Farewelling the Summarisers

Every summer, for somewhere between 25-30 days, I invite a group of men into my life to tell me stories. Two-at-a-time, they join my family and I while we are at home or in the car. They follow no script, simply calling upon their history, their knowledge and their personalities as they relate a picture of life as painted by the test cricket on which they are commentating.

Test cricket and the ABC’s radio commentary were passed down to me by my parents and elder brother at the same time as my wife’s parents were passing it down to her. Now, like so many of our generation, we have not thought twice about passing it down to the almost-two-year-old.

This week, Harsha Bhogle – the great Indian commentator who is so revered that he earned his own TED Talk – described the late Peter Roebuck and and the retiring Kerry O’Keefe as “the two very best summarisers” he’d ever worked with. It was an apt statement, reflecting the collective respect the cricketing public has had for the analytical and descriptive skills of the two men who are the most recent to leave the ABC commentary team. The disappearance of each of them served to quickly remind we Aussies of the strange, almost unbelievable fact that we don’t actually choose the men whose voices we cherish as they complement our lives each summer.

Roebuck’s death precipitated a range of text messages to me as mates learnt of the news and wanted someone to share their feelings with. On the day itself, well before any controversy arose regarding the circumstances of Roebuck’s life and death, Mrs EPO and I had enjoyed some time on the Bellarine Peninsula and were driving back home to Geelong when the ABC were discussing the news. It was as sombre a drive as we have ever had after hearing about the death of someone who we had never met.

Roebuck was stunningly talented, not only in his capacity to inform the listener through valuable analysis, historical references and cultural connections relevant to the game he was discussing, but also through his precise and beautifully engaging use of language. His voice – a seemingly well-educated English accent spoken by a man who had clearly spent time in Australia – only served to enhance his standing as one of the game’s great thinkers and most soothing summarisers. Perhaps most incredible was the fact that Roebuck’s written analysis of each day’s play was also unsurpassed – the kind of daily cricket writing that has only been equalled in my lifetime by Gideon Haigh.

We were soon to learn, though, that Roebuck’s character outside of the commentary box was in question. Whether or not Roebuck was a good man is a question that deserves a potentially inconclusive retrospective book of its own – perhaps something that would be best penned by Haigh. Certainly, I have no justifiable basis to comment on whether Roebuck was a saint to those boys or the complete opposite. Either way, his death was a stunning event. Here was a man who had spent many summers filling our ears with joy and our minds with wonder and intrigue, and so at first we mourned – if that is the appropriate word – his passing in a selfish manner. Very quickly, though, we were forced to understand that these men – whose voices we find such comfort in and who have provided the soundtrack to swathes of our lives – were completely unknown and distant to us. On the first day of the Brisbane Test each year, turning on the ABC has always felt like reuniting with old friends. For those of us who have listened since childhood, many of these friends are those who we first met as they were welcomed into our home by our parents. Suddenly, the illusion had been lifted. We didn’t know, and potentially shouldn’t trust, these men at all.

It feels disrespectful to be thinking and talking about Roebuck’s death in this, the week of O’Keefe’s retirement. The Sydney Test was an opportunity for the ABC and those who adore their coverage to celebrate the often uproarious career of a most treasured commentator.

O’Keefe was the kind of summariser who had the ability to spin a ridiculous yarn while simultaneously explaining the game’s tactics in an entirely new fashion. A man respected enough to have numerous former Australian stars praise his understanding of the game, a man hilarious enough to be able to hear numerous people in the Members Stand laughing at his on-air gags as they happened, and a man loved enough to have a poll on the ABC website asking people to vote for their favourite Kerry moment.

During the ABC’s ‘roast’ of O’Keefe during the Lunchbreak on Day 3 – which O’Keefe referred to as a “love-in” – the most common adjective used to describe him was “lovely”. It was a beautiful word to use for a man who had come to be such a well-loved public figure.

Perhaps the collective affection for O’Keefe is precisely why reflecting on Roebuck feels inescapable this week. The greatest trick of the ABC commentators is their development of the illusion that we punters know them so well. It is why countless Australians will feel like a jovial old friend is missing from their annual summer get-together when the first test starts in November and O’Keefe is nowhere to be heard.

We’ll invite another man into our lives then, of course, and ask him to tell us stories. We just won’t choose who, nor what kind of person they are.

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