The death of Peter Roebuck in November 2011 came as a profound shock. Not because I knew him – I didn’t, but then it seems nobody else did either – but because I’d watched a lot of him playing and captaining the county in which I live at the time of his career which, he later said, he enjoyed the most.
Although I didn’t know Peter Roebuck (few, it seems, did), I saw a lot of him captaining Devon during the glory years. It was a fascinating, thought-provoking, occasionally mystifying and often dazzling experience.
The Devon side of the early nineties were a disparate but highly talented bunch. With apologies to the many fine players I don’t have space to mention, there was the technical precision and mature class of Folland, the uncomplicated power of Gaywood and Pugh, the avuncular spin and seam of Tony Allin and Keith Donohue and the youthful promise – ultimately fulfilled in a completely different sphere – of Orlando le Fleming. What they needed was someone to pull them together and to allow them to become the sum of their parts. Looking at things through the prism of a decade and a half’s perspective, it’s clear that Peter Roebuck was just what the team required.
In the mid-nineties I spent many hours watching Roebuck’s Devon play. At Sidmouth, at Exmouth, at Instow, at Bovey Tracey, at Lord’s.
I saw many great things in those days. Folland collecting runs with the ease and elegance of a classical conductor, Gaywood always trying to belt the cover off the ball and threatening the sea at Exmouth and the old grandstand at Lord’s, the unpretentious acquisitiveness of Julian Wyatt and a sixteen year-old called Chris Read who could barely see over the stumps but who everyone knew would go a long way.
At the centre of it all, though, was Roebuck. Striding around with an intensity which often bordered on the manic, berating fielders for real or imagined failings (as I remember it, Nick Gaywood used to suffer more than most), taking up peculiar positions in the field as a catalyst to enable him to think his way around whatever problem – a stubborn batsman or a bland pitch – presented itself to his prodigious intellect and captaincy experience. When all else had failed – and often when it hadn’t – off would come the glasses and the flowerpot sunhat and the ‘run’ would be marked out. More often than not, wickets would follow, Devon would be back in the game and in a position to attack. Always to attack.
Before he came to Devon Peter Roebuck had made his reputation, such as it was, as a member of the fine Somerset sides of the late seventies and early eighties. After he left Devon he could usually be found in South Africa or Australia. Behind a microphone, or, latterly, hunched over a laptop, his reputation as an astute observer of the game was at its greatest far from his homeland, but various comments which he made left you with the impression that he looked upon his time with Devon with as much pleasure as anything else he did in the game.
As he wrote in 2000, after originally relinquishing the Devon captaincy:
‘These have been the most enjoyable days of my cricketing life.’
Peter, they weren’t bad for me either.