Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Book review: It Never Rains… A Cricketer’s Lot by Peter Roebuck

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

It Never Rains

“I suppose it would be dull if one’s fortunes in cricket flowed along happily, roses all the way. But it’s most discouraging to do badly and worse, it preys on the mind. Unless runs come soon, it will become an obsession. It’s very hard to disassociate one’s human worth and one’s success with a lump of wood in one’s hand.”

In 1983, Peter Roebuck kept a diary of his year with Somerset in domestic cricket. With his death in controversial circumstances last November, It Never Rains… A Cricketer’s Lot has become increasingly hard to find. Written by a man who, by all accounts, was something of a difficult enigma, this is generally acknowledged to be his most honest and revealing book.

Cricketers’ diaries are ten a penny now, mostly consisting of ghost-written and vacuous PR speak that pay mere lip-service to revealing what goes on behind the heady heights of international success or the often-misleading glamour of a sportsman’s life.

The most notable break from this trend recently has been from the pen of Tasmanian cricketer (and now Australian opening batsman) Ed Cowan, and the direct and revealing honesty with which he writes of the fears and insecurities that can bedevil a professional sportsman is perhaps not so surprising given Roebuck was Cowan’s mentor.

I was never the biggest fan of Peter Roebuck’s cricket reporting. Most of it seemed skewed either by the grudge he bore against England after leaving the country in the wake of his conviction for caning three young South African cricketers, or controversial rabble-rousing, often for the sake of effect – a suspicion confirmed upon reading that he liked to draw up a list of ten contentious statements which he would then try to shoehorn into whichever article he happened to be writing that day. The apex (or nadir) of this journalistic approach came when he called for Ricky Ponting to be sacked as captain of Australia after the ill-spirited Sydney test against India in 2008. Shrill, bombastic and completely over-the-top, it came across initially as a reaction to be filed in the “knee-jerk violent enough to cause tendon damage” category, but there also remained the suspicion of cynical provocation. “Sacking the captain was the only story remotely dramatic enough to bring everything out into the open,” he wrote later, a statement which did little to disabuse me of this notion.

So, when I was finally able to get my hands on a copy of It Never Rains, it surprised me how much I enjoyed it. It is honest and without artifice. Absent is the bluster and the bombast, the grandstanding and the rabble-rousing; in its place is self-doubt and an outsider’s not always successful attempts to be comfortable in a team environment dominated by alpha personalities; a man trying to find his way (and himself) in a sport he’s not even sure he wants to succeed in. “It’s strange that cricket attracts so many insecure men,” he wrote. “It is surely the very worst game for an intense character… There must be some fascinating stimulation in the game to make so many of us, so ill-prepared for turmoil, risk its ugly changes. Otherwise we’d never tolerate its bounce of failure. And it is mostly failure, even for the best.”

The start of the 1983 season was, like the current one, ruined by rain, with the inevitable introspection that comes with much sitting around, waiting for play to be called off for the day or the match to be abandoned. Most of the concerns that cricketers fretted over then were the the same as they are now, and despite the eighties trappings of Austin Maestros, John Cleese and gammon and chips (no Nando’s in those day) there was still too much cricket, too much travel, burnout by season’s end, fretting over form and weather, the difficulty of having to adapt one’s game from a limited overs match one day to the resumption of the Championship on the next. Not much changes.

The glimpses of Somerset’s two big galacticos in those days, Ian Botham and Viv Richards, are fascinating when seen through Roebuck’s eyes, especially in light of the internecine warfare that was to tear the club apart three years later. Richards, especially, is portrayed as a force of nature, a man deeply admired but also to be regarded with respectful wariness: “I can remember the day in 1978, after our defeats in September, when he went into the bathroom and in his despair smashed his bat to pieces. You don’t meddle with people like that.” When Richards commiserates with Roebuck on his lack of runs, Roebuck is almost abjectly grateful for the concern, like someone finding himself sharing a cage with a man-eating lion that’s decided not to rip his face off.

It’s in the frank discussion of the depression that hit him that Roebuck was so ahead of his time, and it is an appalling indictment of professional sport, not just cricket, that it is only recently that cricketers and other sportsmen feel they can be open about an illness that has caused so many to suffer in silence. The search for form becomes futile,  the walls of hotel rooms start closing in, the slog of a long season becomes a never-ending treadmill. The shadows descended upon Roebuck with a vengeance in July. “I’m stuck in a swamp, being sucked down and waving my arms around in desperation, hoping that someone will notice.” The day that was surely the darkest, Monday 1 August, contains only two words: “No entry.”

Roebuck had his demons. He had friends, who, during those black dog days of August in 1983, helped him beat them back for a time, but, in the light of the way he met his end, and the allegations that followed, there was no-one, it seemed, who really knew or understood him. He certainly seems not to have made it easy for people to get close to him.

And there’s the rub – reconciling the openness with which he wrote his 1983 diary and the controversy that dogged him until his death and which still surrounds him.

They say never speak ill of the dead. My experience in the funeral business has taught me the implications that often lurk beneath the euphemisms when it comes to remembering the deceased. “Straight talking”: boorishly opinionated. “Would give you his last penny”: easily taken advantage of. “Life and soul of the party”: raging alcoholic.

I’ll admit the gushing eulogies that appeared after Roebuck’s death, and in most cases the complete airbrushing out of the controversial events in his past, made me uneasy. One blog that did venture another view reeked offensively of homophobia – and that just made me angry. What troubled me was that even-handedness, a picture of the whole man, seemed in very short supply; it seemed easier to fall back on those timeworn cliches: “troubled”, “conflicted,” “complex”, “tormented”.

“He did not crave partners on an equal footing but followers,” wrote Derek Pringle. Perhaps, in his struggle with his sexuality, he found a refuge and ordering of his inner chaos within the strictly defined frameworks of mentor and pupil, master and apprentice, and in his role of father-figure to adopted African “sons”.  But abuse of authority is abuse, regardless of gender or sexuality, and it is this need for control that seems to have been inextricably bound up with his sexuality, and which at times seems to have made others do what they would rather not do, that does not sit easily with me.

Roebuck could be open about his depression but feared the glare of the spotlight of public attention. When asked at one point whether he’d ever want to play for his country, he wrote: “I suspect I could tolerate the pressures of Test cricket; it’s the exposure I’m not so sure about.”

When he threw himself from the sixth floor of a South African hotel on the evening of November 12th, 2011, it would seem that this fear of exposure extended to his life off the cricket field as well.


Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

Book review: Mystery Spinner by Gideon Haigh

Monday, January 17th, 2011

Mystery Spinner

It took me three weeks to read Gideon Haigh’s Mystery Spinner, but I do have a good excuse.

I started it on an outbound flight to Melbourne three weeks ago and, as you can imagine, subsequent events kind of demanded my full attention from then on.

Back in Blighty, with the Ashes retained and a series won, I was finally able to give it my undivided attention. This would mostly occur at 3AM, in short bursts of intense reading, mind awake and alert, body fighting through the weighty sludge of jet-lag and a final 48 hours of my trip with no sleep.

I am sure this added to the experience. Not many folks are awake in the early hours of the morning, save for new parents, serial killers, and Margaret Thatcher. Depressives, too: 4:48AM is supposed to be the time at which most suicides occur.

Jack Iverson did not take his own life at 4:48AM. He died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head during the afternoon of Tuesday, 23rd October, 1973, in the shed at the rear of his house.

It was a lonely end to the life of an ordinary man who had a brief but extraordinary cricket career, a man who is little remembered now but who was, for the duration of most of his short career, feared by batsmen and deemed unplayable.

Iverson was a one-off, a freak. He honed his remarkable thumb and middle finger grip with a table-tennis ball before taking up French cricket while stationed at Port Moresby in New Guinea as part of the Australian Imperial Force. He ended up playing for Victoria, winning the Ashes for his country at the Sydney Test of 1951 with a haul of 6 wickets for 27 runs.

He played in only 5 Tests, but when he retired it was with the remarkable figures of 21 wickets at 15.23.

His career was plagued by at-times crippling self-doubt and pressure from a father who wanted his son to carry on the family real estate business. Iverson voiced his first thoughts of retirement after playing in only his first Test, and lived in fear of “being found out”, that he just wasn’t good enough.

Shy, inward looking, personable but not extrovert, he was diagnosed in 1968 with depression, exacerbated, Haigh postulates, by cerebral arteriosclerosis, a narrowing of blood vessels to the brain. He was given electroconvulsive therapy and anti-depressants, which he sometimes refused to take in the belief that they were not working.

With those who suffer depression, small disappointments can often seem catastrophic. Iverson’s wife described to police that on the day her husband killed himself that she had found him sitting in the lounge room “upset and shaking visibly”. He had learned that the man to whom he had sold his real estate company had not adhered to a previously agreed financial arrangement and that he was owed commission on the sale of a house.

After apparently calming down, he went out the back to the shed. Mrs Iverson began vacuuming, and so did not hear the shot that killed him.

Because Iverson’s career was so short, Haigh found he task of researching his life sometimes a difficult one.

‘The man who lived “in my own quiet way” left little behind; no published works, no journals, no boxes of correspondence, only some photos, statistics, reportage of his feats and a scattering of others’ recollections. As I traced his fugitive figure, I often learned more than I had expected, but less than I wanted.’

This book put me in mind several times of Ian Hamilton’s In Search of JD Salinger, in that, as in the case of Hamilton’s famously reclusive subject, Mystery Spinner is as much a meta-biography, the story of a writing of a biography, as much as it is a biography itself.

There is necessarily some padding – Haigh devotes 35 pages to a history of bowling in general and spin bowling in particular, but this is a minor quibble, and it does place Iverson’s abilities and achievements in context.

He also makes the point that because Iverson came late to the game, he arrived on the international stage with a fully-formed technique developed and untampered with by the meddling of coaches – a single-minded auto-didacticism shared with other greats of the game, such as Trumper, Bradman, and O’Reilly.

In the end, I suppose the question is, how much can we really know about a man from his achievements in the sporting arena?

With some, such as Victor Trumper, their greatness outlives them to such an extent that some details of their lives inevitably become subject to embellishment or exaggeration.

In Jack Iverson’s case, his grip on a cricket ball is more familiar than his face.

Haigh treats his subject with sensitivity and respect, and the result is a work which succeeds admirably, not just on the level of biography, but in the treatment of a uniquely talented but deeply troubled individual who, for an all-too-brief period, made cricket history.

Mystery Spinner, by Gideon Haigh, Aurum Press 2002.