to deal with demons in his mind and the demonising that pursued him over the past decade.
The “demonising” was the result of his conviction, in 2001, on the charge of common assault, for whacking, in 1999, three 19-year-olds staying with him in Taunton, England. There were hints of the sexual in what Roebuck termed punishment according to house rules. Roebuck never came to terms with that, and left England and made his homes in South Africa and Australia. “That incident, together with the panic these latest charges caused him, are enough to brand the poor fellow,” says Frith. English says his sexual orientation shouldn’t be of anyone’s concern. “Him being single seems to justify people’s terming him sinister, or sniggering about him being straight, gay, asexual or whatever, when it shouldn’t matter a bit,” he says.
The amount of goodwill Roebuck generated, both among his peers and readers, seems utterly paradoxical, given such allegations. But why did he arouse distrust, despite no record of impropriety apart from that 1999 incident? Could it be homophobia, which can be pronounced in sports where players share showers and locker rooms? Or perhaps people know more but aren’t telling?
Writers in England, Australia and South Africa have referred to his “tormented soul”. Journalist Rob Steen recounts how, in 1979, Roebuck spoke at a meeting of the Oxford University Cricket Society. He wrote that a member of the audience remembers thinking, “This is a smart guy but I don’t like him.” A bit of self-deprecation may have made him more likeable in the country of his birth.
Indians, perhaps less suspicious—and more in awe—of his cleverness, took to him. In India, Roebuck was seen as a friend and guide to many journalists. For a man thought to be a genius, he was approachable. “He’d even ask me for information or advice,” remembers IBN 7’s Vimal Kumar. Clayton Murzello of Mid-Day, who first met him in 1987, remembers a friendly man who loved cricket and delivered amazing copy at short notice. V. Balaji of Deccan Chronicle notes that despite his immense knowledge, “he had no ego and would approach even a junior reporter if he had a doubt”. At Outlook, we had similar experiences—when he wrote for us, he dropped or changed paras when advised to.
Thus there’s a sense of disbelief about the nature of his death. In apartheid South Africa, weren’t many suicides of suspects “police-assisted”? And didn’t Roebuck make enemies in Zimbabwe due to his criticism of Mugabe?
Ashis Nandy, psychologist and social theorist, says it came as a devastating news for him, though they never met. “I’m truly hurt by his death. I don’t think he meant any harm to anyone,” says Nandy. “I suspect that the person who accused him of sexual assault, as opposed to a ‘sexual gesture’, didn’t know that he was sending him to his death.”
Nandy isn’t excited by the western delineation of Roebuck’s split personality. “The western media is very fond of the dark side of a person, as if everyone is a schizoid, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde kind of character,” he says. He says Indians can do better justice to Roebuck, with their “concept of sensitivity, as they have a clue to the transcendental”. Nandy says the West is overly concerned with the part sexuality plays in relationships. He says possibly Roebuck was gay, and perhaps in a moment of indecision, made an assertive demand, and paid with his life.
The truth will perhaps remain elusive—perhaps it’s best to bury the bad, remember the good, and guilty or not, hope justice is done to Peter Roebuck, the voice of cricket, now stilled forever.