Peter Roebuck threw himself out of a sixth-floor hotel room window at around 9pm on Saturday night. His death at 55, while covering Australia’s cricket tour of South Africa, sparked a plethora of glowing tributes from cricket writers all over the world.
A decent opening bat and superb scribe, such eulogies failed to spark any feeling in this writer – and I suspect many cricket followers around the world felt the same. It turns out a uniformed policeman was questioning Roebuck at the time of his death in Cape Town.
We will never know for sure, but the word from a good source is this: the cop was questioning him about yet another sexual assault in a city where penniless young men are known to offer themselves to rich tourists to earn a few rand. He called a cricket-writing colleague to demand a lawyer then, with the policeman still in the room, he leapt to his death.
A great cricket writer yes. A great man? No. He spent his life calling a spade a spade on the cricket field but in the end, he dug his own grave.
Roebuck, one of many first class cricketers who forged a career after attending the fantastically privileged Millfield School in Somerset, was a bespectacled sort who first came to the world’s attention when he got rid of Ian Botham, Viv Richards and Joel Garner when he was captain of his county.
That was my first interview with the bloke, back in 1986. As I went in to the treatment room in Taunton to chat to him one-to-one for the Sunday Mirror, a young Somerset player at the time, who prefers now to remain nameless, jokingly warned me to “watch my bottom”.
The discussion went well. I came to no harm. I kept my back to the wall, I guess. I was young and naive. I didn't get a spanking but that comment stuck with me. Roebuck, everybody in the cricket world knew, was “dodgy” like so many other British public schoolboys who grew up in a boys-only school with jock-straps and lewd magazines for company.
Of course, he was right to banish Botham, Richards and Garner from the County Ground, he told me. They thought they were bigger than the club. The former England Public Schools captain neglected to mention the book he’d written with the great Beefy, how he’d clung on to Botham’s coat tails to get where he got.
While Botham was flamoboyant and popular, Roebuck was considered dull and unimaginative, though he did once captain England at a time when nobody else wanted to. Against the Netherlands. Unthinkably, they lost.
In all ways, removing the titanic trio from Taunton was simply a case of Roebuck asserting his personality on a thriving county cricket team that took years to recover from his machinations.
Roebuck retired from professional cricket in 1991 and went to captain Devon, a minor county in the English cricketing set-up. That he had tactical nous – and a penchant for writing about the game – was never in question.
But then the dark secret began to emerge. In 2001 he was convicted of “common assault” against three young South African cricketers who had come over to coach and learn the game (see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1359991/Ex-Somerset-captain-caned-young-cricketers.html). Keith Whiting, Reginald Keats and Henk Lindeque, who were all 19 at the time, were procured while Roebuck was working overseas as a commentator. Roebuck persuaded them to live at his house while they were “under instruction”.
The first victim said at the time that Roebuck asked him to bend over and delivered three “forceful strokes” for failing to do his daily excercises properly.
The legal counsel at Taunton Crown Court said: “Roebuck then pulled the boy towards him, in what appeared to be an act of affection. He then asked if he could look at the marks on the boy’s buttocks, something which he in fact did.”
The second teenager was beaten by Roebuck when he failed to keep up on a run. He, too, was left feeling “considerable distress and humiliation”.
The third boy received similar treatment, being beaten by Roebuck and asked to show the marks.
The second boy, now living South Africa, said: “I did not consent to any assault but he is a dominant person who makes you feel that you must do as he says.”
Roebuck was originally accused of indecent assault for those acts, which occurred between April and the end of May in 1999. He eventually pleaded guilty to common assault. Tellingly, the judge said: “It was not appropriate to administer corporal punishment to boys of this age in circumstances such as these. It seems so unusual that it must have been done to satisfy some need in you.”
Roebuck said he warned the three South Africans he would use corporal punishment if they failed to obey his “house rules” adding he though they were “from a culture in which corporal punishment was accepted”.
Roebuck was sentenced to four months in jail for each count, with the sentences suspended for two years. Roebuck’s defence counsel insisted “more than 20 other promising young cricketers” had stayed at Roebuck’s house while receiving coaching and had never complained about any inappropriate behaviour.
Knowing his proclivities were now out of the closet, Roebuck began spending most of his time in Australia. There, his objective, hard-hitting writing went down well with the Sydney Morning Herald – and he was snapped up as a commentator for the ABC.
Soon, he was referring to Australia as “us” rather than England. He could offer withering critique of the fading Aussie cricket machine without fear of being contradicted.
And he could use his status as a public figure to continue his wicked ways. Strangely, where so many others would have been questioned over their criminal record, Fairfax newspapers and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation never bothered to check in to Roebuck’s past.
Look, Peter Roebuck was a fine cricket writer. But he used his status to procure vulnerable young men. That’s fact. The manner of his death and the reasons behind it will probably be hushed up. Cricket’s like that. Hansie Cronje and Bob Woolmer ditto. Some may feel we should consider Roebuck’s talents in his obituary. I think we should focus on the truth.