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Peter Roebuck and the life of a sports journalist

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(Blogger’s note – This week, my favourite cricket writer, Peter Roebuck, died, while covering the tour of South Africa. [This piece will not go into the details surrounding his passing.] I didn’t feel I could do his talent or the role of a sports journalist justice if I was to write the piece. And, I would have felt hypocritical eulogising a sports writer while on a 12 month ban from sport.

So I asked Craig O’Donoghue, a sports journalist for the West Australian, to do the job for me. Craig, as is his way, enthusiastically agreed. Besides being a native Victorian, sports nut and one of the happiest blokes I know, he’s also a talented writer, so I hope you enjoy…)

Peter Roebuck

Of all the compliments I’ve read about Peter Roebuck’s work off the cricket field, it was a Facebook status update by a colleague at The Age which summed him up the best.

Football writer Rohan Connolly wrote that he “never finished reading one of his articles without feeling like I’d learned something.”

That was the key to Roebuck. He was a former cricketer who used his knowledge of the game to inform, but wrote with the skill and flair of a lifelong author.

Many athletes have columns which appear in newspapers or online. Few actually write them. Most have a journalist assigned to turn their thoughts into a story. Roebuck wrote every word and he kept you interested.

I never met him but know people who counted him as a friend. Friends are vital when you cover cricket for a living.

Family Life

Even if you covered only test cricket, the current series would require you to be in South Africa for close to a month. That’s a long time to be away from your family.

A cricket writer’s Christmas Day involves writing a story about the Boxing Day test match, instead of waking up at home with excited children surrounded by presents.

Roebuck wasn’t married, so that was never a problem for him. But imagine leaving your office every day knowing the only company you have in a foreign state or country are the people who you have already spent the day with.

‘Sack Ponting’

Roebuck’s opinions carried weight. When he called for Ricky Ponting to be sacked as captain, it became the biggest story of the day.

Other people could have written the same story and not caused a ripple on a pond. Roebuck caused a tsunami.

Knowing your opinion is highly rated brings added responsibility. It brings pressure. But Roebuck never worried that writing a story could result in controversy or confrontation. He wrote what he believed and would defend his story to anyone who wanted a debate.

The circumstances behind his death will colour the way he is remembered. But he will be difficult to replace.

As a writer, he enticed people buy the newspaper. As a radio commentator, he kept people listening. Few people are capable of combining both crafts and even fewer do them both well.

Time constraints!

Greg Baum recounted a time where the fast approaching deadlines made it impossible for Roebuck to physically write a story at the end of play. So, he rang the newspaper and spoke off the top of his head while a copytaker typed it for him. That takes talent.

Newspaper readers have no idea how quickly many stories have to be written. When West Coast and Collingwood played in the 2007 semi final at Subiaco, we had to have stories finished within five minutes of the siren or we’d miss the deadline for the first edition which would be available to readers before midnight.

The Eagles and Magpies drew that night, so extra time was played. The paper couldn’t be printed until the result was known. We had one minute after extra time finished to get our stories sent. After those games, you often wake up in the middle of the night wondering whether what you wrote made sense … or even worse, was correct.

A privilege

The life of a sports journalist is a privileged one. The reality is that if I wasn’t covering the sport I love, I’d still be watching it, reading about it and being engrossed by it.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be in the change rooms of the AFL club I barrack for, Essendon, after they won the 2000 premiership. I interviewed my childhood hero, Paul Salmon, on the eve of his 300th game. He had no idea that his 1984 season dragged me into football and made me watch every week.

To him, that 15 minute interview was just another journalist asking questions. He had moved to Hawthorn.

I didn’t tell him I barracked for Essendon, wore his number three on my jumper and made a sign with his photos on it before watching the Bombers play Richmond at VFL Park in 1986.

Salmon kicked 11 goals that day. I was 10-years-old and have never forgotten it.

At the end of the interview, I thanked Salmon for his time but then he became the inquisitor. “You’re an Essendon supporter aren’t you?” he said.

“How did you know?” I asked.

“You asked different questions. You remembered things that haven’t really been documented. Who was your favourite player as a kid?”

All of a sudden, the 24-year-old journalist was a kid again….”You were,” I said.

“Thanks for supporting me,” he said. “I enjoyed the interview.”

That day proved to me that my childhood hero was a fantastic person.

Once a fan…

Earlier this year, I was asked to address the next batch of draft hopefuls from WA. When telling them about the media, I recounted that story. It was reminder that while negative stories are a part of life, every journalist is a fan of the sport first.

And every story that is written is then read by someone who idolises the person it is written about.

With the internet, Pay TV, dedicated sports radio stations, mobile phones, laptop computers and every other piece of technology making sport so easily available, the art of writing a story that people want to read is getting harder by the day.

To keep people reading, you need to write something they will be interested in.

The industry needs someone who idolised Roebuck’s writing to step up now and fill the sport with the colour that he provided. Cricket has suffered a major loss.

The final words of his last column echo hauntingly as you read them.

“A lot can happen in a week. It just did.”

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About petek8

Pete Evans has just finished going 12 months without watching any sport. The journey stemmed from a sense that the balance was out-of-whack with my time and my priorities. Everything seemed to revolve around creating enough time and space to fit in the last game, games, recap shows or space to surf the net for the latest numbers and analysis. The cycle never ends - one season leads into another, seasons overlap if you follow various sports and the media's insatiable appetite for a new 'story' means that even the greatest of achievements aren't heralded for more than 3 days. So I stepped away from the machine for awhile and intentionally engaging with the journey by writing about it.

4 responses »

  1. Craig – I will never forget his piece that called for Ponting’s sacking. I was so peeved at him; I felt, and still do, that he got caught up in India’s hysteria and overreacted horrendously. It was no surprise to hear that he filed that story a mere 1 hour after play ended. And yet, the talent that he is, he won me back over time with the quality of his writing. A great piece, my friend – thanks!

    Reply
    • He and Ponting apparently had a huge dust up over the column. They both played for Sommerset so had a decent relationship before it. But Roebuck never backed down from what he wrote. Many disagreed with him. But he really detested what happened that day.

      Reply
  2. Worth every word, Craig. Keep up the great work. It takes an immense talent to create such an visual perspective when writing, and you have done just that.
    In our knowledge of AFL, can you tell me why both Brett Chanler and Brad Nicholson played only a handful of games? I know you grew up with them as I did, but I was older, and remember seeing Brett play for Norh Melbourne in he late 90’s so figure you may know more…

    Reply
    • In a nutshell, they were both cruelled by injury. Brett broke his leg and also suffered a really serious sternum injury. But he was ridiculously close to playing in the 98 grand final. Overall he was at North at the wrong time. Tough team to crack. His size didn’t help. He needed to be bigger. Brad also had bad injuries. Really bad leg problems. He was a bit under sized too to be a key defender. He got big jobs when he played. But his biggest problem was injury. It destroyed him. Brett and Brad lived directly across the road from each other in my street. Brett now coaches Croydon in the Eastern Football League. Not sure about Brad.

      Reply

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