Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge took on a task that befuddled the SA police authorities: investigating the circumstances that led to the death of Peter Roebuck, the former cricketer, esteemed writer and myth.
Their effort is valiant but the task was enormous.
So they turned to uncovering who Roebuck really was, a journey that took them to four continents and a house he once shared with 17 Zimbabwean boys in the KwaZulu Natal midlands.
When Roebuck fell to his death from the window of a sixth-floor hotel room in Cape Town in November 2011, all manner of skeletons tumbled out of the closet. The police officially wrote it down as suicide. Others, including Lane and Cartledge, thought something else, something more sinister, was at play.
Growing up, Roebuck was a gifted student, academically, and took a keen interest in political and religious debates.
His interest in cricket brought unwanted and “torturous” coaching by his father Jim. But that didn’t stop him from pursuing the game professionally.
He wrote once: “I was always going to be a cricketer. Oh yes I am clever, I can write, maybe I can teach but if I fail at cricket I will regard myself as a failure.”
But he was a peculiar character, withdrawn, even in a team environment.
Lane and Cartledge write, in a lovely Roebuckian style that’s consistent throughout the book, that “Roebuck regarded enjoyment in life as irrelevant; only the struggle interested him. Here was a young man whose pursuit of personal fulfilment derived from playing a game he refused to enjoy.”
His career took him as far as Somerset, where he played county cricket with the likes of Viv Richards, Joel “Big Bird” Garner and Ian Botham, with whom he later had a life-long feud.
In 1984 Roebuck racked up 1,702 first-class runs at an average of 47.27, making loud noises for an England call-up that never came. It didn’t help that England were suffering at the hands of the fearsome Windies side at home, where they used up 21 players in five tests, all of which they lost.
Roebuck was perceived as “eccentric” and he didn’t make any attempts to conform to the expectations of the conservatives who ran the English game.
In 1986 things came to a head when Somerset decided to get rid of superstars Richards and Garner, and Botham followed. As captain, Roebuck backed the decision. It drove an irreparable wedge between Botham and Roebuck that lasted to the bitter end.
Roebuck’s mysterious, darker side appeared when in 1999 he housed three promising SA cricketers throughout the English summer. One of them, 19-year-old Keith Whiting, accused Roebuck of whipping them with a cane during training sessions and inspecting the lashes on their bare buttocks to check the damage. The matter went to court and was splashed like spilt paint across British tabloids. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanour offence. But afterwards he was viewed as a sexual miscreant, uncomfortable in his own body.
He became a pariah in England and settled in Australia, where he produced some of the best writing that cricket has ever seen. He was an audacious broadcast commentator too, not shy on criticism but lavish with praise.
Yet, while people saw plenty of him in press boxes and commentating booths, no-one could claim to know him personally. He was never seen with a lover or socialised much with his contemporaries. There was further speculation about his sexuality, a topic touched on extensively in the book.
When he moved to SA to live with Zimbabwean boys, whom he was supporting financially through university, his life would never be the same. People always wondered what he was doing with a group of boys in a house outside Pietermaritzburg. Its residents never believed that he was a sexual deviant and some to this day vouch that he wasn’t.
But a fateful meeting with Itai Gondo, a Cape Town-based Zimbabwean student in desperate need of financial assistance and looking for the benevolence Roebuck dished out to his countrymen, sentenced one of them to death.
Gondo claimed Roebuck assaulted him sexually. Police descended on Roebuck’s room 623 at the Southern Sun to question him. Then Roebuck was found dead, with the world’s media in attendance during the Australian tour to SA.
Despite what you sense was arduous, painstaking research, the book still leaves you wondering whether Roebuck jumped or was pushed.
Chasing Shadows: The Life and Death of Peter Roebuck
Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge
Hardie Grant Books