– As the Sparks Fly Upwards

Proclaiming what is true does not often make the broadcaster popular.

The Squire and Third Man knew Peter, boy and man.  He was one of a talented and unbeaten Millfield side that came to the Great House in the summer of 1970 at the end of a school season in which they had trounced the Oxford Authentics, come off best in two-day draws with both the Welsh and English Schools XIs and very nearly beaten the visiting West Indies Schoolboys in one of the great school matches ever played. 

The side contained five who would soon be playing first class cricket, four of whom were to win Nat West Final medals and the other of whom was also capped for Wales at rugby.  Another of the team was an England hockey international, another a tennis professional, others played for county second teams and minor counties.

This side might be rated as highly as Altham’s Repton, but in Sometimes I Forgot to Laugh, Peter described them as ‘dreamers unable to pass 30, smokers, drinkers …’  Not for Peter the schoolboy camaraderie with its loyalty, self congratulation and complacency – just searing uncomfortable truth.

Although published in 2004, these lines were written much earlier in 1985 or so when he was captain of Somerset and embroiled in another and more public trial of truth.

The great Viv Richards and Joel Garner had helped turn Somerset into an awesome county contingent, but the grind of championship cricket and the low-key early rounds of three knockout competitions had taken their toll on these two and the other celebrity in their midsts, the instinctively divisive Ian Botham. 

The truth as Peter saw it was that these three were only mentally ‘turning up’ for a handful of matches a season – the semis and the finals.  If the team were to build on its success, and its young talent flourish, Viv and Joel would have to go and if they went it was certain Botham would leave too.

The resulting battle split the dressing room, split the Committee, split the County and split the followers of cricket throughout the land.  Another would hesitate, but for Peter, it had to be done.  There was nothing to put on the positive side of his cold cost-benefit analysis.

This quality, characteristic or condition (depending on the reader’s point of view) made him a Liberal of conviction.  His later writings and actions exposed prejudice, defied dictatorship, challenged convention, attacked arbitrary power, raged against injustice and were consistently intolerant of complacency in any shape or form.

Lovers of the highest qualities that cricket can evince will hope that he will be proved right for example over Ponting and the Ponting Approach. 

It is not about winning at all cost, it is about playing the game as human beings – that is, yes, competitively, individualistically, fiercely, but it is also about playing it socially, not in the sense of a distinction between social and professional cricket, but in the sense that human beings are social animals and cricket is not war.

As with a chivalric code, cricket must celebrate underlying virtues, express respect, enlist empathy and uphold the fundamental equality of human beings.

Within a primate group there will be loners and misfits and aberrants and solitaries and deviants, but paradoxically they are still part of the group.

 However isolated they may become, they are valuable to the group that they shun and never entirely self-sufficient from those that they distance themselves from.  

This produces a tension within the group, within themselves and within others that can  lead ultimately to their destruction, sometimes at another’s hand and sometimes at their own.

It was his inability to live his personal life by the tenets he held high – the abuse of power and trust that was inexcusable and his lack of control – that will have tormented him.  He will not have cared so much about social shame as personal shame.

The tragic flaw repeatedly manifests itself at school, in the club, in life.  It undermines, devastates, tears down but always leaves its trace.

The controversy that therefore always attended Peter is at an end, his campaigns will die as memory dies, but his writings will endure so long as people read about the game of cricket. He gave lessons and was a lesson.


Filed under Heavy Roller

6 responses to “ – As the Sparks Fly Upwards

  1. paul b

    Thoughtful piece. What a lot of hair!

  2. douglas johnstone

    Very moving and I’m sure it’s true, esp. about not winning at all cost.

  3. Thank you for dropping in Paul and Douglas. Third Man hopes to hear from you again.

  4. An outstanding piece, and an evocative picture. I can pick out Roebuck, Graveney, Shackleton and Foat straight away. I assume TM is there too, somewhere.

    On the day after Roebuck’s death, two weeks ago, I wrote a quick tribute to him and then spent the rest of the day re-reading ‘Sometimes I Forgot to Laugh’. This reminded me of TM’s connection with Roebuck. As with the piece about Gimblett, TM is well-placed to assess the man, and why he did what he did. The line about ‘his inability to live his personal life by the tenets he held high’ is perceptive and doubtless accurate.

    My own connection with PR came much later. I regularly watched him captain Devon during the period after the end of his county career which he later described as the happiest of his cricketing life.

    His players rarely knew what to make of him but that was his secret. He captained his sides with an aggression and commitment unheard of at that level and enabled a disparate group of players – some genuinely gifted, others mere journeymen – achieve some extraordinary things.

    He was often misunderstood – and there was plenty of scope for doing so – but, from his writings as much as his deeds, his love of the game
    shone through.

  5. Thanks for that, TM. A good picture of Roebuck with his Devon side and some typically elegant words from David Foot.

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