Some years ago, I chatted in the stands of the SCG, during a slow patch in a Test match, with Peter Roebuck. Chatting is not strictly the word to describe the conversion. Roebuck did not do chat.
It was a serious discussion about life, politics, writing and the problems facing cricket and many other things.
During the discussion, he told me to keep an eye on a young cricketer he was coaching, in cricket and in life skills. That cricketer was Ed Cowan.
Roebuck told me that Cowan was a bright prospect, if he learnt to discipline his emotions and work hard to perfect his compact and determined game. For some time, I followed the ups and downs of Cowan’s cricket career with Sydney University, NSW, and then, so splendidly, with Tasmania.
The pupil and master had met up first at Cranbrook School, where Roebuck, then a county cricketer, taught English and cricket during the British winter. Cowan was a cricket prodigy.
He played for the First XI when he was 14. He scored a 218 not out in his time in the First XI in the GPS competition.
He was still at school when he was selected to play for the Australian under 19s in a tour of Sri Lanka.
A public school boy himself as a youngster, Roebuck was always antagonistic to the prevailing wisdom in NSW particularly that no good cricketers could come out the Sydney’s private (the equivalent of the English public) school system. He saw in Cowan a tough-minded, ambitious youngster, loaded with talent who could prove the case against the wimpishness of the private school cricket player.
Roebuck spent a great deal of time mentoring Cowan. Cowan tells the story of ringing up Roebuck on night asking him if he could give him a net session to work out an answer to a problem he was facing in his batting.
Be at the Sydney University nets a 6 am tomorrow, Roebuck told him.
Cowan was there. For he knew that if he was late, that was the end of the coaching relationship. Incidentally, Roebuck did not get any payment for his coaching.
It was part of his mission to help people he believed deserved to be helped.
Cowan has repaid Roebuck’s faith in his potential by setting himself up for selection to open the innings for Australia in the boxing Day Test against India. But there is more than cricket that is involved in this story.
Cowan has played cricket around the world, including stints in Scotland and The Netherlands. This experience is in keeping with Roebuck’s world view of the game that embraced countries beyond England and its colonies.
During this time, too, Cowan has gained a commerce degree, worked for an investment bank, is studying for a Masters in Applied Finance and is happily married to the broadcaster, Virginia Lette.
He has also taken up writing about cricket.
His daily cricket dairy ‘In The Firing Line: Diary Of A Season,’ in its insights into the life of a professional cricketer and into the game itself, is Roebuckean in its vividness and the pungency of the opinion expressed in it.
The memory of the discussion about Ed Cowan came back to me with a sharp intensity as I made my way through the grounds of the SCG to the Members Stand for a commemoration of the life of Peter Roebuck.
Over one hundred people were seated facing a portrait of Roebuck in a pink shirt.
Senator John Faulkner, Peter Wilkins, Malcolm Knox, Mark Nicholls, Jim Maxwell and Mike Coward were the heavyweights in attendance. Bob Dylan was singing ‘Hey Mr Tambourine Man’ – a constant refrain leading up to the speeches.
Mike Coward summed up the enigmatic but charismatic Roebuck with a quote from the philosopher Emerson: “One has as many personalities as friends.” His death was ‘deeply troubling’ to his friends, Coward explained. There were “too many unanswered questions … how can you explain the inexplicable.”
Coward argued that Roebuck paid dearly for “being different in a profoundly conservative game.”
He noted that Roebuck paid out about $100,000 a year to pay for the youngsters he was putting through university in South Africa, Sir Lanka and Australia.
“He was fearless in his writing but fearful in his life away from his writing.” According to Coward, and this is the nearest hint that he gave to what might happened on that fateful night when Roebuck lost his life, “he was never the same person again after the trauma of 10 years ago.”
The second major speech at the memorial was given by the ABC veteran Jim Maxwell.
Roebuck, he said, became an Australian citizen in the 1990s because he choose to live in a country where “people are enterprising and strong.” Being Australian for Roebuck meant “sitting in the front seat of a taxi cab and never taking the back seat.”
He told a story about Roebuck confronting one of his youngsters who had broken a numbers of the rules of the house at Bondi Beach too many times. This story was told brilliantly, with Maxwell imitating Roebuck’s high-pitched, slightly plummy voice.
“How many times have you been drunk and slept with women?” an irate Roebuck challenged.
“Two times with women and five times drunk,” was the nervous reply.
“Well, REVERSE that!” Roebuck responded.
Both Maxwell and Coward mentioned how pleased Peter Roebuck would have been to see Ed Cowan promoted to the Baggy Green Caps.
And Cowan himself has offered a tantalising postscript to this.
About five weeks ago, as he was going out to bat in a 50 overs match for Tasmania against South Australia, he received a text message on his phone suggesting some sad news about Roebuck. He decided to ignore the message in the hope that it was merely that Roebuck was sick.
He didn’t want to think about anything worse than this. He went out to make 91 not out.
Then he found that Roebuck was dead. He was shattered.
But since that time, he has not stopped scoring runs. And these rising tides of runs have lifted him into the Test side.
Cowan has an explanation for this: “That week I was really heavily focussed on performing well … but it was an added incentive as a “thank you” I guess, for his kindness towards me over the years … the day he passed away was the day I got 91 not out in Burnie and really kick-started my season.”